King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Parkinson of the disease

Practice of physick

Beginning of the description of Willis’s concept of palsyBeginning of the description of Willis’s concept of palsyIn An essay on the shaking palsy Parkinson was at pains to locate the components of the condition in existing clinical descriptions by major 18th century physicians and nosologists such as Hieronymus Gaubius (1705-80), Boissier de Sauvages (1706-67) and William Cullen (1710-90).

But Parkinson failed to discern in these descriptions any accounts of the condition which he delineated, with its very particular combination of disordered movement, stooped posture and altered gait.

The works featured in this section chart the evolution of medical understanding of the condition in the 150 years prior to the Essay. They contrast contemporary medical knowledge about disorders of human movement with Parkinson’s perceptive grasp of them, and with the conceptual breakthrough embodied in the Essay.

Continued description of Willis’s concept of palsyContinued description of Willis’s concept of palsyThomas Willis (1621-75), who was one of the foremost medical scientists of his day and a founding member of the Royal Society, is credited with initiating systematic research on the brain and nervous system. In 1664 he published his Cerebri anatome, with its striking images of the dissected human brain by the young Christopher Wren.

In his preface Willis explained: ‘I became addicted… to the opening of Heads especially, and of every kind, and to inspect as much as I was able.’

In the 1650s some degree of post-mortem examination was undertaken in the laboratory at Wadham College Oxford by a group of Willis’s collaborators, who included Wren, William Petty, and John Locke.

Willis’s interest in the brain, like that of Locke, went far beyond anatomy, and embraced philosophy: ‘the crown of the work’, he wrote, ‘a certain theory of brutes should be added after the naked anatomical observations and histories of living creatures and their animated parts.’

Original leather clasps of this copy of Willis’s workOriginal leather clasps of this copy of Willis’s workHis Two discourses concerning the soul of brutes, which is that of the vital and sensitive in man, first published in Latin in 1672, argued that human and animal nerves share a sensitive corporeal soul, animal spirits coursing through nerves to provoke movements, sensations, and memories.

The work, with its openings reproduced here at the relevant pages, defines very clearly Willis’s concept of palsy, in which the feature of weakness was central:

The palsy is described after this manner, to wit, That it is a resolution, loosening, or relaxation of the nervous parts, from their due tensity or stiffness; by which means Motion and Sense, to wit, either one only, or both together, in the whole Body, or in some parts, cannot be exercised in the due manner.

This copy of Dr Willis’s practice of physick retains its original leather clasps, and is shown to the right.


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