Architect of Anatomy

A piece of art depicting Wren's brain drawing, part of the Neurology, Illustrated exhibition at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.Sir Christopher Wren
Drawing of the Brain
Bodleian Library, Ms. Lister B.66 Alt.BTW.12-13
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This etching of the brain was created by Christopher Wren as an illustration for Thomas Willis’s book Cerebri Anatome (The Anatomy of the Brain). Wren is most celebrated for his work as an architect, as the designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral and countless other churches throughout London. While at Oxford, Wren developed a wide range of interests, including the study of mathematics, astronomy, and anatomy. Here we see the brain viewed from below, showcasing the arteries at the base that were named for Thomas Willis. Willis’s studies of the brain remain influential today and he is credited with coining the term “neurologie” in 1672.

Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller, a piece in the Neurology, Illustrated gallery at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA.Sir Christopher Wren, the great British architect, was instrumental in rebuilding London after the fire of 1666. He designed 52 churches, including his masterwork, St. Paul’s Cathedral, which still dominates the city’s skyline today. He also created a number of secular buildings, such as a portion of Hampton Court Palace and the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Many of Wren’s buildings do not display the Baroque flamboyance so popular across the channel in France, but instead present themselves with a more classical grandeur. A skilled engineer, Wren designed a massive dome for St. Paul’s cathedral (inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome), which remains one of the tallest domes in the world.

Wren (1632-1723) attended Wadham College in Oxford, later becoming a fellow at All Souls College. After his death, almost half of his drawings were acquired by All Souls College—they span the full length of his career and consist of architectural plans, designs, and preparatory sketches for buildings both created and for those never realized. However, not all of Wren’s papers were architectural in nature. This etching, now at the Bodleian Library, represents another interest of the architect’s: anatomy. Wren became involved with a society of thinkers and scholars while at Oxford, and in 1664 he produced illustrations for Thomas Willis’ book Cerebri Anatome, of which this engraving was a part. The image was created through the use of a machine invented by Wren, called the perspectograph, which allowed an artist to trace objects—though the results are by no means as accurate as a photograph.

This is a view of the inferior (underside) of the human brain, as though someone is lying on their back and we are looking up from below—so the right side of the brain is on the left side of the picture (and vice versa). Wren provided letters to help identify the anatomical structures. The capital letter “A” is sprinkled on the cerebral cortex (cortex is Latin for “bark”). This is the complicated, convoluted covering of the brain that contains billions and billions of nerve cells. It is the most recently evolved of our brain structures and proportionally larger in size in humans than in any other animal. It is largely responsible for higher brain functions like speech, planning, thought, reading, and art (!). The capital “D” is on the olfactory bulbs. These sit just above the nose and receive the nerve impulses that transmit smells. The olfactory nerve is also referred to as Cranial Nerve I. It is one of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that control smell, vision, hearing, balance, and sensation and movement to the face and tongue. The criss-crossing fibers with the capital “E” is the optic chiasm. This is where the nerve fibers from one eye mix with the nerve fibers from the other eye to send information to the visual cortex in the back of the brain. The lower case “a” is over a large structure in the brainstem called the pons. It is a major part of the brainstem that connects the cerebral hemispheres with the spinal cord below. The letters “T” below the pons are on the medulla oblongata. This is the most primitive part of the brainstem responsible for controlling basic bodily functions like breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. 


Kemp, Martin and Nathan Flis.  “Mapping the cerebral globe.”  Nature Vol. 456 (November 13, 2008):  174.