Thomas Willis

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) was one of the greatest neuroanatomists of all time


The founder of comparative neuroanatomy, clinical neurology, and neuropathology, Willis is perhaps best known for The Circle of Willis, and for first coining the word "neurologia" — or neurology.

But his work was about much more than that.

In his long, successful career, Thomas Willis:

  • built a foundation of basic neuroanatomical description and nomenclature (how things are named in scientific disciplines)
  • established the first comparative neuroanatomical investigations
  • produced descriptions of clinical cases with such accuracy and insight that practitioners can still use them today.
One of the foremost physicians of his day, his thinking was centuries ahead of its time.
Thomas Willis - cut-out of a brain scan

Thomas Willis - cut-out of a brain scan


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Thomas Willis attended Christ Church College, Oxford, possibly intending to follow a clerical career in the church.

However, his education was disrupted by the outbreak of The Civil War in 1642.

The War turned Willis' focus to medicine, where he used his skills to make first-hand clinical observations.

He established his clinical practice early, which meant he could follow his patients throughout their lives. When they died, he was able to dissect them and compare their clinical pathological conditions.

The turmoil of period drew Willis into clinical practice. And it shaped his thinking — how he worked, studied, and conducted research.

Learn more in A History of Medicine Perspective on Willis 


Willis' life shows the importance of interdisciplinary teamwork in a research group — and of writing and illustrating that research clearly in scientific publications.

His life and work prove that it is possible to combine clinical work, teaching, and research with mentoring colleagues and students.

Willis' integrated approach led to a significant paradigm shift in his field.

Learn more about Willis and his research

Revealing the Brain

In 2013, our Revealing the Brain exhibition drew on work from Thomas Willis' time to the present day, exploring how science has gradually uncovered how our brains work.



Why is Thomas Willis relevant today?

During January and February 2021, Zoltán Molnár, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology at Oxford University, interviewed experts on all aspects of Willis's life and work.

Join Professor Molnár in conversation to explore Willis' life, influence, and legacy.

A History of Medicine Perspective on Willis with Erica Charters
Associate Professor of Global History and the History of Medicine,
Oxford University

Willis's Residence and Base for Scientific Discoveries, Beam Hall
with Alastair Buchan

Professor of Stroke Medicine, Oxford University

The Circle of Willis with Chrystalina Antoniades
Associate Professor of Neuroscience, Oxford University

An Insight in the Writings of Willis with Alastair Compston FRS
Professor Emeritus of Neurology, University of Cambridge

Exploring the Medical Cases of Thomas Willis with Kevin Talbot
Head of Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and
Professor of Motor Neuron Biology, Oxford University

What we learn from translating the works of Willis with Miloš Judaš
Professor of Neuroscience and
Director of the Croatian Institute for Brain Research


The Willis Legacy in St John's College Library with Dr Petra Hofmann
St John's College Librarian, University of Oxford

An insight into Willis-era Oxford through writing An Instance of the Fingerpost with Iain Pears
Historian, novelist, and journalist