Willis, Thomas (1621-1675) (DNB00)

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WILLIS, THOMAS, M.D. (1621–1675), physician, son of Thomas Willis and his wife, Rachel Howell, was born at Great Bedwin, Wiltshire, on 27 Jan. 1620–1, and baptised on 14 Feb. following. His father, a farmer at ‘Church or Long Handborough,’ Oxfordshire, was, according to Wood, ‘a retainer of S. John's College,’ and afterwards steward to Sir Walter Smith of Bedwyn, retiring in his old age to North Hinksey, near Oxford, and losing his life in the siege of Oxford in 1646. His mother was a native of Hinksey. The son was educated at the private school of Edward Sylvester in Oxford; ‘in 1636 he became a retainer to the family of Dr. Tho. Iles, canon of Christ Church’ (Wood); and on 3 March 1636–7 he matriculated from Christ Church, graduating B.A. on 19 June 1639 and M.A. on 18 June 1642. He served the king in the university legion, and studied medicine. On 8 Dec. 1646 he graduated M.B. He began practice in a house opposite Merton College, where, throughout the rebellion, the offices of the church of England were regularly performed [see Owen, John, 1616–1683]. He there wrote ‘Diatribæ duæ medico-philosophicæ,’ one on ‘Fermentation,’ and the other on ‘Fevers,’ which, with his ‘Dissertatio Epistolaris de Urinis,’ were published at The Hague in 1659. To this Edmund Meara [q. v.] replied in 1665 in an ‘Examen’ which called forth a defence from Willis's friend, Dr. Richard Lower (1631–1691) [q. v.], entitled ‘Vindicatio Diatribæ Willisii.’ In June 1660 Willis was appointed Sedleian professor of natural philosophy, and on 30 Oct. 1660 was created M.D.

He published in London in 1664 ‘Cerebri Anatome Nervorumque descriptio et usus,’ with a dedication to Gilbert Sheldon [q. v.], archbishop of Canterbury, and in the same volume ‘De ratione motus musculorum.’ He had dissected many brains of both men and animals, and worked with Dr. Richard Lower, Dr. Thomas Millington, and Sir Christopher Wren [q. v.], and many of the admirable drawings in the book were the work of that great architect. It was the most exact account of the nervous system which had then appeared, and in chapter viii. the anatomical relations of the main cerebral arteries were for the first time accurately set forth, whence the anastomosis at the base of the brain between the branches of the vertebral and internal carotid arteries is to this day known as the circle of Willis. He was concerned in the meetings at Oxford which in part led to the formation of the Royal Society, and became a fellow after the society was established. In December 1664 he was elected a fellow of the College of Physicians, and in 1666, on the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury, came up to London and took a house in St. Martin's Lane, near the church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. He soon attained a large practice. Bishop Burnet states that when consulted about a son of James II, then Duke of York, he expressed his diagnosis in the words ‘mala stamina vitæ,’ which gave such offence that he was never called for afterwards. His resolute attachment to the church of England was perhaps a stronger reason that he was not favoured at court. He endowed a priest to read prayers at early morning and late evening at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields for the benefit of working people who could not attend at the usual hours. In 1667 he published at Oxford ‘Pathologiæ cerebri et nervosi generis specimen,’ a treatise containing many valuable reports of cases of nervous disease observed by himself; and in 1670, in London, ‘Affectionum quæ dicuntur hystericæ et hypochondriacæ pathologia spasmodica,’ which discusses the treatment of hysterical affections at great length, and also contains a few well-described cases. In the same volume are separate essays ‘De sanguinis ascensione’ and ‘De motu musculari.’ He published at Oxford in 1672 ‘De anima brutorum,’ and in 1674 ‘Pharmaceutice rationalis.’ He was the last English physician to quote with approval the practice of John of Gaddesden [q. v.]

The ancients and all physicians up to the time of Willis included all diseases in which the quantity of urine was increased, under the term ‘diabetes,’ and Willis in this last book was the first to notice that cases of wasting disease in which this symptom was associated with sweetness of the urine formed a distinct group, and thus may justly be regarded as the discoverer of diabetes mellitus. His views as to the effects of sugar on the body were attacked by Frederick Slare [q. v.] in his ‘Vindication of Sugars against the Charge of Dr. Willis,’ London, 1715, 8vo. Willis died of pneumonia at his house in St. Martin's Lane, London, on 11 Nov. 1675, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on the 18th, an honour which he well deserved on account of his anatomy of the brain and his discovery of saccharine diabetes. The funeral charges came to 470l. 4s. 4d., which his grandson Browne Willis complains did not include a gravestone. His portrait was drawn by Vertue and engraved by Knapton. There is another engraving by Loggan.

Willis married, first, at St. Michael's, Oxford, on 7 April 1657, Mary, daughter of Dr. Samuel Fell [q. v.] and sister of Dr. John Fell [q. v.]; she died on 31 Oct. 1670, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 3 Nov. A son Richard died on 2 May 1667, and was buried in Merton College Chapel. The only surviving son, Thomas Willis (1658–1699), was father of Browne Willis [q. v.], the great antiquary, whose account of his grandfather's life and charities, in a letter to White Kennett, is printed in Wood's ‘Athenæ,’ ed. Bliss (iii. 1048–50). Willis married, secondly, on 1 Sept. 1672, at Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Matthew Nicholas, dean of St. Paul's [see Nicholas, Sir Edward, ad fin.], and widow of Sir William Calley of Burderop Park, Wiltshire. After Willis's death she married, as her third husband, Sir Thomas Mompesson (d. 1701) of Bathampton, Wiltshire, whom also she survived, dying in her seventy-fifth year on 29 Nov. 1709, and being buried in Winchester Cathedral.

A collected edition of Willis's works, entitled ‘T. W. Opera omnia cum … multis figuris æneis,’ appeared at Geneva in 1680 (2 tom. 4to); an improved edition was published by Gerard Blasius in six parts at Amsterdam (1682, 4to). An English version, entitled ‘The remaining Medical Works of … T. W. …,’ was published in London in 1681, folio, several of the treatises being translated by Samuel Pordage [q. v.]

[Works; Munk's Coll. of Phys. i. 338; postscript to Pharmaceutice Rationalis, 1679, pt. ii.; Burnet's History of his own Time, London, 1724, p. 228; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. iii. 1048; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Burrows's Parl. Visit. (Camden Soc.), Chester's Reg. West. Abbey, passim.]

N. M.