Browne, Sir Thomas

, an eminent physician and antiquary, was born in London, in the parish of St. Michael, Cheapside, Oct. 19, 1605. His father was a | merchant, of an ancient family at Upton in Cheshire. He lost his father very early, and was defrauded by one of his guardians, by whom, however, or by his mother, who soon after his father’s death married sir Thomas Dutton, he was placed at Winchester school. In 1623 he was removed from Winchester to Oxford, and entered a gentlemancommoner of Broadgate-hall. Here he was admitted to his bachelor’s degree, Jan. 31, 1626-27, being the first person of eminence graduated from Broadgate-hall, when endowed and known as Pembroke-college. After taking his master’s degree, he turned his studies to physic, and practised it for some time in Oxfordshire, but soon afterwards, either induced by curiosity, or invited by promises, he quitted his settlement, and accompanied his father-in-law, who had some employment in Ireland, in a visitation of the forts and castles, which the state of Ireland then made necessary. From Ireland he passed into France and Italy; made some stay at Montpelier and Padua, which were then the celebrated schools of physic; and, returning home through Holland, procured himself to be created M. D. at Leyden, but when he began these travels, or when he concluded them, there is no certain account. It is, however, supposed that he returned to London in 1634, and that the following year he wrote his celebrated treatise, the “Religio Medici,” which he declares himself never to have intended for the press, having composed it only for his own exercise and entertainment. He had, however, communicated it to his friends, and by some means a copy was given to a printer in 1642, and was no sooner published than it excited the attention of the public by the novelty of paradoxes, the dignity of sentiment, the quick succession of images, the multitude of abstruse allusions, the subtlety of disquisition, and the strength of language.

The earl of Dorset recommended this book to the perusal of sir Kenelm Digby, who returned his judgment upon it, not in a letter, but in a book; in which, though mingled with some positions fabulous and uncertain, there are acute remarks, just censures, and profound speculations, yet its principal claim to admiration is, that it was written in twenty-four hours, of which part was spent in procuring Browne’s book, and part in reading it. This induced sir Thomas to publish a more correct edition of his work, which had great success. A Mr. Merryweather | of Cambridge, turned it, not inelegantly, into Latin, and from his version it was again translated into Italian, German, Dutch, and French, and at Strasburgh the Latin translation was published with large notes, by Lenuus Nicolaus Moltfarius. Of the English annotations, which, in all the editions from 1644, accompany the book, the author is unknown. Merryweather, we are told, had some difficulty in getting his translation printed in Holland. The first printer to whom he offered it carried it to Salmasius, “who laid it by (says he) in state for three months,” and then discouraged its publication: it was afterwards rejected by two other printers, and at last was received by Hackius. The peculiarities of the book raised the author, as is usual, many admirers and many enemies; but we know not of more than one professed answer, written under the title of “Medicus Ivledicatus,” by Alexander Ross, which was universally neglected by the world. Abroad it was animadverted upon as having an irreligious tendency, by Guy Patin, by Tobias Wagner, by Muller, Reiser, and Buddeus, and w&s put into the Index Expurgatorius. At present it will probably be thought that it was both too much applauded and too much censured, and that it would have been a more useful book had the author’s fancy been more guided by judgment.

At the time when this book was published, Dr. Browne resided at Norwich, where he had settled in 1636, by the persuasion of Dr. Lushington, his tutor, who was then rector of Barnham Westgate, in the neighbourhood. It is recorded by Wood, that his practice was very extensive. In 1637 he was incorporated M. D, at Oxford. He married in 1641 Mrs. Mileham, of a good family in Norfolk, a lady of very amiable character. Dr. Johnson says this marriage could not but draw the raillery of contemporary wits upon a man, who had been just wishing, in his new book, “that we might procreate, like trees, without conjunction;” and had lately declared, that “the whole world was made for man, but only the twelfth part of man for woman,” and that “man is the whole world, but woman only the rib or crooked part of man.” They lived happily, however, together for forty-one years, during which she bore him ten children, of whom one son and three daughters outlived their parents. She survived him two years.

In 1646, he printed “Enquiries into vulgar and common Errors,” small folio, a work, says his biographer, | which, as it arose not from fancy and invention, but from observation and books, and contained not a single discourse of one continued tenor, but an enumeration of many unconnected particulars, must have been the collection of years, and the effect of a design early formed, and long pursued. It is, indeed, adds the same writer, to be wished, that he had longer delayed the publication, and added what the remaining part of his life might have furnished. He published in 1673 the sixth edition, with some improvements. This book, like his former, was received with great applause, was answered by Alexander Koss, and translated into Dutch and German, and afterwards into French. It might, Dr. Johnson thinks, now be proper to reprint it with notes, partly supplemental and partly emendatory, to subjoin those discoveries which the industry of the last age has made, and correct those mistakes which the author has committed, not by idleness or negligence, but for want of Boyle’s and Newton’s philosophy.

The reputation of Browne encouraged some low writer to publish, under his name, a book called “Nature’s cabinet unlocked,” translated, according to Wood, from the physics of Magirus, but Browne advertised against it. In 1658, the discovery of some ancient urns in Norfolk gave him occasion to write “Hydriotaphia, Urn -burial, or a discourse of Sepulchral Urns,” 8vo, in which he treats with his usual learning, on the funeral rites of the ancient nations; exhibits their various treatment of the dead; and examines the substances found in these Norfolk urns. There is, perhaps, none -of his works which better exemplifies his reading or memory. To this treatise was added “The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunxial lozenge, or net-work plantation of the ancients, artificially, naturally, mystically considered.” This is a more fanciful performance than the other, but still it exhibits the fancy of a man of learning. Besides these, he left some papers prepared for the press, of which two collections have been published, the first by Dr. Thomas Tennison, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, in 1684, 8vo, entitled, “A Collection of Miscellaneous Tracts,” and these, with what had been published in his life-time, were printed in one vol. fol. in 1686. In 1690 his son, Dr. Edward Browne, of whom we have already spoken, published a single tract, entitled “A Letter to a friend upon occasion of the death | of his intimate friend,” 8vo. The second collection was of the “Posthumous Works,” edited in 1722 by Owen Brigstock, esq. his grandson by marriage.

To the life of this learned man, there remains little to be added, but that in 1665 he was chosen honorary fellow of the college of physicians; and in 1671, received at Norwich the honour of knighthood from Charles II. In his seventy-sixth year, he was seized with a colic, which, aftet having tortured him about a week, put an end to his life at Norwich, Oct. 19, 1682. Some of his last words were expressions of submission to the will of God, and fearlessness of death. He was buried in the church of St. Peter, Mancroft, in Norwich, with a Latin inscription on a mural monument.

In 1716 there appeared a book of his in 12mo, entitled “Christian Morals,” published from the original and correct manuscript of the author, by John Jeffery, D. D. archdeacon of Norwich. It was dedicated by our author’s daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Littleton, to David, earl of Buchan. Of this a second edition was published in 1756 by Mr. John Payne, bookseller, and one of Dr. Johnson’s early patrons, who solicited him to write a life of sir Thomas. This, of which we have availed ourselves in the preceding account, may be classed among Dr. Johnson’s best biographical performances, and the present article may be very properly concluded with his character of Browne’s works. After mentioning the various writers who have noticed Browne, he adds, “But it is not on the praises of others, but on his own writings, that he is to depend for the esteem of posterity; of which he will not easily be deprived, while learning shall have any reverence among men: for there is no science in which he does not discover some skill; and scarce any kind of knowledge, profane or sacred, abstruse or elegant, which he does not appear to have cultivated with success. His exuberance of knowledge, and plenitude of ideas, sometimes obstruct the tendency of his reasoning, and the clearness of his decisions: on whatever subject he employed his mind, there started up immediately so many images before him, that he lost one by grasping another. His memory supplied him with so many illustrations, parallel or dependent notions, that he was always starting into collateral considerations: but the spirit and vigour of his pursuit always gives delight; and the reader follows him, without reluctance, through his mazes, | in themselves flowery and pleasing, and ending at the point originally in view. To have great excellencies, and great faults, ‘ magn<e virtutes nee minora vitia, is the poesy/ says our author, l of the best natures.’ This poesy may be properly applied to the style of Browne: it is vigorous, but rugged; it is learned, but pedantic; it is deep, but obscure; it strikes, but does not please; it commands, but does not allure; his tropes are harsh, and his combinations uncouth. He fell into an age, in which our language began to lose the stability which it had obtained in the time of Elizabeth; and was considered by every writer as a subject on which he might try his plastic skill, by moulding it according to his own fancy. Milton, in consequence of this encroaching licence, began to introduce the Latin idiom; and Browne, though he gave less disturbance to our structures and phraseology, yet poured in a multitude of exotic words; many, indeed, useful and significant, which, if rejected, must be supplied by circumlocution, such as commensality for the state of many living at the same table; but many superfluous, as a paralogical for an unreasonable doubt; and some so obscure, that they conceal his meaning rather than explain it, as arthriticai analogies for parts that serve some animals in the place of joints. His style is, indeed, a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. He must, however, be confessed to have augmented our philosophical diction; and in defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express in many words that idea for which any language could supply a single term. But his innovations are sometimes pleasing, and his temerities happy: he has many verba ardentia, forcible expressions, which he would never have found, but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and flights which would never have been reached, but by one who had very little fear of the shame of falling.

The last thing which Dr. Johnson has done, in his life of

sir Thomas Browne, is to vindicate him from the charge of infidelity; and haviilg fully shewn the falsity of this accusation, the ingenious biographer concludes in the following words: “The opinions of every man must be | learned from himself: concerning his practice, it is safest to trust the evidence of others. Where these testimonies concur, no higher degree of historical certainty can be obtained; and they apparently concur to prove, that Browne was a zealous adherent to the faith of Christ, that he lived in obedience to his laws, and died in confidence of his mercy.1


Life by Dr. Johnson. Biog. Brit. —Ath. Ox. vol. II. Watson’s Halifax, p. 458.