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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Ephraim McDowell

This article is part of the series "A Moment in History" where we honor those who have contributed to the growth of medical knowledge in the areas of anatomy, medicine, surgery, and medical research.To search all the articles in this series, click here.

Ephraim McDowell (1771- 1830). American surgeon, Ephraim McDowell was born in 1771 in the Augusta County of Virginia. His family moved to the “frontier”, which at that time was Kentucky, where his father was a judge. McDowell studied in Kentucky and returned to Virginia to serve as an apprentice to Dr. Alexander Humphreys. Following Dr. Humphrey’s advice McDowell went to Edinburgh to finish his formal medical training, which he did not finish, taking chemistry, anatomy, and then a private medical course with Dr. John Bell.

Returning to America, he settled in the Ohio River Valley, and had a successful practice as a frontier surgeon in the city of Danville, Kentucky.  This was before the advent of anesthesia and antisepsis.

On Christmas Day 1809, Dr. McDowell  performed the first recorded ovariotomy to drain a massive ovarian cyst from Mrs. Mary Jane Crawford, who had to ride a horse for sixty miles to get to Dr. McDowell’s office where he performed the ovariotomy without anesthesia. Mrs. Crawford had been diagnosed as “pregnant” by two other physicians. Dr. McDowell’s hand-written report states that he performed a nine-inch abdominal incision, the operation lasted about twenty five minutes, and they removed “fifteen pounds of a dirty gelatinous substance” and “extracted the sac, which weighed seven and a half pounds”. 

Ephraim McDowell
Original image courtesy of National Library of Medicine.

Mrs. Crawford survived the operation, was ambulatory in five days, and lived for 33 additional years, until she was 78 years old. Research has been made as to the reason for the survival at a time when the norm for an operation that penetrated the peritoneal cavity was death. Othersen (2004) states that his research indicated that Dr. McDowell was “meticulous, neat and scrupulously clean”.

Because of the times, and because Dr. McDowell was not into writing, the achievement was not known for many years, until 1817. Dr. McDowell later performed a lithotomy on James Polk, who would eventually become president of the United States. In 1825, his achievements were recognized and he received an honorary MD degree by the University of Maryland.

Dr. McDowell’s house in Danville, KY is today a museum, and his name is remembered by the “Ephraim McDowell Health System” a group of integrated healthcare based in the same city. For more information on Mary Jane Crawford, click here.

PERSONAL NOTE: On February 19, 2017 I was able to go visit this place. Click here for a series of articles and pictures of this visit. Dr. Miranda

1. “Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830) Kentucky Surgeon” JAMA. 1963;186 (9):861-862
2. “Ephraim McDowell: The Qualities of a Good Surgeon” Othersen, HB Ann Surg. 2004; 239(5): 648–650
3. “Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830): pioneer of ovariotomy” Tan,SY & Wong, C. Singapore Med J 2005; 46(1) : 4
4. “Ephraim McDowell, the First Ovariotomy, and the Birth of Abdominal Surgery” Horn, L and Johnson, DH. J Clin Onco 2010: 28; 7 1262-1268
5. "Surgeon of the wilderness: Ephraim McDowell" Haggard, WD. Presidential Address, ACS 1933. FACS archives 1934, 58: 415-4198