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Capturing brains: grey matter turns pink

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24/07/2012

By | From the Collections

Intracranial recording for epilepsy. Surface of human brain in situ 2011 by Robert Ludlow, UCL Institute of Neurology. Wellcome Images N0036750

Intracranial recording for epilepsy. Surface of human brain in situ
2011 by Robert Ludlow, UCL Institute of Neurology. Wellcome Images N0036750

This striking and beautiful exposure of the surface of the human brain recently won the Wellcome Image Awards. Taken by Robert Ludlow as the patient awaited a treatment for epilepsy, this vibrant, colourful picture offers a stark contrast to the grey, inert look of a brain long separated from its body.

But how easily could you convey such a sight without the latest digital camera? What if the most accurate method available was the fine point of engraver’s stylus?

Human brain, with cerebellum  and nerves, T. Willis, Cerebri anatome, 1664. Wellcome Images L0032335

Human brain, with cerebellum
and nerves, T. Willis, Cerebri anatome, 1664. Wellcome Images L0032335

This image was not made by a doctor and not even by a professional illustrator but by a man more famous for creating one of London’s iconic buildings – St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1664 two years before the Great Fire of London created the opportunity for his architectural masterpiece, Sir Christopher Wren provided the pictures to accompany a book called Cerebri Anatome.

Written by an English physician named Thomas Willis this work was the first to give a complete account of how blood was supplied to the brain. The circulatory system that supports this most complex of organs is still known as the ‘Circle of Willis’ to this day. The Wellcome Library holds several editions of this seminal work complete with Wren’s original artwork.

Christopher Wren making his first demonstration of a method of introducing drugs into a vein, before Dr Willis, 1667. Oil painting by Ernest Board. Wellcome Images V0018136

Christopher Wren making his first demonstration of a method of introducing drugs into a vein, before Dr Willis, 1667. Oil painting by Ernest Board. Wellcome Images V0018136

In this idealised painting Willis is assisting Wren to introduce drugs through a vein. A founding Fellow of the Royal Society, Willis grew wealthy on his medical practice and part-financed a shared chemical laboratory at Wadham College, Oxford University. Willis cultivated relationships with notable scientists of the day; one of his assistants in these experiments was Robert Hooke who went on to produce Micrographia a book using the power of microscopes to reveal a wonderful, new world in amazing detail.

Willis was also the first to use the word ‘neurology’ to describe the study of nerves. In his writings, he helped to focus on the solid tissues of the brain rather than the cavities and fluids emphasized in the more traditional humoral model of the body. His progressive ideas included attributing the cause of epilepsy to a physical condition rather than some form of ‘supernatural possession’, helping to pave the way for the research carried out by Robert Ludlow some 350 years later.

 

Danny Rees

Danny Rees

Hi, I am Danny Rees, an Engagement Officer for the Wellcome Library, one of my interests is the human face; its physiognomy, expressions and ideas about what constitutes beauty. When not at work I enjoy the Kent countryside and consider radio to be one of the best things in life.

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