Thomas Willis, a pioneer in translational research in anatomy (on the 350th anniversary of Cerebri anatome)

J Anat. 2015 Mar;226(3):289-300. doi: 10.1111/joa.12273.


The year 2014 marked the 350th anniversary of the publication in London of Cerebri anatome, a ground-breaking work of neuroscience heavily influenced by the political and cultural context of Baroque Europe and mid-17th century England. This article aims to review the work of the English physician and anatomist Thomas Willis, specifically with regard to the contents of his Cerebri anatome. Willis's academic and professional career was influenced by the turbulent period of the English Civil War during which he studied medicine. Willis went from chemistry to dissection arguably because of his need to justify the body-brain-soul relationship. As a result, he became a fellow of a select club of eminent experimentalists, and afterward was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Later on, he went to London, leaving the academic life to dedicate himself fully to the profession of medicine. As a physician, Willis did not base his practice on aphorisms but on a 'bench to bedside' approach to medicine, while studying neuroanatomy--covering embryology, comparative anatomy and pathological anatomy--as a basis for the comprehension of neurological pathology. He developed innovative anatomical methods for the preservation and dissection of the brain, injection of coloured substances and illustration of his findings. In Cerebri anatome, Willis recognized the cerebral cortex as the substrate of cognition. He also claimed that the painful stimuli came from the meninges, but not from the brain itself. He explained for the first time the pathological and functional meaning of the brain's circular arterial anastomosis, which is named after him. He also specified some features of the cranial origin of the sympathetic nerves and coined the term 'neurologie'. Cerebri anatome marked the transition between the mediaeval and modern notions of brain function, and thus it is considered a cornerstone of clinical and comparative anatomy of the nervous system. The new contributions and methods employed by Willis justify his place as a father of neurology and a pioneer of translational research.

Keywords: 17th century anatomists; 17th century neuroscience; accessory nerve; circle of Willis; rete mirabile; sympathetic nervous system; translational research.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • England
  • History, 17th Century
  • Mind-Body Relations, Metaphysical
  • Neuroanatomy / history*
  • Translational Research, Biomedical / history*

Personal name as subject

  • Thomas Willis