Prichard, James Cowles

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(b. Ross, Herefordshire. England. 11 February 1786; d. London, England, 22 December 1848)

anthropology, natural history, linguistics.

Prichard was the eldest of four children born to Thomas and Mary Prichard. His early schooling was conducted at home by his father, and by tutors. He displayed a precocity in languages that was further stimulated when the family moved to Bristol, a cosmopolitan port. Prichard later dated his interest in anthropology to this period.

In 1802 Prichard began his apprenticeship in medicine (the only profession readily accessible to Dissenters) under Thomas Pole of Bristol and then under Robert Pope and William Tothill of Staines, all prominent Quakers. In 1805 he attended lectures at Saint Thomas’ Hospital, London, and in the summer of 1806 entered the Medical Faculty of the University of Edinburgh, then at the peak of its renown. At Edinburgh he met weekly with members of a private debating society, the Azygotic, in which anthropological topics were often discussed..In addition to medical courses, he attended Dugald Stewart’ lectures on moral philosophy; and it was a remark in one of these that stimulated Prichard, in 1808, to devote his medical dissertation to human races. This short monograph was later expanded into his Researches Into the Physical History of Mankind, a monumental work which, in its third edition, comprised five lengthy volumes and remained a major reference work in anthropology into the 1870’. Having received his M.D., Prichard studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and, after converting to the Church of England (from Quakerism), at Saint John’ and Trinity colleges, Oxford. In 1811 he became physician to Saint Peter’s Hospital, Bristol, and in 1814 to the Bristol Infirmary; he also developed a substantial private practice, Priehard was a pioneer in the “moral” treatment of insanity, a subject on which he wrote several influential books.

In 1811 Prichard married Anne Maria Estlin, whose father was a friend of Coleridge, Priestley, and Southey. Prichard’s home was a center of intellectual life in Bristol and attracted many eminent visitors. In 1835 he received an honorary doctorate from Oxford and in 1845 was appointed a commissioner of lunacy in London. He was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1827) and served as president of the Ethnological Society of London (1847-1848).

Prichard wrote that his anthropological interests were first aroused by hearing a challenge to the Scripture regarding the single origin of human races. Although he was convinced of single origin, he was unable to believe that racial differences were caused by the direct action of environmental factors, as maintained by Buffon, Blumenbach, and other authorities. In his medical dissertation he argued that changes due to external factors affect only the individual and are not transmitted to the next generation. The origin of races, and of animal and plant varieties in general, he attributed instead to the accumulation of what he called “connate” variations, which appeared for unknown reasons in the ovum or germ of the parents and which were invariably transmitted to the offspring. He supported this claim by cases from the medical literature (including albinism and other hereditary skin conditions) and by the accomplishments of animal and by the accomplishments of animal breeders. Prichard had thus sketched a position similar to that upon which Darwin later based his theory of natural selection.

In successive expansions of his dissertation. Prichard elaborated his theory of connate variations, although he equivocated increasingly about the role of external conditions, in 1813 he introduced John Hunter’s view that civilization (or domestication, in the case of animals) conduced to the appearance of lighter coloration and proposed that racial differences were due to varying progress from an originally dark, uncivilized stock; In 1826 he abandoned this view but was pressed, because of evidence of racial adaptation, to acknowledge a factor in the environment that produced variants, which were able to survive in specific regions. Prichard recognized the inconsistency in his position but was unable to resolve it; and in the final version of his work on races, published from 1836 to 1847, he omitted the discussion of heredity, variation, and race formation. Since this was the edition read by most scientists, including Darwin, Prichard’s direct influence on thinking about these topics was probably minor. Indirectly, however, he did have an effect; William Lawrence drew extensively upon the 1808 dissertation in his much-reprinted and influential Lectures on Physiology, Zoology and the Natural History of Man (London, 1819).

In the study of geographical distribution, Prichard’s influence was more immediate. He addressed this topic, from 1813, in order to establish that if man is a single species, in the sense of having no “constant and perpetual” racial differences, then he is likely to be descended from a single original stock. Taking this point for granted was a fallacy for which Buffon had been criticized. Prichard assembled masses of evidence to show that every species is either isolated in the region of its origin or is spread only over regions across which plausible courses of migration (either now or in the past) can be charted. Finding such localization to be the rule, rather than the exception, he concluded that man, if a single species, must have originated in a single place and, therefore, most likely from a single stock. Contemporary scientists, including Lyell and Swainson, cited Prichard’s evidence together with Candolle’s and gave his work the highest praise.

Prichard’s greatest influence was as an anthropologist. In his effort to show mankind to be a single species, he compiled evidence in four different fields. First, he examined physiological and psychological characters of races; indeed, he was one of the first to conceive the possibility of a comparative psychology. Second, he sought examples of stable populations formed by racial hybridization. Third, he followed Blumenbach in comparing racial anatomy, endeavoring to show racial variation comparable to variation within accepted animal species. Fourth, he conducted what he called his “ethnographical investigation,” in which he surveyed the entire world, country by country, assembling not only physical descriptions but also linguistic and cultural evidence of connections among races. The first three of these investigations were fairly rapidly superseded by the work of others. The fourth, however, which was quite original in the context of race theory, had a more lasting usefulness. Prichard was increasingly convinced, as his work proceeded, that cultural and linguistic “artifacts” were the surest index to the history of races. He therefore devoted four volumes to such material in the third edition of Researches, as well as two more specialized treatises, An Analysis of the Egyptian Mythology (London, 1819; second edition, London, 1838) and Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations (London, 1831). (In the latter work, he anticipated Adolphe Pictet in arguing for the Indo-European character of the Celtic languages.) These studies, which had their roots in the British antiquarian tradition, were given serious although somewhat grudging attention by German historical linguists and students of mythology, and were later praised by E. B. Tylor.

Prichard failed to convince his successors of the single origin of mankind. Shortly after his death, the majority view of anthropologists swung definitely to the contrary position; and, somewhat later, the entire question was put on a different footing by the theory of evolution. Prichard’s methodology, which had no element of fieldwork, was also rapidly superseded- Yet, in assembling an enormous store of organized data on human populations, which even in the 1870’s Paul Topinard called the anthropologist’s vade mecum Prichard laid important groundwork for later research.


I. Original Works. Prichard’s ideas are best illustrated in “Disputatio inauguralis de generis humani varietate” (M.D. diss., Univ. of Edinburgh, 1808) and the three eds. of Researches into the Physical History of Mankind(London, 1813; 2nd ed., 1826; 3rd ed., 1836-1847); the first ed, has the word Man rather than Mankind. The first vol. of the third ed. was reissued with the legend, “Fourth Edition,“but the actual fourth ed.(1851), edited by W. Norris, had nothing new by Prichard himself. See also his more popular Natural History of Man (London,1843) and his Anniversary Addresses to the Ethnological Society of London in Journal of the Ethnological Society.1 (1846-1848), 301-329, and 2 (1848-1850), 119 149. In another context, his Review of the Doctrine of a Vital Principle (London, 1829) has some significance. Prichard also wrote several books on medical topics, mostly on insanity, and numerous scattered articles and reviews, Note also the references in the text.

II. Secondary Literature. The major source of information is an obituary by Thomas Hodgkin, in Journal of the Ethnological Society, 2 (1848-1850), 182 207, to which a few details are added by John Addington Symonds’ memoir of March 1849, reprinted in his Miscellanies (London, 1871), 116-144. Other obituaries (e.g., that of the Royal Society) add nothing. See also Isabel Southal, Memorials of the Prichards of Almeley and their Descendants, 2nd ed. (Birmingham. 1901). The major treatment of his biological ideas has long been E. B. Poulton, “A Remarkable Anticipation of Modern Views on Evolution,” in Science Progress, n.s. 1 (1897), 278-296; this is now largely superseded by George Stocking’s introductory essay to the reprint of Researches into the Physical History of Man (Chicago. 1973), which also gives an extended treatment of Prichard’s ethnological work. For Prichard’s influence on Lawrence, see Kentwood D. Wells, “Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867). A Study of Pre-Darwinian Ideas on Heredity and Variation,” in Journal of the History of Biology, 4 (1971). 319-361.

Herbert H. Odom