Thomas Willis’ Practice of Paediatric Neurology and Neurodisability

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Andrew Williams

23rd July 2009; Oxford.

Thomas Willis (1621-75) is regarded as the founder of modern clinical neuroscience. He established the speciality of neurology and left a body of work that defined mid-seventeenth-century medicine. Recent interpretations of Willis’ work have led to a growing appreciation of his significant contributions to paediatric neurology, a speciality founded approximately three centuries after his death.

This paper presents many abstracts and plates taken from Willis’ major published works together with student notes by John Locke and Robert Boyle taken from Willis’s lectures delivered in Oxford in the 1660s. The material embraces a wide variety of conditions now managed within modern paediatric neurology and neurodisability. In several cases, they are the first recorded descriptions within the medical literature. Willis fused astute history taking and clinical observation (sometimes supported by subsequent post-mortem studies) into a structured medical intervention. Willis’ practice was based on humoural pathology with an iatrochemical superstructure. Although Willis’ discoveries became a cornerstone of modern medical science, his medical practice did not lead to any therapeutic advances. Some of his ideas, especially those concerning the education of children with learning difficulty, were carried forward by John Locke.  The corpus of material left by Willis affords a fascinating insight into the clinical rationale of the seventeenth century physician in their management of paediatric cases.



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