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Thomas Willis - His life and times

      2021 marks the quatercentenary of the birth of Thomas Willis on 27 January 1621. As a physician in Oxford, Willis's work in the 1650s provides an example of rural medical practice in early modern England. As a member of the Oxford Philosophical Club that met from the 1640s, he was central to the move from classical scholasticism to accounts of anatomy and physiology based on observation and experiment. As Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy in Oxford, the surviving records of his lectures from the 1660s provide an example of pedagogy in medicine at that time. And, after moving to London in 1667, Willis continued to interact with a community of scientists and physicians who transformed ideas on respiration, muscular movement, and the nervous system. Despite a busy clinical practice, Willis found time to write fourteen treatises on anatomy and physiology, clinical medicine, and therapeutics. These were published between 1659 and 1675, the year in which he died. Willis's method was to replace dogma with empirical evidence: ‘I determined to believe Nature and ocular demonstrations [and] did chiefly inquire into the offices and uses of the Brain and its nervous Appendix. I addicted myself to the opening of Heads on which a more certain Physiologie [and] Pathologie of the Brain and nervous stock, might be built’. This celebratory lecture will set Willis's ideas in the context of the times in which he worked and assess their legacy for the subsequent accumulation of knowledge relating to the nervous system.
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