Francis Willis (physician)

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Francis Willis
Francis Willis.jpg
The Nollekens bust of Willis in the church at Greatford
Born(1718-08-17)17 August 1718
Died5 December 1807(1807-12-05) (aged 89)
Bourne, Lincolnshire
ResidenceFlag of England.svg  England
Citizenship British
Known forPioneering work in the field of mental health and his treatment of George III
Scientific career
Fields Psychiatry
Dr Francis Willis (detail) by John Russell, 1789, National Gallery, London Dr Francis Willis (detail) by John Russell, 1789, National Gallery, London.JPG
Dr Francis Willis (detail) by John Russell, 1789, National Gallery, London

Francis Willis (17 August 1718 – 5 December 1807) was a Lincolnshire physician and clergyman, famous for his treatment of George III.

Lincolnshire County of England

Lincolnshire is a county in eastern England, with a long coastline on the North Sea to the east. It borders Norfolk to the south east, Cambridgeshire to the south, Rutland to the south west, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire to the west, South Yorkshire to the north west, and the East Riding of Yorkshire to the north. It also borders Northamptonshire in the south for just 20 yards (18 m), England's shortest county boundary. The county town is the city of Lincoln, where the county council has its headquarters.

Physician professional who practices medicine

A physician, medical practitioner, medical doctor, or simply doctor, is a professional who practises medicine, which is concerned with promoting, maintaining, or restoring health through the study, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments. Physicians may focus their practice on certain disease categories, types of patients, and methods of treatment—known as specialities—or they may assume responsibility for the provision of continuing and comprehensive medical care to individuals, families, and communities—known as general practice. Medical practice properly requires both a detailed knowledge of the academic disciplines, such as anatomy and physiology, underlying diseases and their treatment—the science of medicine—and also a decent competence in its applied practice—the art or craft of medicine.

George III of the United Kingdom King of Great Britain and Ireland

George III was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of the two countries on 1 January 1801, after which he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death in 1820. He was concurrently Duke and prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg ("Hanover") in the Holy Roman Empire before becoming King of Hanover on 12 October 1814. He was the third British monarch of the House of Hanover, but unlike his two predecessors, he was born in Great Britain, spoke English as his first language, and never visited Hanover.


Early career

Willis was the third son of the Rev. John Willis of Lincoln. He was a descendant of the Willis family of Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, a kinsman of the George Wyllys who became Governor of Connecticut, New England, and the Willis baronets of Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire.

George Wyllys or Wyllis served for a year (1642–1643) as one of the early governors of the Connecticut Colony.

After an undergraduate career at Lincoln College, Oxford and St Alban Hall he was elected a Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford in 1740 and was ordained as a priest. Willis was Rector of the College living of Wapping 1748-1750. He resigned his Fellowship in 1750, as he was required to do on his marriage. He and his wife took up residence at Dunston, Lincolnshire, where he apparently practised medicine before being awarded his medical degrees.

Lincoln College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

Lincoln College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford, situated on Turl Street in central Oxford. Lincoln was founded in 1427 by Richard Fleming, then Bishop of Lincoln.

Brasenose College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

Brasenose College (BNC), officially The King's Hall and College of Brasenose, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. It was founded in 1509, with the library and chapel added in the mid-17th century and the new quadrangle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Wapping district in East London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Wapping is a district in London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It is situated between the north bank of the River Thames and the ancient thoroughfare simply called The Highway. Wapping's proximity to the river has given it a strong maritime character, which it retains through its riverside public houses and steps, such as the Prospect of Whitby and Wapping Stairs.

Willis the Doctor

Mrs. Francis Willis by John Russell, 1806, Princeton University Art Museum 1806, Russell, John, Mrs. Francis Willis.jpg
Mrs. Francis Willis by John Russell, 1806, Princeton University Art Museum

His chief interest was medicine and he received the degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Medicine from Oxford in 1759 before serving as a hospital physician in Lincoln, where his early successes with the mentally ill, or "wrongheads" as they were commonly known at the time, led to him treating such patients in his own home.

A Doctor of Medicine is a medical degree, the meaning of which varies between different jurisdictions. In the United States, Canada and other countries, the MD denotes a professional graduate degree awarded upon graduation from medical school. In the United Kingdom, Ireland and other countries, the MD is a research doctorate, higher doctorate, honorary doctorate or applied clinical degree restricted to those who already hold a professional degree in medicine; in those countries, the equivalent professional degree is typically titled Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS).

In 1776, Willis moved to Greatford Hall, near Bourne, Lincolnshire, which he developed as a private rural sanitorium. As part of the treatments his patients were encouraged to perform manual work in and around the stables and fields of the Greatford estate, the fresh air and exercise likely contributing to their recovery. He quickly became recognised as one of the foremost physicians of the day through his treatment of "persons of distinction and respectability" but he would soon receive his most illustrious patient.

Greatford village in South Kesteven

Greatford is a village and civil parish in the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, England. It is situated 2 miles (3 km) west from the A15, 4.5 miles (7 km) north-east from Stamford, and 5 miles (8 km) south from Bourne. Greatford is noted for Greatford Hall, once the home of Francis Willis.

Bourne, Lincolnshire market town in South Kesteven, Lincolnshire, England

Bourne is a market town and civil parish in the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, England. It lies on the eastern slopes of the limestone Kesteven Uplands and the western edge of the Fens. The population at the 2011 census was 14,456.

A French visitor to the estate in 1796 recorded:

"As the unprepared traveller approached the town, he was astonished to find almost all the surrounding ploughmen, gardeners, threshers, thatchers and other labourers attired in black coats, white waistcoats, black silk breaches and stockings, and the head of each 'bewigged, well powdered, neat and arranged'.
These were the doctor's patients with dress, neatness of person, and exercise being a principle feature of his admirable treatment system where health and cheerfulness conjoined to aid recovery of every person attached to that most valuable asylum".

Treating the King

George III had his first attack of madness, possibly attributable to porphyria, which could have been triggered by an excess of rich wines, or more likely an over exposure to the arsenic related to the elaborate hats commonly worn in the Georgian period (though this diagnosis has been challenged, with various other causes being put forward, such as bipolar disorder). The court physicians were baffled by the symptoms and failed to treat the King successfully. In 1788 Willis was recommended to the increasingly concerned Queen Consort by an Equerry’s wife, whose mother Willis had treated successfully.

Porphyria An inherited metabolic disorder that involves certain enzymes in the heme bio-synthetic pathway resulting in the overproduction and accumulation of porphyrins.

Porphyria is a group of diseases in which substances called porphyrins build up, negatively affecting the skin or nervous system. The types that affect the nervous system are also known as acute porphyria, as symptoms are rapid in onset and last a short time. Symptoms of an attack include abdominal pain, chest pain, vomiting, confusion, constipation, fever, high blood pressure, and high heart rate. The attacks usually last for days to weeks. Complications may include paralysis, low blood sodium levels, and seizures. Attacks may be triggered by alcohol, smoking, hormonal changes, fasting, stress, or certain medications. If the skin is affected, blisters or itching may occur with sunlight exposure.

Arsenic Chemical element with atomic number 33

Arsenic is a chemical element with symbol As and atomic number 33. Arsenic occurs in many minerals, usually in combination with sulfur and metals, but also as a pure elemental crystal. Arsenic is a metalloid. It has various allotropes, but only the gray form, which has a metallic appearance, is important to industry.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz Queen consort of the United Kingdom as the wife of King George III

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was the wife of King George III. She served as Queen of Great Britain and Queen of Ireland from her wedding in 1761 until the union of the two kingdoms in 1801, after which she was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until her death in 1818. She was also the Electress of Hanover in the Holy Roman Empire until the promotion of her husband to King of Hanover on 12 October 1814, after which she was also queen consort of Hanover.

Willis's treatment of the King at The White House, Kew, included many of the standard methods of the period, including coercion, restraint in a strait jacket and blistering of the skin, but there was also more kindness and consideration for the patient than was then the norm.

The King's recovery made Willis's national reputation and he had to open a second establishment at the nearby Shillingthorpe Hall in Braceborough to accommodate the numbers of patients seeking his help. Shillingthorpe Hall was demolished in 1949.

When on 26 February 1789 Willis’s bulletin described the "entire cessation of his Majesty's illness" he became a British celebrity and was soon recognised through five portraits by John Russell, one of the most renowned portrait painters of the day. Willis commissioned a special medal to commemorate his own achievements. The Reverend Doctor Francis Willis was rewarded by the King with £1,000 a year for 21 years and assistant and son Dr John Willis with £650 a year for the rest of his life.

Twelve years later in 1801 King George suffered a relapse and his symptoms returned. On the second occasion he was treated by Francis’s two sons, also physicians, John Willis and his younger brother, Robert Darling Willis. The King remained a frequent visitor to Francis Willis at Shillingthorpe Hall for several years after his treatment was concluded. The King had a final relapse in 1810 that proved incurable and he lapsed into an illness and madness that lasted until his death in 1820.


Willis's reputation was revived by Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III , and its later film adaptation, The Madness of King George with a sympathetic portrayal by actor Ian Holm.

The original Greatford Hall sanatorium closed in 1838 and was mostly destroyed by fire in 1930, but was mostly rebuilt and is now a private residence.

There is a monument to Dr Willis in the form of a Joseph Nollekens bust, in the transept of his local Church of Thomas Becket in Greatford. The commemorative inscription reads:

Sacred to the memory of

The Revd. Francis Willis MD

Who died on 5 December 1807

In the 90th year of his age

He was the third son of the Revd. John Willis of Lincoln

A descendant of an ancient family of the same name

That resided formerly at Fenny Compton in Warwickshire

He studied at Oxford; was Fellow and sometime Vice-Principal of Brazen Nose College: Where in

obedience to his father, he entered into holy orders. But pursuing the bent of his natural taste and

inclination he took the degree of Doctor of Physic in the same University and continued the practice

of the profession to the last hour of his life.

By his first wife Mary, the youngest daughter of the Revd. John Curtois of Branston in this County,

he had five sons who survived him. By his second wife he had no issue.

Initiated early into habits of observation and research, he attained the highest eminence in his

profession and was happily the chief agent in removing the malady which affected his present majesty

in the year 1789. On that occasion he displayed an energy and acuteness of mind which excited the

admiration and procured for him the esteem of the Nation. The kindness and benevolence of his

disposition were testified by the tears and lamentations which followed him to the grave.

References in Literature

The Willises are portrayed as the callous jailers of Windsor Castle in Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell , under the impression that visitors, exercise, or other distractions would provoke hysteria in King George III.

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