Thomas Willis, Richard Lower and Cerebri Anatome (1664)

New York University, New York, USA

Mid-17th century Oxford, during the Commonwealth era that followed the English Civil War and through the early years of Restoration of the Monarchy, was the locus of a major development in experimental science. It is here that many of the founders of the Royal Society interacted, among them Thomas Willis, whose Cerebri Anatome has generally been viewed as a watershed treatise that went well beyond all earlier descriptions of the central and autonomic nervous system.

But controversy about Willis’ role in the research that led to the publication of Cerebri Anatome arose almost at once. Anthony Wood, a contemporary Oxford diarist and historian, questioned the intellectual contribution of Willis, versus that of Richard Lower, Willis’ student and extremely capable research assistant, who later made other major contributions to physiology. Perhaps the most forceful criticism came much later from Sir Michael Foster, the distinguished Cambridge physiologist of the late 19th and early 20th century (who was Sherrington’s teacher), who also believed that Lower had been the creative genius behind Cerebri Anatome, as did John Fulton of Yale.

I had thought the controversy to have been settled in Willis’ favor after the writings of John Spillane and William Feindel over the past twenty-five years and was surprised to see it appear again in recent times – even in a fictional account of the era. Accordingly I will review the trajectory of “evidence” that concluded that Lower was the intellectual force behind Cerebri Anatome and attempt yet another evaluation of the extent to which Willis and Lower are appropriately recognized for their respective contributions to this seminal work.

Session IV
Tuesday, 5 July 2005, 4.00 - 4.30 pm

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005