Thomas Willis was a British physician and the leader of the English iatrochemists, a group of scientists who strived to explain bodily functions and disease from a chemical standpoint. Willis's research laid the foundational text on the anatomy of the central nervous system.
Willis was born on January 27, 1621, in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, England. As did many men of his time, Willis chose to follow a career in the church. His early pursuit of the ministry, however, was thwarted when the English Civil War broke out. After deciding that such a career would be risky, he turned to medicine. He alternated between the classroom at Oxford University and the battlefield as he fought for the Royalist Army from 1643-1646.
For 15 years Willis served as an Oxford professor of natural philosophy. In 1660 he was appointed Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy. When the anatomist began his Sedleian lectures, he ignored the traditional Aristotelian science, instead emphasizing iatrochemistry and the correlation between chemical and physical interactions. With the help of his students, Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), and John Locke (1632-1704), and his associate, Richard Lower (1631-1691), Willis actively engaged in anatomic and physiologic research. Lower's extraordinary skill in anatomical dissection allowed Willis to conduct his pioneering study of the central nervous system and cerebral circulation.
In 1664 Willis's careful studies of the nervous system and various diseases were outlined in his comprehensive work, Cerebri Anatome, cui accessit Nervorum descriptio et usus. His work was the most accurate account of the nervous system to date and was the first to clearly identify the distinct sub-cortical structures. Willis's work detailed the concept of circulation of the blood and introduced the world to the term "reflex action." He described the circle of arteries located at the base of the brain (which is still called the Circle of Willis) and explained its function.
Britain's new authority on the brain also documented the spinal accessory nerve, the nerve responsible for motor stimulation of the major neck muscles, also called the eleventh cranial nerve. In 1671 he first described myasthenia gravis, a chronic muscular fatigue marked by progressive paralysis and fever.
As a follower of the Paracelsian School of Iatrochemistry, Willis attempted to understand anatomy and physiology by studying the body's chemical interactions. Willis was the first to identify sugar in the urine of diabetics, a discovery that led to the classification of diabetes mellitus. His acute observations of various epidemics also resulted in the first clinical description of typhus fever and launched the English tradition of epidemiology.
In 1674 he published Pharmaceutice rationalis, a series of case histories, post mortems, and therapies that vied to establish anatomy and chemical experimentation as the basis of pharmacology. His book, however, was not considered a success.
Willis died a year later on November 11, 1675, in London, England.
KELLI A. MILLER