Thomas Willis

In the north transept of Westminster Abbey is the grave of the celebrated physician Thomas Willis and his wife and daughter. The current stone was dedicated in 1961 to replace the original. The Latin inscription can be translated:

Mary, very dear wife of Thomas Willis M.D., daughter of Samuel Fell, D.D. and Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, a woman, if ever there was one, distinguished for piety, good sense and sweetness of manners. She died to the great regret and grief of all, and especially of her husband, on the Eve of All Saints A.D. 1670 and is buried here. And now she lies here, expecting the eternal daybreak of that feast. In the same ground was buried their daughter Katherine, on the day after Michaelmas A.D.1667. Here also lies the above mentioned Thomas Willis, most famous doctor of medicine, who died on the 11 November 1675 aged 54.

Thomas was born on 27th January 1621 at Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire, a son of Thomas (d.1643) and his wife Rachel (Howell). He was educated at Christ Church Oxford and in 1645 he enlisted in the army, supporting the Royalists during the English Civil War. He had a medical practice in Oxford and married Mary Fell on 7th April 1657 at St Michael's Oxford. She died on 31st October 1670. At the Restoration in 1660 he became Sedleian professor of natural philosophy at Oxford University and was Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1664 he published his Cerebri Anatome and is known for his 'Circle of Willis' in the brain. He made observations on many diseases and published several more works.

Of his nine children only Thomas, Anne, Jane and Rachel survived to maturity. Katherine had been born in February 1663 and was buried on 30th September 1667 (although her burial is not in the Abbey registers but her father in his will directed to be buried with her and wife Mary). Son Thomas was born in 1658 and attended Westminster School. He married Alice Browne in Westminster Abbey on 20th May 1681 and their son was the celebrated antiquary Browne Willis. Dr Thomas married his second wife, Elizabeth widow of Sir William Calley, in the Abbey on 1st September 1672.

Further reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

"Thomas Willis, his life and work" by J. Trevor Hughes, 1991

Born

27th January 1621

Occupation

Physician; doctor

Location

North Transept

Memorial Type

Grave

Thomas Willis
Thomas Willis engraved by George Vertue (1684–1756)

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Willis
Thomas WIllis grave

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2021 Dean and Chapter of Westminster