Browne, Thomas (1605–1682)

views updated May 29 2018

BROWNE, THOMAS (16051682)

BROWNE, THOMAS (16051682), English physician, naturalist, and essayist. Browne reflected and harmonized in his life and work many of the religious and scientific trends characteristic of the seventeenth century. He was born in London on 19 October 1605 and enjoyed a stable childhood among devout and devoted parents and four sisters, though his father, a cloth merchant, died when Thomas was eight. The elder Browne left a generous inheritance, however, which supported his son in his extensive education in England and abroad. Thomas entered Winchester College in 1616, where he studied classics and rhetoric and absorbed the Anglican and Royalist spirit of the place. He went on to Oxford in 1623, where his classical education was broadened and supplemented by training in the natural sciences. He received his B.A. in 1626 and his M.A. in 1629. Following graduation, having been inspired to become a physician, he departed for the Continent to seek the superior medical training available there. He went first to the University of Montpellier and then to Padua, where, a century before, Andreas Vesalius (15141564) had revolutionized the study of anatomy, where, twenty years earlier, Galileo Galilei (15641642) had first trained his telescope on the stars, and where William Harvey (15781657) had studied prior to his recent discovery of the circulation of the blood. Browne imbibed the unparalleled clinical instruction offered at Padua but soon moved on to Leiden for further study and obtained his M.D. there in 1633. After an apprenticeship in England, he acquired an M.D. from Oxford and in 1637 set up practice in the city of Norwich. He married Dorothy Mileham in 1641, and they had twelve children, only six of whom survived into adulthood.

Browne's era was one of great political and religious unrest and scientific ferment. His first and most famous written work, Religio Medici (The religion of a doctor), appeared in 1642 at the onset of the English Civil War, or Puritan Revolution. In this work Browne offers a candid exploration of his elastic Anglican views, shaped by a mixture of traditional and contemporary ideas, regarding such issues as God's relation to nature, the interplay of faith and reason, and the conciliatory effects of Christian charity and humility. Browne envisioned human beings as microcosms of the universe, and Religio Medici itself can be seen as an epitome of its author, embodying his religious background, his classical and scientific education, and his humane tolerance acquired from wide experience of diverse national and religious cultures. Aside from its content, the poetic literary quality of the book, which displays a musical sensibility striking resonant chords along a scale between certitude and doubt, has long established Browne as one of the finest prose stylists in the history of English literature.

In addition to becoming a respected physician through decades of practice in Norwich, Browne was a recognized authority on the flora and fauna of East Anglia. He was intent on sorting out truth from error in natural history and general knowledge and in 1646 published his systematic inquiry into contemporary beliefs called Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which became commonly known as Vulgar Errors. In the spirit of Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning, Browne assayed hundreds of presumed truths about the world, often utilizing the newly ascendant intellectual instruments of empirical observation and experimentation. This book, which was his longest, enjoyed great popularity and, like other works appearing near the dawn of modern science, helped foster critical and constructive modes of thought among its wide audience. Browne conducted diverse scientific investigations, was in contact with many leading scientific figures of his day, and was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, but he remained on the margins of the scientific community of seventeenth-century England and never became a fellow of the Royal Society.

Browne's other important literary and philosophical works include the companion essays Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, which were published together in 1658. The first, which displays his antiquarian interests, is a meditation on death and decay prompted by the unearthing of ancient burial urns near Norwich. The second is an exploration of the "mystical mathematics" of the number five manifested in human designs and botanical life and reveals Browne's abiding Platonic belief that the visible world is but an image of an invisible order. He thought that the quintessence of human identity lies in living a sort of amphibious existence traversing those two worlds, and he tried passionately, in an age of shifting religious and scientific worldviews, to keep the two together.

Browne was knighted by Charles II in 1671 as an honor for Norwich's most distinguished citizen. Fittingly for a man whose favorite sacred symbol was the circle, Browne's life came to a close on the date of his birth in 1682.

See also English Literature and Language ; Mathematics ; Philosophy ; Scientific Method.


Primary Source

Browne, Sir Thomas. Works. Edited by Geoffrey L. Keynes. Rev. ed., 4 vols. Chicago, 1964. The standard edition of Browne's writings.

Secondary Sources

Huntley, Frank L. Sir Thomas Browne, A Biographical and Critical Study. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1962. Classic scholarly and sympathetic treatment.

Patrides, C. A., ed. Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne: The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays. Columbia, Mo., 1982. Collection of authoritative essays from many perspectives.

Post, Jonathan F. S. Sir Thomas Browne. Boston, 1987. Good overview and analysis of Browne's life and works with an annotated bibliography.

Gordon L. Miller

Browne, Thomas

views updated May 18 2018

Browne, Thomas

(b. London, England, 19 October 1605; d. Norwich, England, 19 October 1682)

general science, natural history.

Browne’s father, Thomas, had come in early manhood from Chester to London, where he was a mercer, or silk merchant. There he married Anne Garroway of Acton, Middlesex. They lived in comfortable circumstances with their son and four daughters. The senior Browne died when his son was eight years old, but left ample means for his education. Accordingly, the boy was sent to Winchester College in 1615. William of Wykeham’s famous school was Anglican and Royalist, and provided a sound classical education that was a good foundation for the erudition acquired by Browne in later years. He remained at Winchester for eight years, until, in 1623, he proceeded to Oxford. He matriculated at Broadgates Hall, which soon afterward was upgraded to become Pembroke College. Browne, although only a freshman, was called upon to deliver a Latin oration at the inauguration ceremony.

Winchester would have afforded the boy little or no opportunity for study of the natural sciences, so it was probably during the school holidays that he began to acquire his knowledge of natural history. At Oxford a chair of anatomy had just been established in addition to several other chairs of physical sciences. Browne’s teachers included Dr. Clayton, an anatomist and Regius professor of medicine, and Dr. Thomas Lushington, a mathematician and clergyman. Clayton’s influence directed Browne’s attention to the study of medicine and human anatomy, but this could not begin seriously until he had taken his M.A. in philosophy in 1629. He then left Oxford and spent some weeks in Ireland with his stepfather, Sir Thomas Dutton, before proceeding to Montpellier for full training in medicine.

It is not known how long Browne remained in France, but his travels in several European countries cannot have occupied less than four years. He probably spent some time in Padua, but his final goal was Leiden, where he defended his thesis and received his M.D. in December 1633. During these travels he studied many subjects besides medicine, absorbing information of all kinds and acquiring knowledge of several modern languages.

English regulations required a medical man with a foreign degree to practice for four years with an established doctor before being allowed to have his M.D. by incorporation at Oxford or Cambridge. It is probable that Browne spent these years of apprenticeship somewhere in Oxfordshire, but no details are known. He took his M.D. at Oxford on 10 July 1637 and was then, at the age of thirty-two, free to practice anywhere that he chose. It was during these four years that Browne wrote his most famous book, Religio medici, which was not published until 1642. Influenced, it is believed, by his Oxford friend Dr. Lushington, Browne moved in 1637 to the East Anglia city of Norwich and established himself there as a physician. In 1641 he married Dorothy Mileham, from a neighboring village. They had twelve children, only four of whom survived their parents. Edward, the eldest son, became a well-known physician in London and was president of the College of Physicians in 1704. Browne was knighted in 1671 by King Charles II, who was visiting Norwich and wished to honor its most distinguished citizen.

Browne’s Religio medici describes the religion and philosophy of a tolerant, humorous, and latitudinarian mind. He did not, however, expose in it much of his attitude toward the rapidly expanding world of science. Yet throughout his apprenticeship and first years in Norwich he must have been reading widely in travel, philosophy, medicine, and science, and compiling the notebooks from which he quarried his next, very long book, Pseudodoxia epidemica: or, Enquiries Into Very Many Received Tenents, And Commonly Presumed Truths (1646). In this he sought to dispel popular ignorance about many matters in history, folklore, philology, science, medicine, natural history, and embryology. He was, thus, to be designated an “enquirer after truth” rather than a “scientist” (a term not yet invented), his field of inquiry being as wide as all human knowledge. He accepted the authority of William Harvey, one of the first great experimental scientists, and told a young correspondent: “Be sure you make yourself master of Dr. Harvey’s piece, De circulatione sanguinis, which discovery I prefer to that of Columbus.” Browne conducted many experiments in physics, electricity (a word of his own coining), biology, and comparative anatomy, dissecting animals, birds, fishes, reptiles, worms, and insects. He became an acknowledged authority on the plants, animals, birds, and fishes of East Anglia. Many of his experiments are mentioned in his Pseudodoxia epidemica and his letters. Others, such as investigations of bubbles, and of coagulation, freezing, and other properties of matter remained in the privacy of his notebooks.

Throughout his active life Browne lived on the fringe of the scientific world. His profession was medicine; his hobbies were science and natural history. He was an earnest amateur and never, as far as is known, left Norfolk for London. He was elected a fellow of the College of Physicians, but was never a fellow of the Royal Society of London, nor did he betray any desire for this kind of recognition. His elaborate and highly latinized prose style was very different from the much more austere style deliberately adopted by the fellows of the Royal Society. He was content to correspond with various fellows, such as Henry Oldenburg (secretary of the Society), John Ray, Christopher Merrett, and the diarist John Evelyn, and occasionally to send communications through his son Edward.

He was deeply interested in archaeology; one of his most famous books was Hydriotaphia, or, Urneburiall (1658), occasioned by the discovery of some supposed Roman (really Saxon) burial urns near Norwich. He corresponded with other eminent antiquaries, such as Sir William Dugdale, Elias Ashmole, and John Aubrey. With these manifold interests and occupations, it is not surprising that Browne is remembered as a learned man and a literary artist rather than for any important contributions to contemporary science. His qualities served to foster a general interest in science and, above all, to illuminate thought by truth concerning the material world.


I. Original Works. Browne’s works are Religio medici (pirated ed., London, 1642; 1st authorized ed., London, 1643), which also appeared in Religio medici and Other (Shorter) Works, L. C. Martin, ed. (Oxford, 1964); Pseudodoxia epidemica (London, 1646); Hydriotaphia, or, Urne-buriall (London, 1658); The Garden of Cyrus (London, 1658); Miscellany Tracts (London, 1684); A Letter to a Friend (London, 1690); Posthumous Works (London, 1712), with a biography by John Whitefoot; and Christian Morals (London, 1716), later edited, with a biography, by Samuel Johnson (London, 1756).

The following are collections of Browne’s works: The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Tenison, ed. (London, 1686); Sir Thomas Browne’s Works, Simon Wilkin, ed., 4 vols. (London, 1836), which contains much biographical and scholarly material; The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed., 6 vols. (London, 1928–1932; rev. and enl. ed., 4 vols., London, 1964), which is the standard and only complete edition and includes miscellaneous material from manuscripts and letters.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Browne are Joan Bennett, Sir Thomas Browne (Cambridge, 1962); Jeremiah Finch, Sir Thomas Browne (New York, 1950); Sir Edmund Gosse, Sir Thomas Browne (London, 1905); F. L. Huntley, Sir Thomas Browne (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1962); Sir Geoffrey Keynes, A Bibliography of Sir Thomas Browne (Cambridge, 1924; 2nd rev. ed., Oxford, 1968); and Oliver Leroy, Le chevalier Thomas Browne (Paris, 1931).

Geoffrey Keynes

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