Willis, Thomas

, an illustrious English physician, was of a reputable family, and born at Great Bedwin, in Wiltshire, Jan. 27, 1621, in a house that was often visited by his grandson Browne Willis, and of which there is an engraving in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1798. He was instructed in grammar and classical literature by Mr. Ed-­ward Sylvester, a noted schoolmaster in the parish of AllSaints, Oxford; and, in 1636, became a member of Christ church. He applied himself vigorously to his studies, and took the degrees in arts; that of bachelor in 1639, that of master in 1642. About this time, Oxford being turned into a garrison for the king, he with other scholars bore arms for his majesty, and devoted his leisure hours to the study of physic; in which faculty he took a bachelor’s degree in 1646, when Oxford was surrendered to the parliament. He pursued the business of his profession, and kept Abingdon market. He settled in an house over against Merton college, and appropriated a room in it for divine service, where Mr. John Fell, afterwards dean of Christ church, whose sister he had married, Mr. John Dolben, afterwards archbishop of York, and sometimes Mr. Richard Allestree, afterwards provost of Eton college, exercised the liturgy and sacraments according to the church of England, and allowed to others the privilege of resorting thither. This measure of theirs is commemorated by a painting in the hall of Christ church, Oxford.

In 1660, he was made Sedleian professor of natural philosophy; and the same year took the degree of doctor of physic. Being sent for to most of the people of quality about Oxford, and even at great distances, he visited the lady Keyt in Warwickshire; and is supposed to have been going to her in April 1664, when he discovered, and made experiments upon, the famous medicinal spring at Alstrop, near Brackley. Willis and Lower first recommended these waters, which were afterwards decried by Radcliffe. The reason which Granger heard assigned for his decrying them was, because the people of the village insisted upon his keeping a bastard child, which was laid to him by an | infamous woman of that place. Upon this the doctor declared “that he would put a toad into their well,” and accordingly cried down the waters, which soon lost their reputation.

Dr. Willis was one of the first members of the Royal Society, and soon made his name as illustrious by his writings as it was already by his practice. In 1666, after the fire of London, he removed to Westminster, upon an invitation from archbishop Sheldon, and took a house in St. Martin’slane. As he rose early in the morning, that he might be present at divine service, which he constantly frequented before he visited his patients, he procured prayers to be read out of the accustomed times while he lived, and at his death settled a stipend of 20l. per annum to continue them, He was a liberal benefactor to the poor wherever he came, having from his early practice allotted part of his profits to charitable uses. He was a fellow of the college of physicians, and refused the honour of knighthood. He was regular and exact in his hours; and his table was the resort of most of the great men in London. After his settlement there, his only son Thomas falling into a consumption, he sent him to Montpellier in France for the recovery of his health, which proved successful. His wife also labouring under the same disorder, he offered to leave the town; but she, not suffering him to neglect the means of providing for his family, died in 1670. He died, at his house in St. Martin’s, Nov. 11, 1675, and was buried near her in Westminster-abbey. His son Thomas, above mentioned, was born at Oxford in Jan. 1657-8, educated some time in Westminster-school, became a student a Christ church, and died in 1699. He was buried in Bletcbley church, near Fenny-Stratford, the manors of which places his father had purchased of the duke of Buckingham, and which descended to his eldest son Browne Willis of Whaddon-hall, esq. eminent for his knowledge in antiquities, and of whom some memoirs will be given. Wood tells us, that “though Dr. Willis was a plain man, a man of no carriage, little discourse, complaisance, or society, yet for his deep insight, happy researches in natural and experimental philosophy, anatomy, and chemistry, for his wonderful success and repute in his practice, the natural smoothness, pure elegancy, delightful unaffected neatness of Latin style, none scarce hath equalled, much less outdone, him, how great soever. When at any time he is mentioned by authors, as he is very often, it is done in words expressing | their highest esteem of his great worth and excellency, and placed still as first in rank among physicians. And, further, also, he hath laid a lasting founJation of a body of physic, chiefly on hypotheses of his own framing.” These hypotheses, by far too numerous and fanciful for his reputation, are contained in the following works: 1. “Diatribse duae Medico-philosophicae de ft-rmentatione, altera de febribus,Hague, 1659, 8vo, London, 1660, 1665, &c. 12mo. This was attacked by Edm. de Meara, a doctor of physic of Bristol, and fellow of the college of physicians, but defended by Dr. Richard Lower in his “Diatribse Thomas Wiilisii Med. Doct. & Profess. Oxon de Febribus Vindicatio contra Edm. de Meara,London, 1665, 8vo. 2. “Dissertatio Epistolica de Uriuis” printed with the Diatribes above mentioned. 3. “Cerebri Anatome,London, 1664, 8vo, Amsterdam, 1667, in 12mo. 4. “De ratione motus musculorum,” printed with the “Cerebri Anatome.” 5. “Pathologise Cerebri & nervosi generis specimina, in quo agiiur de morbis convulsivis & descorbuto,Oxford, 1667, 4to, London, 1668, Amsterdam, 1669, &c. 12mo. 6. “Affectionum quae dicuntur hystericae & hypochondriacae Pathologia spasmodica, vindicata contra responsionem Epistolarem Nath. Highmore, M. D.London, 1670, 4to, Leyden, 1671, 12mo, &c. 7. “Exercitationes Medico-physicae duae, 1. De sanguinis accensione. 2.” De motu musculari,“printed with the preceding book. 8.” De anim& Brutorum, quag hominis vitalis ac sensativa est, exercitationes duac, &c.“London, 1672, 4to and 8vo, Amsterdam, 1674, 12mo, All these books, except” Affection um quae dicuntur hystericae, &c.“and that” de am ma Brutorum,“were translated into English by S. Pordage, esq. and printed at London, 1681, folio. 9.” Pharmaceutice Rationalis: sive Diatriba de medicamentorum operationibus in humano corpore." In two parts, Oxford, 1674 and 1675, 12mo, 4to. Published by Dr. John Fell. In the postscript to the second part is the following imprimatur put to it by Dr. Ralph Bathurst, the author dying the day before.


“Amicissimo Authori post tarn immortale opus riihil mortale facturo, tanquam lumina monenti claudens, extreinum hoc officium prasstat

“Rad. Bathurst, Oxon. Oxon, Nov. 12, 1675. Vice-Cancell.”

This book was translated into English by an anonymous | person, and printed at London, in 1679, in folio; but this translation being very faulty, it was corrected by S. Pordage, esq. above mentioned, and published in his version of Dr. Willis’s Works in 1681. In 1685 there came out afe London, in 8vo, “The London practice of Physic; or the whole practical part of physic contained in the works of Dr. Willis, faithfully made English, and printed together for the public good.” This contains, I. the first and second parts of our author’s Pharmaceutice rationalis; II. his treatise of convulsive diseases; III. that of the scurvy; IV. that of the diseases of the brain and genus nervosum; V. that of fevers. 10. A plain and easy method of preserving those that are well from the infection of the plague, or any contagious distemper, in city, camp, country, fleet, &c. and for curing such as are infected with it. Written in 1666, but not published till the end of 1690. All our author’s Latin works were printed in two volumes in 4to at Geneva in 1676, and Amsterdam in 1682 in 4to.

Although Dr. Willis’s works abound with the reveries of the chemical philosophy, and consequently have fallen into considerable neglect, there are many useful and curious things to be found in them. His “Cerebri Anatome” is the best of his works; but even here, although his anatomical descriptions be good, yet his physiological opinions must be acknowledged to be altogether extravagant and absurd. For example, he lodges common sense in the corpus striatum of the brain, imagination in the corpus callosum, and memory in the cineritious matter which encompasses the medullary. Yet^ after all, what is this to the more monstrous absurdities of that modern piece of quackery, called Craniology? Vieussens, who in his “Neurographia,” animadverted on Willis, is notwithstanding under great obligations to him, and Willis’s enumeration of the nerves is still adhered to by anatomists.

A Dutch physician, named Schelhammer, in a book “De Auditu,” printed at Leyden in 1684, took occasion to animadvert upon a passage in Dr. Willis’s book “de Anima Brutorum,” printed in 1672; and in such a manner as reflected not only upon his skill, but also upon his integrity. But Dr. Derham observes, “that this is a severe and unjust censure of our truly-famous countryman, a man of known probity, who hath manifested himself to have been as curious and sagacious an anatomist, as great a philosopher, and as learned and skilful a physician as any of his censurers; | and his reputation for veracity and integrity was no less than any of theirs too.” It remains to be noticed, that his “Cerebri Anatome” had an elegant copy of verses written in it by Mr. Phillip Fell, and the drawings for the plates were done by his friend Dr. Christopher Wren, the celebrated architect. 1


Ath. Ox. vol. II. Biog. Brit. Letters by Eminent Persons, 1813, 3 vols. 8vo. Thomson’s Hist, of the Royal Society. Granger. Birch’s Lives. Dean Barwick’s Life.