Francis Glisson

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Glisson, Francis

(b. England, 1597 [?]; d. London, England, 16 October 1677)

medicine, philosophy.

According to tradition and evidence from the portraits in his books of 1672 and 1677, Francis Glisson was born in 1597. Upon matriculation in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, at Michaelmas 1617, Rampisham, Dorset, where he had been taught by Allot, was given as Glisson’s home and eighteen as his age. The latter may be doubted in view of some inconsistencies in other matriculation entries. His father, William, was born in Bristol and was designated as “gentleman” in the son’s Cambridge matriculation. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of John Hancock of Kingsweston, Somerset. Exactly when the family moved to Rampisham is uncertain, as is the place of Glisson’s birth.

Glisson’s academic career remained connected with Cambridge: B.A. in 1620–1621, M.A. and junior fellowship in 1624; Greek lecturer in 1625–1626; dean in 1629; and senior fellow 1629–1634. In 1634 he also completed his medical studies with the M.D. degree. Two years later, he was appointed regius professor of physic (John Wallis was among his students), a position he held until his death. There exists an isolated reference to Maria, daughter of Thomas Morgan, as the wife of Glisson (R. M. Walker, “Francis Glisson and his Capsule”).

In the year of his medical graduation, Glisson was admitted as a candidate by the Royal College of Physicians of London. With the possible exception of practice in Colchester during the Civil War (contested by Walker), London remained the seat of his professional and scientific life. The College of Physicians made him a fellow in 1635, councilor from 1666 on, and president in 1667, 1668, and 1669. One of the scientific pillars of the College, he was also made a reader in anatomy and appointed to give the Gulstonian lecture in 1640. Thomas Wharton, in his Adenographia, mentions “his most faithful friend,” Glisson, as his helper in dissecting. He belonged to the “Invisible College,” and was an early member of the Royal Society, elected 4 March 1660/1661.

Around 1645 a group of the fellows of the College began to exchange notes on rickets, thought to have but recently spread in England, and Glisson, G. Bate, and A. Regemorter were assigned to publish a book on the subject. The investigation of the essential nature of the disease fell to Glisson, who impressed his co-workers so much that they entrusted him with drafting the whole book, into which their own observations and possibly those of authors like Daniel Whistler (cf. ch. 13) were incorporated. De rachitide appeared in 1650 with Glisson as the author, Bate and Regemorter as his associates, and with five additional contributors. It is hence hard to tell how much of the classic anatomical and clinical descriptions of the disease belongs to Glisson alone. He claimed originality specifically for chapters 3–14. These are concerned mainly with the nature of the disease, which he believed to be a cold and humid distemper in which the indwelling spirit (spiritus insitus) of the parts primarily affected (spinal cord and peripheral nerves) was deficient and torpid. This emphasis on an inner principle was to remain throughout Glisson’s life.

In De rachitide, as well as his other publications, Glisson incorporated empirical findings into a scholastic framework of reasoning, trying to lay a broad basis for argumentation while discussing any problem encountered on the way. Thus this work dwells on such subjects as regulation of the circulation of the blood (which was assumed as a matter of course), mechanisms of nervous function, and the nature of hereditary disease. An English translation of the book appeared in 1651, testifying to the interest it aroused.

Until the Glisson papers in the British Museum, sporadically used by various biographers, are edited, Glisson’s intellectual biography must rely mainly on his published works, the prefaces of which present a running commentary on their history and interconnection. Glisson’s second work, the Anatomia hepatis (1654), rested largely on observations made in 1640, when he had lectured on the fine structure of the liver. The work begins with Prolegomena quaedam ad rem anatomicam universe spectantia (“Some Prolegomena Referring to Anatomy Generally”), where he tries to reconcile the Aristotelian doctrine of the elements with that of the chemists. In this work he advocates very advanced anatomical methods such as use of the microscope and injection of colored liquids.

In the Anatomia hepatis proper, a section of the book of the same title, Glisson denies the continuity of the branches of the portal vein into those of the hepatic veins. He contends that the branches cross, and that the blood carried in the portal vein is separated in the liver. Its bilious fraction is sucked up by the biliary vessels, because of an attraction which Glisson variously calls similar, magnetic, or natural, and which does not differ essentially from Galen’s “attractive faculty.” The remaining blood is attracted by the hepatic veins. The ramifications of the portal vein, together with the bile ducts, are encased in fibrous tissue, which Glisson calls capsula communis, now known as “Glisson’s capsule.”

The book ends with a chapter on the lymphatics. Stimulated by ideas of his friend George Ent, Glisson elaborated a theory which he revised in his last medical work, the Tractatus de ventriculo et intestinis (1677). The theory presented itself as follows: The nerves carry a nutritive juice (succus nutritious) secreted by the brain between cortex and medulla from particles of the arterial blood. The psychic spirits are the “fixed spirits” of this juice, which serves nutrition rather than the function of body fibers. As a chemical substance, the psychic spirits cannot flow fast enough to assure simultaneity of events in the brain and the peripheral parts. Nerve action is transmitted by a vibration of the nerves (caused by localized contraction of the brain), and the muscle fibers then contract because of irritability, a property which they share with all fibers of the body.

In evidence of the independence of muscle contraction from any material influx, Glisson cited the experiment which Goddard had described and performed before the Royal Society in 1666. An arm was placed in a tube which was closed at one end and provided with a gauge. The tube was sealed around the arm and then filled with water. When the muscles were contracted, the gauge registered a fall of the water level rather than a rise.

Glisson had used the word “irritability” once before, in the Anatomia hepatis, where it connoted the ability of a part to become irritated, that is, to perceive an irritant and to try to rid itself of it. At that time he thought of irritation as being dependent on the presence of nerves. By 1677, however, natural irritability was a property attributed to almost all living parts of the body including the blood (an idea implicit in Harvey’s theory), a property independent of the nerves. Irritability presupposed perception of the irritating object, appetite to attain it (if pleasant) or to flee it (if unpleasant), and motion to realize the appetite.

In sense organs connected with the brain, natural perception was elevated to sensitive, that is, conscious, perception, and it became psychic where the fibers followed commands coming from the brain. But these higher forms of perception, depending on organization, did not supersede natural perception, without which the fibers could not perceive messages from the brain. This metaphysical doctrine of natural perception and its interdependence with appetite and all motion (unless accidentally imparted) needed philosophical elaboration.

Glisson maintained that the first draft of the Tractatus de ventriculo et intestinis was written around 1662 but was set aside in favor of the Tractatus de natura substantiae energetica (1672), dedicated to Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, whose family Glisson had long served as physician. The work attempts to prove there is life in all bodies. In so-called inanimate bodies it is specified by their forms, whereas in plants and animals life is modified to become the vegetative soul and the sensitive soul, respectively. In animals the implanted life (vita insita) is duplicated and triplicated by the influx of the blood (vita influens) and by the psychic regulations.

This philosophical work, even more than Glisson’s medical books, has a strictly scholastic form of argumentation; large parts are a running debate with Francisco Suarez, whom Glisson held in the highest esteem. Among other modern authors, Glisson pays particular attention to Bacon, Scaliger, Harvey, and Descartes. He often refers to the vis plastica, which he identifies with van Helmont’s archeus. Although the terminology is reminiscent of the Cambridge Platonists, it should not be overlooked that Glisson’s metaphysics was fundamentally hylozoistic and thus hardly acceptable to Ralph Cudworth, who thought of “plastic nature” as incorporeal.

Glisson’s doctrine of irritability acquired fame because in later years Haller traced the origin of the term back to Glisson. But in limiting irritability to muscle contractility, Haller defined it experimentally, depriving the concept of its broad biological significance.

The doctrine of irritability does not exhaust the content of the Tractatus de ventriculo et intestinis, which, apart from the treatise indicated by the title, also contains a treatise on skin, hair, nails, fat, abdominal muscles, peritoneum, and omentum. Together the Anatomia hepatis and the Tractatus de ventriculo et intestinis constitute a monumental work on general anatomy and on anatomy and physiology of the digestive organs. Moreover, in the latter treatise, Glisson goes far beyond the stomach and intestinal tract. Apart from discussing the theory of digestion (there is even an appendix on fermentation), Glisson manages to include theories of embryogenesis (in which the relationship to Harvey is particularly interesting). Aware of his discursiveness, Glisson in his apology referred to “the allurement and sweetness of speculation” (p. 333).

In the battle between the ancients and the moderns Glisson belongs to neither side. In a peculiar manner all his own, he adhered to the scholasticism of his formative years (possibly sustained by his professorship in Cambridge) combining it with Helmontian chemistry, Harvey’s heritage, and the new science as represented by the Royal Society.


I. Original Works. For the Glisson papers in the British Museum, see Index to the Sloane Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1904), pp. 217 ff. The following are the first eds. of his published works: De rachtide, sive morbo puerili, qui vulgo the rickets dicitur, tactatus, opera primo ac potissimum Francisci Glissonii ... adscitis in operis societatem Georgio Bate et Ahasvero Regemortero (London, 1650); Anatomia hepalis, cui praemittuntur quaedam ad rem anatomicam universe speclantia et ad calcem operis subjiciuntur nonnulla de lymphae ductibus nuper reperta (London; 1654); Tractatus de natura substantiae energetica, seu de vita naturae, ejusque tribus primis facultatibus ... (London, 1672); and Tractatus de ventriculo et intestinis. Cui praemittitur alius, De partibus continentibus in genere; et in specie, de its ahdominis (London–Amsterdam, 1677). The Opera medico-anatomica, in unum corpus collecta..., 3 vols, in a single pub. (Leiden, 1691), does not contain the Tractatus de natura substantiae energetica.

II. Secondary Literature. Although the literature on Glisson is considerable (he is discussed in almost all histories of medicine, biology, and science), there is no comprehensive monograph on his life and work. The main biographical sketches are John Aikin, Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain (London, 1780), pp. 326–338; William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, I (London, 1878), 218–221; John Venn, Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College 1349–1897, I (Cambridge, 1897), 236 f.; and Norman Moore, Dictionary of National Biography, VII. 1316–1317.

R. Milnes Walker, “Francis Glisson and his Capsule,” in Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 38 , no. 2 (1966), 71–91, adds many details to Glisson’s biography and suggests that “he was born in 1598 or 1599, and probably in Bristol” (p. 77) and ascribes his alleged sojourn in Colchester (1640–1648) to a confusion with his younger brother, Henry, who was practicing medicine there (p. 78). Glisson’s work on the liver is presented clearly and in detail by Nikolaus Mani, Die historischen Grundlagen der Leberforschung, II (Stuttgart, 1967), 104–120. For Glisson’s relation to traditional medicine and his concept of irritability, see Walter Pagel, “The Reaction to Aristotle in Seventeenth-Century Biological Thought,” in E. Ashworth Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine, and History. Essays... in Honour of Charles Singer, I (Oxford, 1953), 489–509; Owsei Temkin, “The Classical Roots of Glisson’s Doctrine of Irritation,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 38 , no. 5 (1964), 297–323, where older literature on Glisson’s philosophical and biological concepts is cited; and Walter Pagel, “Harvey and Glisson on Irritability,” ibid., 41 , no. 6 (1967), 497–514.

On Glisson’s relationship to the London College of Physicians and the Royal Society, see Charles C. Gillispie, “Physick and Philosophy: A Study of the Influence of the College of Physicians of London Upon the Foundation of the Royal Society,” in Journal of Modern History, 19 (1947), 210–225; and C. Webster, “The College of Physicians: ’Solomon’s House’ in Commonwealth England,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 41 , no. 5 (1967), 393–412. On the much debated question of the interrelationship of Glisson’s De rachitide and Daniel Whistler’s Leiden dissertation of 1645, De morbo puerili anglorum, see Edwin Clarke, “Whistler and Glisson on Rickets,” ibid., 36 , no. 1 (1962), 45–61, with ample literature.

Owsei Temkin

views updated

GLISSON, FRANCIS (1598 or 15991677)

GLISSON, FRANCIS (1598 or 15991677), English physician and natural philosopher. Glisson enrolled at Caius College, Cambridge, at the age of eighteen. Finally turning to medical studies in his late twenties, he went on to a distinguished career in medicine and natural philosophy. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1635 and held numerous offices there, including that of reader in anatomy in 1639, and of president from 1667 to 1669. His success as a physician was also reflected in the fact that he was appointed Regius Professor of Physic ("Medicine") at Cambridge in 1636, a post he held until his death. He was a member of the group of experimental natural philosophers who met in London in the period after the execution of Charles I in 1649, and which has been identified as a precursor of the Royal Society. Although he subsequently became one of the earliest fellows of the society, his own research led him to develop a natural philosophy that was at odds with the prevailing views in the society, so he was never prominent.

After an initial publication, De Rachitide (On rickets, 1650), which was then believed to be a new disease, all Glisson's works were devoted to understanding human physiology in the light of William Harvey's (15781657) discovery of the circulation of the blood (1628). Before Harvey, the liver was seen as the source of the venous system, and of venous blood, so when the discovery of circulation showed that the veins were continuous with the arterial system and converged on the heart, it became obvious that the role of the liver was completely misunderstood. Glisson's Anatomia Hepatis (Anatomy of the liver, 1654) sought to put this right. An important outcome of this research was the concept of irritability, an idea he pursued by turning his attention to the stomach and intestines. Glisson began by establishing that sensitivity, which he saw as an ability to perceive, was inherent in living tissue even where no nerves were present, but he went on to believe that all matter, animate and inanimate, was perceptive and endowed with appetite and motility. He deferred publishing on the stomach in favor of a major account of these ideas in his Tractatus de Natura Substantiae Energetica (Treatise on the energetic nature of substance, 1672). The subsequent Tractatus de Ventriculo et Intestinis (Treatise on the stomach and intestines, 1677) appeared in the year of his death.

The medical importance of Glisson's discovery of irritability remained unnoticed until the theory was established by Albrecht von Haller (17081777) in 1753, but it raised immediate controversy in natural philosophy. The prevailing mechanical philosophy promoted a view of matter as completely passive and inert, and Glisson's research ran counter to this. Because the passivity of matter was frequently used to ensure a role for God's providence, Glisson's active matter was seen as a support for atheism. Consequently, his works were explicitly attacked by the Cambridge Platonists Henry More (15861661) and Ralph Cudworth (16171688).

See also Anatomy and Physiology ; Haller, Albrecht von ; Harvey, William ; Mechanism ; Medicine ; More, Henry ; Natural Philosophy ; Neoplatonism .


Giglioni, Guido. "Anatomist Atheist? The 'Hylozoistic' Foundations of Francis Glisson's Anatomical Research." In Religio Medici: Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by O. P. Grell and A. Cunningham, pp. 115135. Aldershot, U.K., 1996.

Henry, John. "Medicine and Pneumatology: Henry More, Richard Baxter, and Francis Glisson's Treatise on the Energetic Nature of Substance." Medical History 31 (1987): 1540.

Pagel, Walter. "Harvey and Glisson on Irritability, with a Note on Van Helmont." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 41 (1967): 497514.

John Henry

views updated

Glisson, Francis

English scholar, physician, and scientist

Francis Glisson was born in Rampisham, England, and attended Cambridge University, with which he had a long relationship. During his life he acted as a dean, senior fellow, and professor at the university. He also had a private medical practice.

The Royal College of Physicians of London admitted Glisson as a candidate in 1634, the same year he received his medical degree from Cambridge. Within the Royal College he played the roles of fellow, councilor, and president. He also belonged to the "Invisible College," a small group of professionals who met weekly in 1645 to promote investigation into natural and experimental philosophy. Later it became the Royal Society. Around that same time, a group of fellows of the Royal College began to exchange notes on rickets , intending to publish a book on the topic. Glisson was assigned to investigate the basic nature of rickets. His investigation skills proved to be strong, and he impressed his coworkers so much that they gave him the responsibility of drafting the entire book, with the assistance of seven contributors.

Tractatus de rachitid, sive morbo puerili (A Treatise of the Rickets), was published in 1650. It is not clear if any of the anatomical and clinical descriptions of rickets were solely Glisson's work. He claimed responsibility for sole authorship for chapters three through fourteen, where he wrote clearly about the nature of the disease. In March of 1660, Glisson became an early member of the Royal Society. In his second book, Anatomia hepatis (Anatomy of the Liver), Glisson identified and described the outer capsule of connective tissue that surrounds the liver and its blood supply (now called Glisson's Capsule). In his third book, Tractatus de ventriculo et intestini (A Treatise of the Stomach and Intestines ), Glisson coined the term irritability, referring to the body's ability to sense an irritant and try to rid itself of it.

Though primarily known for his pioneering work on rickets, Francis Glisson contributed to the body of knowledge in general anatomy and physiology of the digestive organs. In the opening paragraph of A Treatise of the Rickets, he wrote that infantile rickets was "an entirely new disease, that was never described by any of the ancient or modern writers." He was able to show that infantile scurvy was a separate disease from rickets, although the two usually occur together.

see also Nutritional Deficiency; Rickets.

Slande Celeste

Internet Resource

Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Rickets and Vitamin D." Available from <>

views updated

Glisson, Francis (1597–1677) British physician; wrote A Treatise on the Rickets (1650); credited with coining the term rachitis or rickets, although the name may derive from the Old English wrickken, to twist.