Skip to main content
No. 1992:
Oxford, Harvey, and Willis

Today, Oxford after war. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What a time it was at Oxford University in 1643! The English Civil War, between King Charles and the Parliament, was just beginning. Oxford, once a quiet college town away from the conflict, was now engulfed by it. Surrounded by townsfolk sympathetic with Parliament, it sided with the Crown. 

Two people were caught in the crossfire. One was William Harvey, who'd first explained how blood circulates. He was now lecturing in anatomy. The other was a young student named Thomas Willis. Willis had meant to become a clergyman but, as religious strife degenerated into outright war, that career choice soured. After five years of theology, he switched to medicine. 

Here the plot thickens. Willis and Harvey were both Royalists in a world that would, for the next seventeen years, be ruled by Cromwell and the Puritans. The street warfare had reduced the town of Oxford to a miserable slum. Still, Cromwell's general had taken some care that the University not be destroyed. He posted guards at the door of the Bodleian Library to protect it from looters.

Willis went off to fight with the Royalists, then returned in defeat to a University occupied by Puritans. There, he stayed as invisible as he could -- first studying, then teaching, medicine, while Royalists around him were being thrown out. Yet all this had an upside. Historian Carl Zimmer says, "... political chaos ... turned Oxford intellectually into a fizzing vial of spirits."

Harvey had already turned his back on the traditional medicine of the ancients -- on Galen and Aristotle. Now, under the Puritans, Willis was able apply his huge talent for studying medicine experimentally. And he touched a remarkable group of students -- John Locke, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren. Wren worked with Willis on his most important project: a study of the human brain. 

Willis pioneered the mapping of areas within the brain. He also talked about the sensitive soul -- the part of the soul that travels the nervous system and reports to the rational soul in the brain. He correctly understood that much of our knowledge is embedded throughout the body -- not in the brain alone. Some medical historians call him the Harvey of the nervous system.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the Puritans at Oxford suffered as grievously as the Royalists had, two decades before. Oxford's Puritan professor of natural philosophy was booted out. Willis got his post. 

And here we read a great irony of any revolution. Much to the Royalists' dismay, Willis refused to restore the old medicine.  He may have been restored, but Galen and Aristotle would not be. 

An old children's song tells us, "Oliver Cromwell lay buried and dead. Hee Haw buried and dead." But he was not entirely gone, for some of Cromwell now lingered in that passionate Royalist Thomas Willis. And the study of medicine was much better for it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

C. Zimmer, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain - and How It Changed the World. (New York: Free Press, 2004).

My thanks to Catherine Patterson, UH History Dept., for her counsel and to Carol Lienhard for suggesting the Zimmer book. In anatomy today, reference is still made to the Circle of Willis in speaking of blood circulation between the brain hemispheres. 


William Harvey
William Harvey (from R. Park, An Epitome of the History of Medicine, 1903) 

Wren's drawing of a human brain
One of Christopher Wren's drawings of the circle of arteries in the human brain done for Thomas Willis.