Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain- and How it Changed the World by Carl Zimmer - review by Chandak Sengoopta

Chandak Sengoopta

Brain Matters

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain- and How it Changed the World


William Heinemann 367pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

FOR ALL ITS strife, seventeenth-century England was paradise for science and scholarship. As if the existence of Wren, Newton, Hobbes and Harvey in one century were not enough, to be blessed in addition with ~o~ Sydenham and Locke seems an unfair bounty. And these are just the ones who became household names; many of their contemporaries, although no less impressive, remain unfamiliar outside academic history. But. thanks to the boom in popular history, general readers were recently introduced to the incomparable Robert Hooke by Stephen Inwood (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Macmillan) and Lisa Jardine (The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, HarperCollins), and in the book under review American science writer Carl Zimmer rescues the physician and neurologist Thomas Willis (1621-1675) from an undeserved obscurity.

Willis is now remembered h o s t exclusively by doctors and medical students, and then only as a name commemorated in the Circle of Willis, a network of arteries at the base of the brain. Some medical historians have written on Willis’s neurological work over the years, but the level of interest has been low and its character almost desultory. That might be understandable had Willis really done nothing more than identify a few blood vessels, but that was only one of his achievements. Born into a poor family, Willis went as a servitor to Oxford, where his master, Thomas Iles, was a canon of Christ Church and, more important, Mrs Iles, like many housewives of the time, was well-versed in physic and had a large clientele. The young Wiks helped her in making up her draughts and tinctures. His 6rst exposure to medicine, then, was unashamedly demotic, but he soon decided to study medicine formally. The university curriculum of the time was based on Galen’s ancient texts rather than on the realities of clinical practice, but Willis’s innately pragmatic disposition remained unimpaired. When hk lost his father and stepmother to epidemic fever, the 21- year-old medical student recorded the symptoms of the condition with dispassion. The epidemic was complemented by the political and military plague of the civil War, which brought the King and his court (including the royal physician William Harvey) to Oxford. Harvey inspired a group of younger Oxford men into taking up experimental research, and although he left with his royal master in 1646 the students did not forget the revolutionary teachings of this otherwise conservative physician.

Also in 1646, Willis, while fighting as a royalist soldier, received his MB and started his life as a practitioner. The first years were predictably difficult. As Zimmer says . ‘A poor: orphaned soldier on ‘the losing side of a civil war, he would struggle for a decade to survive in the turmoil between Puritans and conspiring royalists, in a country still facing years of war and the execution of a lung.’ But these were also exciting years for science and Willis was in the thick of things: he subscribed to new, chemical approaches to medicine. dabbled in alchemy, associated with some of the leading scientific minds’ of the era and grew preoccupied with the nature of the soul. All the while, he continued with his medical practice and remained staunch in his royalism and Anglicanism arranging private church services for those with no desire to give up the Book of Common Prayer. Gradually, Willis became one of the central figures in the developing band of young scientists at Oxford, which already had Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke among its members. As the Puritan regime took England into uncharted political and religious waters, these men – led by the great chemist Robert Boyle and armed with an array of novel techniques – delved into the unplumbed depths of Nature. Willis himself concentrated on the brain and nerves; his Cerebri anatome was published in 1664, with plates by Wren. It went through four editions in a year and the author was hailed as the ‘ornament of our nation, next to immortal Harvey’.

Willis eventually left Oxford for the capital, where he established an immensely successful medical practice. His therapeutics remained quite traditional but he was to publish two other pioneering works on the brain, crammed with original observations and fascinating theories. It was not just the anatomy of the brain and nerves that he was interested in (although he mapped them with unprecedented accuracy and coined the word ‘neurologie’) but the nature and location of the soul. Did humans have an immaterial, immortal and rational soul? Where did it reside? Could it be affected by disease?

Few of Willis’s answers would satisfy us today, but, as Car1 Zimmer argues in his final chapter, the questions themselves remain essentially valid. Whether one uses a blunt knife to explore the brain of a rotting corpse in a freezing barn (as Willis and his associates did) or an MRI scanner in an air-conditioned laboratory, the brain is not simply a mass of strangely convoluted tissue: it is the ultimate locus of whatever we consider to be distinctive of the human species, and Willis was among the first to see it from that perspective. Many of his concepts of neural function, Zimmer argues in occasionally strained 1 analogies, prefigured modern notions, but Willis’s contemporary relevance is far &m exhausted by such parallels. Willis opened a Pandora’s box of metaphysical and ethical I questions that content us still in spite of all our advances l in knowledge and technique. Our scientists may not lose I much sleep over the location of the immaterial soul, but they have yet to find an emotionally convincing and neurologically valid concept of human selfhood. Immaculately researched, full of sharp insights, deeply thoughtful and written with passion and style, Soul Made Flesh is a compelling work of history and all the more rewarding for having one foot planted so firmly in the present.


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