Christopher Wren & the architecture of the brain


The current issue of Nature contains an interesting article about Sir Christopher Wren’s contribution to neuroanatomy, by art historians Martin Kemp and Nathan Flis of Oxford University.

The article focuses on the anatomical illustrations produced by Wren for Thomas Willis’s 1664 book Cerebri Anatome (The Anatomy of the Brain). This was a landmark publication in the history of neurology, not least because of Wren’s detailed and accurate figures, which were among the very first modern images of brain anatomy. Even so, this aspect of Wren’s work was overshadowed by his architectural designs, most notably St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Wren’s…perspectograph, an ingenious device that allows a draftsman, squinting through a sight, to trace the lineaments of any object or landscape…was probably used to trace the topography of the brain, its nerves and blood vessels, just as he used a telescope coupled to a micrometer to map the heavens and create the first lunar globe. However, it would be wrong to think that Wren used his instruments and great skill as a draftsman to create the equivalent of a photograph of a dissection – his representations are a succinct synthesis of what Willis and his collaborators had deduced about the structure of the brain over of period of time. To arrive at this point, they exploited the latest techniques of injection to preserve and dye the brain’s tissues and vessels. As Willis explained, “let a dyed liquor, and contained in a large squirt or pipe, be injected upwards in the trunk [of an artery] of one side: after once or twice injecting, you shall see the tincture or dyed liquor to descend from the other side by the trunk of the opposite artery”.

The accuracy of Wren’s illustrations was largely due to the method for preserving anatomical specimens, described by Willis in the passage above. This method was actually devised by Wren; it  retained the original shape  of the specimens, which could then be dissected and studyied more closely. Willis and his colleagues also used the method to inject coloured dyes into the carotid artery, in order to visualize the distribution of blood vessels in the brain.

Figure 1a (above) includes a numbering system for the cranial nerves which remained in use for more than 100 years, and shows the Circle of Willis, the ring of arteries at the base of the brain which supplies the organ with blood. It also  precisely demarcates the hippocampus and surrounding structures for the first time. 

The figure comes from the Wellcome Trust’s collection of images. For more about Wren and Willis, see Carl Zimmer’s excellent Soul Made Flesh. See also the newly launched Wellcome Library blog


  1. #1 Anibal
    November 15, 2008

    Nice post! and better title.

  2. #2 gliageek
    November 16, 2008

    Soul Made Flesh was an awesome read.

    This is from a review by H Richard Tyler:

    Each chapter of Zimmer’s book is preceded by an engraving, most of which were done by Christopher Wren, Willis´┐Ż colleague. These engravings beautifully detail the fine anatomy of the brain, including the structure at the base that now bears Willis’ name. Willis and his colleagues firmly established the brain as the organ whose function was to house the soul and act as the seat of emotion and thought. This concept paved the way for the next major advance, which came a century later with the phrenologists and the development of ideas concerning the localization of brain function to particular areas of the brain.

    Soul Made flesh belongs in all libraries and would make a superb gift for the neuroscientist or anyone who works with the brain. Zimmer’s knowledge of the period and depiction of the individuals who were responsible for many important scientific theories make for an exciting read. This was a hard book to put down.

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