Medical Terminology Daily (MTD) is a blog sponsored by Clinical Anatomy Associates, Inc. as a service to the medical community, medical students, and the medical industry. We will post a workweek daily medical or surgical term, its meaning and usage, as well as biographical notes on anatomists, surgeons, and researchers through the ages. Be warned that some of the images used depict human anatomical specimens.

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A Moment in History

Thomas Willis, MD
Thomas Willis

An English physician and anatomist, Willis was born on his parents' farm in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, where his father held the stewardship of the Manor. He was a kinsman of the Willys baronets of Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire. He graduated M.A. from Christ Church, Oxford in 1642. In the Civil War years he was a royalist, and was dispossessed of the family farm at North Hinksey by Parliamentary forces. In the 1640's Willis was one of the royal physicians to Charles I of England. He obtained his medical degree in 1646.

Thomas Willis might well be one of the greatest physicians of the 17th century.He is one of the founders of the Royal Society of London. He is remembered by his many publications, especially "Cerebri Anatome: Cui accessit Nervorum Descriptio et Usu", where he describes the arterial anastomoses at the base of the brain. This work is also the first detailed description of the vasculature of the brain. Willis described nine cranial nerves.

He is considered as the father of Neurology as a discipline. He used the term "neurology" for the first time in 1664. He described several neurological conditions

The Arterial Circle of Willis is a famous eponymous structure found at the base of the brain. It represents an anastomotic roundabout that connects the right and left sides as well as the carotid and vertebral arterial territories that supply the brain. Named after Thomas Willis, this structure was known well before him, but it was Willis who described its function.  If you click on the image or here, you will be redirected to a detailed description of this structure.


1. "The legendary contributions of Thomas Willis (1621-1675): the arterial circle and beyond" Rengachary SS et al J Neurosurg. 2008 Oct;109(4):765-75
2. "Thomas Willis, a pioneer in translational research in anatomy (on the 350th anniversary of Cerebri anatome)" Arraez-AybarJournal of Anatomy, 03/2015, Volume 226, Issue 3
3. " The naming of the cranial nerves: A historical review" Davis, M Clinical Anatomy, 01/2014, Volume 27, Issue 1
4. "Observations on the history of the circle of Willis". Meyer A, Hieros, R.Med Hist 6:119–130, 1962

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The rectum is the most distal segment of the large intestine. 

The word [rectum] arises from the Latin [rectus] and means "straight", such as its use in the name "rectus abdominis" for the "straight muscle of the abdomen".

It seems a misnomer, as the rectum of the human species is actually "S" shaped, as seen in the accompanying image. The reason for this discrepancy is that the rectum was named by Galen of Pergamon (129AD - 200 AD) who himself studied this structure in animals such as sheep and goats. In these animals the rectum is indeed straight, and since contradicting Galen was not acceptable (see Michael Servetus), the name has survived until this day. Even Andreas Vesalius has in his 1953 "Fabrica" a depiction of a straight rectum in the human! Click on the bar beneath the image to see Vesalius' image of the rectum.

The proximal end of the rectum is not clearly discernible from the sigmoidorectal region, from here the rectum has an "S" shape, measures approximately six to seven inches in length (15 - 17 cm), and it ends distally at the junction of the rectum with the  pelvic diaphragm. It is at this point that the anal canal begins.

1. Sigmoid colon 2. Rectum 3. Anus 4. Inferior rectal valve 5. Middle rectal valve 6. Superior rectal valveLarge Intestine - Vesalius 1543
The rectum is characterized by three transverse rectal folds, one on the right side, and two on the left side. These folds are know as the "rectal valves" or the "valves of Houston". The middle rectal fold is known to European anatomists as the "valve of  Kohlrausch" Their function in maintaining fecal material in place as well as their function in defecation is still under study. The rectal valves also have a high level of anatomical variation and may not be present at all.

Image source: "Tratado de Anatomia Humana" Testut et Latarjet 8 Ed. 1931 Salvat Editores, Spain
Recommended reading: "Transverse Folds of Rectum: Anatomic Study and Clinical Implications" Shafik, A, et al. Clin Anat 14: 196-203 (2001).