Celebrating a Pocket-Size Cerebri Anatome by Thomas Willis at 350 Years Old: Illustrations from Becker Library’s 1666 Edition

A little over 350 years ago, Thomas Willis of Oxford, England published Cerebri Anatome (Figure 1), which would go on to become highly cited by scholars. This work on the anatomy of the brain as a vehicle for viewing the soul or mind of the creator contains several scientific firsts. One is the first appearance of the term neurology1 and another is the first illustration of the Circle of Willis or Willis’ Circle,2 an arterial circle at the base of the brain, by which “full circulation to all parts of the brain can be maintained even when the carotid or vertebral arteries are blocked.”3

Christopher Wren and Richard Lower, two scientists in Willis’ circle of friends, drew the illustrations.Cerebri Anatome went through many editions after the first edition of 1664 by the Oxford publishing house, J. Martyn & J. Allestry.

The Illustrators of Cerebri Anatome in all its Editions 

Christopher Wren (1632-1723) drew the illustrations of the brain, skull and schemata of the cranial and autonomic nerves for Cerebri Anatome in May 1663.6 The slide show above displays Christopher Wren’s depictions of the human brain from the 1666 Schagren edition. Wren’s illustrations for Cerebri Anatome were the only drawings published during his lifetime.

Richard Lower (1631-1690) drew the 13th plate “depicting the blood vessels of the spine and spinal, cord, the unnumbered figure showing the trigeminal nerve and the nerves to the extra ocular muscles.” William Feindel, the editor of the tercentenary edition of Cerebri Anatome, considers Lower’s illustrations “a little less elegant than those attributed to Wren.” Richard Lower also illustrated his own work in experimental physiology of the heart titled De Corde.7  Look for a subsequent Becker Brief on his biography and artwork in books at Bernard Becker Medical Library.

Schagen’s Pocket-Size Edition 

In 1666, Gerbrant Schagen published a pocket-size edition of Cerebri Anatome with beautiful copper etchings in Amsterdam. While all of Wren’s illustrations of the human brain in the slide show above are spectacular, I think the engraved title dated 1665 (Figure 7), unique to Schagen’s editions of 1665 and 1666,8 is the most beautiful of all.

Ellen B. Wells explained all I wanted to know about this image, except the identity of the artist, in her article “Willis’ Cerebri Anatome – an original drawing.” She said, “With the exception of a few details, the drawing [at the National Library of Medicine] corresponds almost exactly to the engraved version used by Gerbrant Schagen as an added engraved title page.”

The picture’s foreground is a dissection scene including six living men, a corpse and a Dalmatian. Thomas Willis, “standing to the right of the table, wearing a skullcap and demonstrating part of the uncovered brain of the cadaver …, indeed bears a likeness to engraved portraits of him extant.”9 Wells doesn’t comment on the identity of the other men, but I think the figure opposite Willis might be Christopher Wren, based only on a comparison of the Christopher Wren sculpture by Edward Pierce (1773) in Figure 2.

Wells has this to say about the items on the wall behind the group:

The snake, representing health and immortality, leads from the foot, a symbol perhaps of earthliness and humanity, to the owl.  Wisdom is attributed to owls but, according to Knight, they are said to be able to smell the putrefaction of death in a mortally ill person.  Above these hang the skin and bones, between them a barely defined instrument cabinet containing scissors, saw, knife, clyster, retractor, and straight edge razor, the armamentarium of the 17th century surgeon.  The whole montage, suspended above the very clearly drawn and engraved scene below it, seems a vaguely conceived, rather perfunctory allegory on body and soul, life and death.10



[1] Oxford University Press. Oxford English Dictionary: Neurology n. etymology. Copyright 2016. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/126407?; Thomas Willis, William Feindel, Editor, and Samuel Pordage, translator. The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves. Tercentenary edition, 1664-1964. Vol. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1965., v. 1, page 47; v. 2, page 130

[2] Fielding H. Garrison, Leslie T. Morton, and Jeremy M. Norman. Jeremy Norman’s HistoryofMedicineand Biology.com: traditionally known as “Garrison-Morton”. 2016, No. 1378 http://www.historyofmedicine.com/d/cerebri-anatome-cui-accessit-nervorum-descriptio-et-usus . (accessed November 27, 2016)

[3] Who named it: Willis’ circle http://www.whonamedit.com/synd.cfm/323.html (accessed December 6 2016)

[4] Thomas Willis 1965, op.cit page 28, 37.

[5]  Garrison-Morton, 2016, op.cit. No. 1378 & P Krivatsy; A Catalogue of Seventeenth Century Books in the National Library of Medicine. Government Printing Office, New
York, NY (1989) Pages 1285-1286, no. 13009-13013

[6] Thomas Willis 1965, op.cit. vol. 1, page 28, 33

[7] Thomas Willis 1965, ibid. v. 1, page 37

[8] WELLS 1967, Willis” CEREBRI ANATOME — An Original Drawing, Page 182-184.

[9]  WELLS 1967, ibid, 182.

[10] WELLS 1967, ibid., 182-183.