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Willis's Oxford Lectures. By Kenneth Dewhurst. Oxford: Sanford Publications, 1980. Pp. 182. £9.00 Thomas Willis (1621-1675) contributed much more to seventeenth-century medicine than the "Circle of Willis" for which he is remembered in anatomy texts. While a student, he was well acquainted with such figures as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, and others in the famous Oxford group who were to become charter members of the Royal Society. Later, as Professor at Oxford, Willis published a series of Latin treatises on what today we would call neuroanatomy, neuropathology, and biopsychology. These published works were translated into English soon after Willis's death, and are fairly well known to historians of science. But this book by the long-time Willis scholar Kenneth Dewhurst provides the first easy access to Willis's academic lectures, as recorded by his friend and pupil Richard Lower and the future philosopher John Locke. These lectures were delivered in the early 1660s and show Willis at a transition in his career, between his early works on chemistry and the publication of his classic Anatomy of the Brain (1664). The topics covered are predominantly neurological—for example, epilepsy, hysteria, coma, delirium, melancholy, and localization of cerebral functions. Such terms are familiar enough to modern medicine, but Willis chose to describe all of these phenomena with reference to "spirits"—a concept which requires a special effort for the present-day reader to understand. In his book Defermentatione (1659), Willis named salt, sulfur, and spirits as the three main "principles" involved in chemical processes, spirits being by far the most active and subtle; he then saw the chief exemplification of this active principle in the "animal spirits," which, in traditional Galenic physiology, were the agents of nervous transmission. Thus combining two traditions in his own peculiar way, he proceeds to explain neurological disorders as various disturbances of the spirits in the brain and nerves. Calling this "neurochemistry" would be too anachronistic, but Willis deserves appreciation for an ingenious attempt to put neural activity on a kind of chemical basis. His approach was generally neglected in the eighteenth century, when most physiologists preferred to see nerve transmission as a hydraulic mechanism. Dewhurst has tried to shape the lectures into a readable narrative by selectively combining the notes of Locke and Lower, and by providing a smooth translation. The serious scholar might suspect that certain ambiguities have been covered up and would like to see some of the original Latin. The lectures are preceded by a biography of Willis which Dewhurst and others have provided elsewhere and followed by a rather scant analysis of Willis's scientific method. However, a very good scholarly service is performed by footnotes to each lecture which identify names and sources mentioned in the text and provide many cross references to Willis's published works. And since these works do not exist in modern editions, the publication of his thoughts in this form is a valuable contribution to medical history. Richard Y. Meier Library of the Health Sciences University ofIllinois at the Medical Center, Chicago 170 I Book Reviews ...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
p. 170
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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