Christopher Wren’s contributions to medicine
|Fig 1. Left: Sir Christopher Wren. From James Bissett’s Magnificent Guide, 1808. Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia. Public domain.
Right: Blue plaque at Hampton Court Green. Photo by Edwardx on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.
An extraordinary natural philosopher and Renaissance man, Christopher Wren (1632–1723) (Fig 1) was primarily an astronomer and architect.1 He is remembered mostly for his work after the Great Fire of London of 1666 as designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral, originally erected in AD 604. Wren laid the first stone at on Ludgate Hill on 21 June 1675. It was completed in 1710 at a cost of £1,095,556 (£174 million in 2021). With Nicholas Hawksmoor, Wren rebuilt much of London after the Great Fire including fifty-two churches. He designed the Sheldonian Theatre, the Royal Hospital for soldiers at Chelsea, a section of Hampton Court Palace, and the Royal Hospital for soldiers at Chelsea. He was Surveyor of Greenwich Naval Hospital for retired injured seamen, and of Westminster Abbey. He was appointed in 1657 as a precociously young Gresham Professor of Astronomy in London, and in 1660 the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.2 But these were not his only accomplishments.3
He attended Wadham College in Oxford, in 1653 becoming a Fellow of All Souls College, where Thomas Sydenham was a contemporary. What was remarkable about Wren’s years of academic brilliance in Oxford was his breadth of interests. He expanded knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, microscopy, instrument design, natural philosophy, natural history, anatomy, and physiology.4 After his death, almost half of his drawings were acquired by All Souls.
|Fig 2. Willis’s Cerebri Anatome (1664). Via Internet Archive. Public domain.|
However, not all of Wren’s papers were about architecture and astronomy. He was involved at Oxford with a group of illustrious academics with whom in 1662 he founded a society “for the promotion of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning,” which after receipt of the Royal Charter from King Charles II became “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.” Wren was its president from 1680 to 1682. He was knighted in 1673.
In the seventeenth century, it was not unusual for apothecaries, scientists, and philosophers to contribute to the field of medicine, which was not the strictly regulated profession it is today.* Although Wren did not hold a medical degree or qualify to practice medicine, as a member of the Royal Society, he knew well many medical scientists. Indeed, Anthony Wood, the Oxford antiquarian described Thomas Willis (1621–75) as the most “famous physician of his time.”5
Wren assisted Thomas Willis in his studies of the brain, both as dissector and illustrator. In 1664 he illustrated Willis’s famous book Cerebri Anatome (The Anatomy of the Brain) (Fig 2).
It contained one of the first accurate pictures of brain anatomy (Fig 3), succeeding Vesalius’s (1514–1564) De humani corporis fabrica libri septem of 1543. Wren injected a liquid dye into a proximal artery to preserve, stain, and demonstrate the brain’s tissues and vessels, a method of his own invention. He executed drawings using a machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci called the perspectograph. This enabled him to sketch with the correct linear perspective the anatomy of the brain, cranial nerves, and blood vessels, similar to his use of a telescope coupled to a micrometer to map the stars, create the first lunar globe, and investigate the rings of Saturn.
|Fig 3. Wren’s illustration of the base of the brain. In Willis’s Cerebri Anatome. Source|
The brain is seen from below, showing the basal arteries later named the circle of Willis. His lettering identifies the major anatomical structures. Willis was ably assisted by Richard Lower (1631–91) and Thomas Millington (1628–1704) as well as by Wren. Willis is renowned for many lasting and original contributions,6,7 including his naming of the specialty “Neurology” in his De Anima Brutorum of 1672.
Willis praised Wren’s illustrations: “to delineate with his own most skillful hands many figures of the Brain and Skull, whereby the work might be more exact.” In Cerebri Anatome, Willis considered the brain as the house of the soul and the seat of movement, sensation, emotion, and thought. He changed neurology from a speculative to a rational science and laid the foundations of the cerebral localization of brain functions that appeared more than 150 years later. Anatomist, Richard Lower in 1663 commented on Wren’s most excellent schemes of the parts of the brain and the eighth pair of nerves.†
Wren dissected the eye and “delineated the Spheres of the Humors in the Eye, whose Proportions one to another were only guess’d at before.” He also attempted to correct errors of refraction.
His book Anatomy of the Veins described both deep and superficial veins, and the venous plexuses. He provided illustrations and descriptions of the valves found in the veins and their workings. His book also discussed the causes of and surgery for varicose veins.
His other medical explorations dealt with such issues as a Treatise on the Motion of Muscles. He was familiar with Harvey’s views on the circulation through Sir Charles Scarburgh, whom Wren assisted in his anatomical studies.
The twenty-four-year-old Wren carried out the first intravenous injections:
I injected wine and ale into the mass of blood in a living dog, by a vein, in good quantities, till he became extremely drunk; but soon after he pissed it out.
He also injected
opium, scammony and other things which I have tried in this way. I am in pursuit of further experiments . . . will give great light to the theory and practice of physick.3
Dr. Thomas Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society in 1667, stated that “Wren was the first author of the Noble Anatomical Experiment of Injecting Liquors into the Veins of Animals…Hence arose many new Experiments, and chiefly that of Transfusing Blood, which the Society has prosecuted in sundry Instances, that wil probably end in extraordinary success.” The first was actually the work of his friend, Richard Lower, in Willis’s laboratory.8 The hazardous blood transfusion from sheep to man quickly followed, but human transfusion without Landsteiner’s blood grouping did not begin until the nineteenth century.9
Wren made advances in many other fields of medicine, with observations on the pulse, muscular control of respiration, nutrition, and embryology. He designed and improved surgical instruments; he also devised new surgical techniques, such as the use of ligatures to tie off blood vessels during amputations to reduce bleeding. He described his meticulous surgical techniques in Operation and Method of Cure, and successfully removed the spleen in dogs followed by years of useful survival.
Wren’s father was an Oxford man, Dean of Windsor, mathematician, and architect. Christopher, born in his rectory at East Knoyle in Wiltshire, was educated at Westminster school where John Dryden, John Locke, and Robert Hooke were fellow students. Three years later in 1649, he entered Wadham College Oxford, where he studied astronomy, made a model of the moon, traced the path of comets, and explored the problem of longitude. He made several instruments, pasteboard anatomical models, and a weather clock. He was much influenced by Sir Charles Scarburgh (mathematician, and physician to Kings Charles II and James II), who worked with William Harvey at Merton College.
It is easy to forget the personal hardships and family deaths owing to prevalent infectious diseases and childbirth endured by such famous figures of bygone ages. Wren married Faith Coghill in 1669; she bore two children, Gilbert and Christopher.3 Faith died of smallpox; he then married Jane Fitzwilliam, who bore two more children, but three years later died of tuberculosis.
In February 1723, returning from Hampton Court to London, he caught a “chill” from which he did not recover. He died at his home in St. James Street, aged ninety-one. He was buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s where a stone plaque written in Latin by his son Christopher translates:
Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 91.
His friend and fellow Westminster schoolboy Robert Hooke, author of Micrographia, observed: “Since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man in so great perfection, such a mechanical hand and so philosophical mind.” The widely respected diarist John Evelyn described Wren as “that rare and early prodigy of universal science.”
He is portrayed on the 1981 British £50 banknote.
* The Society of Apothecaries, a city livery company and an examining authority, was founded in 1617; apothecaries acted as medical practitioners. A Royal Charter incorporated the Royal College of Physicians in 1518 under President Thomas Linacre. Barber-surgeons were separated by the formation of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1745.
† Following Galen, only seven pairs of cranial nerves were recognized by Vesalius. Willis described nine pairs. Samuel Thomas Soemmerring in 1778 classified the twelve cranial nerves as we recognize them today.
- Summerson J. Sir Christopher Wren. London: Collins, 1953.
- Elmes J. Sir Christopher Wren and his times. London: Chapman Hall, 1852.
- Wren, C. Tract I in Life and Works of Sir Christopher Wren. From the Parentalia or Memoirs by his Son Christopher. Campden, Gloucestershire: Essex House Press, 1903. https://archive.org/stream/cu31924015672920/cu31924015672920_djvu.txt.
- Kemp M, Flis N. “Mapping the cerebral globe.” Nature 2008;456:174.
- Caron L. “Thomas Willis, the Restoration and the First Works of Neurology.” Med Hist. 2015 Oct;59(4):525-53.
- Zimmer C. Soul Made Flesh. New York, Free Press, 2004.
- Gibson, WC. “The Bio-Medical Pursuits of Christopher Wren.” Medical History 1970;14:336.
- Keynes G. Blood Transfusion. London: Frowde Hodder & Stoughton, 1922.
- de Grijs R, Vuillermin D. “Christopher Wren and blood circulation.” Hektoen Int Fall 2022.
JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of medicine and science.