Francis Willis (physician)
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The Nollekens bust of Willis in the church at Greatford
|Born||17 August 1718|
|Died||5 December 1807
|Known for||Pioneering work in the field of mental health and his treatment of George III|
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.
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.
Willis the Doctor
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.
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.
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, now usually identified as 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. 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.
Willis's treatment of the King at Greatford and 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. Despite his rank the King was not excused from Willis’s regime of fresh air and physical labour.
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 today
Mostly forgotten and overlooked in recent years Willis's reputation was much revived through Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III and its later film adaptation, The Madness of King George and the 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.
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.
- Roy Porter, ‘Willis, Francis (1718–1807)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, January 2008 , accessed 5 August 2008