Book review

Alastair Compston: 'All manner of ingenuity and industry' A bio-bibliography of Thomas Willis 1621–1675

Publication Date: 01.11.2021
Swiss Arch Neurol Psychiatr Psychother. 2021;173:w03323

Kesselring Jürg

Oxford: University Press; 2021.

824 pages.

Price: 130 USD.

ISBN: 9780198795391.


On the title page of Cerebri Anatome is a group of associates of Thomas Willis, including famous architect Christopher Wren. They were involved in dissections, removal and fixation of brains for study, description, and illustration. Willis acknowledged the help of Lower and Wren in his preface to that book

Alastair Compston is professor emeritus of neurology of the University of Cambridge, former President of the European Neurological Society and of the Association of British Neurologists, and Editor of Brain, which under his editorship until 2013, especially because of his editorials and "From the Archives" articles, was clearly the most interesting journal of neurology. He also served on the International Advisory Board of our Swiss Archives of Neurology, Psychiatry and Psychotherapy for many years and gave an Invited Lecture at the centenary celebrations of our Swiss Neurological Society in Montreux in 2009. Apart from his research on the clinical science of human demyelinating disease, which has been awarded several international prizes, he has a long-standing interest in antiquarian books. His main activity in retirement is writing on the history of medicine. His new monumental work is a masterpiece, deserving the title on its own which he has given as a quote: '"All manner of ingenuity and industry" – A bio-bibliography of Thomas Willis 1621–1675’.

This is a first "copy-specific bibliography of printed works of Thomas Willis produced 1659-1721" based on the author's personal collection  of 103 copies of original editions and issues. More than 160 figures with detailed descriptions of printers’ ornaments provide visual evidence for the novelty of the writing and the ways in which books at that time were decorated and made attractive to the reader. All fourteen treatises by Thomas Willis are discussed in depth on the basis of the original English translations, and some texts, first printed in Latin, are newly translated. "These contributions are recognized as wise, original and influential."

As readers, we are invited to reading in this "book about books: those written by Thomas Willis and those that were informed or influenced by his works. It celebrates the quartercentenary of his birth on 27 January 1621" with the dedication: "Too the many nameless artisans who produced the books described therein and those who, at one time or another, have turned their pages."

The eighteen chapters of this monumental work are organised in four sections. Each chapter is introduced by a quote from one of Willis‘ works  thus making a very attractive invitation for reading. Chapter 1: 'In the tents of the King as well as the Muses' gives an overview of the life and the (sometimes fragile) reputation of Thomas Willis, with many carefully researched details on his personal life, relevant aspects of society of that time in general, and of medicine and neurology in particular. A wealth of information! This chapter also describes in depth and very knowledgeably the societal and political circumstances in which he lived and how he developed his thinking and practising which led to valuable and long-lasting contributions to modern medicine, and to neurology in particular. His work in the 1650s provides an example of rural medical practice in early modern England. It is Willis who coined the term "neurologie – the doctrine of the nerves". His contributions to clinical neuroscience are many: the anatomy and structure of the nervous system with everlasting beautiful illustrations, probably executed by his colleague at the Oxford Philosophical Club, Christopher Wren, who is better known as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Bodleian Library at Oxford and other famous buildings. Then there is Willis‘ extensive work on clinical neuroscience with detailed case descriptions illustrating his treatises (p. 24), and "For the Crown of the work a certain theory of the Soul of the Brutes should be added" – what nowadays would probably be called: neuro-psychiatric borderland.

In chapter 2: "'Setting down experiments of the sciences': printing and the works of Thomas Willis" aspects of the history of book printing and illustrations relevant to Willis‘ printed works are described in detail (after the author very modestly has confessed to being "only an amateur in bibliography" – one cannot imagine how a non-amateur would be able to go into more detail or to describe the topics in more beautiful language…): watermarks, signatures, catchwords and pagination techniques; cancelled leaves, printing errors; binding techniques by printers and booksellers; We can (try to) follow erudite discussions on illustrations, for example as to who might probably be the illustrator when styles of images are different, some being more artistic, others more schematic. Comparison with other texts on similar topics from that time, make it clear  that plagiarism was widespread, texts and particularly illustrations were "shamelessly borrowed". Such practices, however, can only be discovered and detected by a scholar such as the author who so diligently follows all signs and comes to carefully designed conclusions and interpretations. In Chapter 3 'To delineate with most skillful hands' illustrations that are clearly reproduced and described in scholarly manner (e.g., decorated title pages, p. 126; engraved frontispieces, p. 129; portraits, p. 133; head and tail pieces, p. 140; decorated initials p. 155; engraved plates p. 185). Chapter 4: 'The mystery and school house of nature' provides an overview of the printed works of Thomas Willis and deals in detail with his extensive and varied bibliography. It is encyclopedic in scope, and the accompanying analysis provides an excellent commentary and analysis of Willis’s achievements.

Between 1659 and 1675, Willis published fourteen treatises. These appeared in six published works, one in two parts, written in Latin. Four of the titles contain engraved plates depicting the brain, muscle, lungs and stomach. These treatises are described and commented on in the followig chapters with admirable knowledge and with many interesting details:

5: Diatribae duae medico-philosophicae –'Those first forgotten particles' (the first book by Willis at age 38) 

6: Cerebri anatome– 'Addicted to the opening of heads' 

7: Pathologiæ cerebri– 'A certain physiologie and pathology of the brain and nervous stock' 

8: Affectionum quae dicuntur hystericae & hypochondriacae - 'An Iliad of evils in the head'

9: De anima brutorum– 'To understand all things but itself' 

10: Pharmaceutice rationalis – 'The happy curing of cephalick diseases'

11: A plain and easie method for preserving those that are well from the plague (in English)- 'To be avoided as if they were sick'

12: Opera omnia 'The whole dowry of all nature'

13: Dr Willis's practice of physick 'Satisfying a mind desirous of truth'

14: The London practice of physick 'Of drudgery in pursuit of lucre'

chapters 15–18 summarise the content of Willis’s works and their contribution to medical science:

15: medical chemistry and disease – 'The hearths and altars for the vital fire' 16: the brain and nervous stock - 'Neurologie: the doctrine of the nerves'

17: the discourse of the soul - 'A great and difficult thing, and full of hazards':

18: rational therapeutics 'To practice medicine with a safe conscience':

By reading these extensive chapters it becomes apparent why Willis is considered to have been "central to the move from classical scholasticism to accounts of anatomy and physiology based on observation and experiment." The comments and interpretations of the surviving records of his lectures from the 1660s provide "an example of pedagogy in medicine at that time."

Alastair Compston’s book on Thomas Willis is a masterpiece, a great work of superb scholarship, thoughtful consideration and interpretation of knowledge on the development of modern medicine and of neurology in particular, of the printing trade at the time, etc. The architecture of the work is so convincingly crafted and impressive, the style is very much inviting for reading and reflecting, the references are detailed in the accompanying footnotes, the illustrations are clearly reproduced and thoughtfully commented upon. The Oxford University Press must also be congratulated for producing such a marvellous work, a very rich mine of treasures. And as it is a rule with every wonderful Persian carpet there must be a minimal fault or omission in order just to demonstrate that perfect perfection may only belong to another dimension: I only could find and detect one single word missing: in the Acknowledgements (unpaginated) on line 5 there is missing: "mine"…

Those who prefer a shorter version of this book may be referred to a lecture by the author on (parts of) that topic: Prof. Alastair Compston – “Dr Thomas Willis’s Works” History of Medical Sciences Project (

Verpassen Sie keinen Artikel!