Thurnam, John

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(b, Lingcroft, near York, England, 28 December 1810; d. Devizes, England, 24 September 1873), psychiatric medicine, anthropology.

Thurnam, as the son of a Quaker family, had a characteristically thorough early education. Subsequently, he studied medicine and received his first qualification in 1834. His relevant medical appointments were as medical superintendent at the celebrated asylum the Retreat, at York, between 1839 and 1849, and thereafter at the Wiltshire County Asylum, Devizes.

Thurnam’s activities in psychiatry and anthropology mirrored widespread current interest in these subjects, and his studies were a powerful stimulus at the time, even if they are rarely remembered today. In medicine his most important work was Observations and Essays on the Statistics of Insanity (London, 1845), which played an immensely important role in the application of statistics to psychiatry. At a period when nonrestraint care was being generally introduced into asylums, when many clinical investigations were being made into psychiatric illnesses, and when numerous new drugs were being tried (at least in the 1860’s), a statistical approach to results was essential for making assessments. Thurnam also recognized that such statistical information had to be standardized, and he devised a questionnaire for use at the Retreat. Thurnam contributed to the growing professional organization within psychiatric medicine, using such organization to promote his ideas and his standard questionnaire. He was an original member (1841) of the Medico-Psychological Association and president in 1844 and 1855. The success of Thurnam’s work can be seen in innumerable publications, as, for example, W. C. Hood, Statistics of Insanity (London, 1855), while in 1882 Daniel Hack Tuke spoke of his work as “a Pharos to guide those who sail on waters where many are shipwrecked” (Chapters in the History of the Insane [London, 1882], 492).

Of his work in anthropology, Thurnam was concerned mostly with the study of skulls, his notable contribution being his co-editorship of Crania Britannica (1865).


I. Original Works. The full title of Thurnam’s celebrated work on statistics is Observations and Essays on the Statistics of Insanity, and on Establishments for the Insane; to Which Are Added the Statistics of the Retreat Near York (London, 1845). It superseded an earlier work, The Statistics of the Retreat; Consisting of a Report and Tables Exhibiting the Experience of That Institution for the Insane From its Establishment in 1796 to 1840 (York, 1841).

Much of Thurnam“s significant anthropological work appeared in the 1860’s, notably his work with Crania Britannica. Delineations and Descriptions of the Skulls of the Early Inhabitants of the British Islands (London, 1865).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no modern study of Thurnam, although he is remembered in R. Hunter and I. Macalpine, Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, 1535–1860 (London, 1963), 941–945. For useful notices see Medical Times and Gazette, 2 (1873), 479; and Dictionary of National Biography, 19 (1909), 831–832.

J. K. Crellin

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Thurnam, John

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