THOMAS BROWNE was a native of London; he was born in Cheapside in 1605, the son of a silk merchant from Cheshire. He studied medicine at Oxford, and later went on to several European universities, obtaining his final qualification from Leiden in 1633. He came to Norwich in 1637 and remained there as a physician for the rest of his life.
He was not a great practical scientist, even in his chen field of medicine, but he was the foremost scientific writer of the 17th century. His introduction of the word ‘electricity’ to describe the developing study of the effects of static is probably his most important contribution to the world, but other coinages like hallucination, cryptography and incontrovertible have become part of the fabric of the English language. As a physician he is more important for his contribution to the vocabulary of medicine than for any medical advances he advocated; the word pathology is one of his neologisms, as indeed is the word medical itself. The state of knowledge in the sciences was just about to explode; Isaac Newton was already working on his great advances, although he did not publish his ground breaking works until after Browne’s death. It was the older man’s sceptical methodology which marks him out as a truly modern thinker.
It was for his opinions on religion that he was first read, and these form the basis of his book Religio Medici (in English the Religion of a Doctor). The scientific discoveries of the Renaissance were throwing up all sorts of uncomfortable questions for traditional theology, and was these that he addressed in this work. This circulated widely in manuscript during the 1630s, and a pirated copy was published in 1642. His own version, which had the more controversial elements of the privately circulated copy removed, was published a year later. His view of the unhistorical nature of the story of Noah’s Ark was influenced by the then recent discovery of the New World. No North American beasts were present among the animals that disembarked on Mount Ararat, and this gave him pause for thought.
Like all his contemporaries, he believed in witches and magic, and the evidence he gave in 1662 to the trial in Bury St Edmunds of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny may have helped the prosecution in convicting the women of witchcraft and their subsequent execution. It is a fact that these so-called ‘witches’ also undoubtedly believed in witchcraft, although they were (in most cases) probably convinced of their own innocence of the charge. It is nevertheless a blot on the memory of a man who was an advanced and modern thinker in most of his opinions.
A work called Notes and Letters on the Natural History of Norfolk was published by Jarrold’s in 1902, based on Browne’s manuscripts. It shows the inquisitive nature of the physician’s mind that such a book could be compiled. It deals with fishes and paricularly the birds he saw as he travelled the count. He gives the first known reference to many of the birds associated with the county, and to those that have since disappeared. The Great Bustard was frequently seen and heard in the Fenlands of Norfolk in the 17th century, and was (according to Browne) deemed a ‘dainty dish’; so much so that by 1832 it became extinct in England, when the last one was shot. It has only been reintroduced from Europe in recent years. Writing before Linnaeus introduced the binomial nomenclature method of defining the species of the natural world, it is sometimes not obvious what bird Browne is referring to, but the ‘woodspeck’ is clearly the woodpecker. Browne recounts specimens recovered from Horsey mere in North Norfolk and Thetford Heath near the Suffolk border, showing that his interest ranged widely across the county.
In Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) Browne dealt with the Vulgar Errors commonly believed in the 17th century. He used three ways of determining the truth – past authorities, reason and experience. Book Three treats the common misconceptions concerning the Animal Kingdom. On the existence of the unicorn for example he used reason to demonstrate that the position of its horn would make it impossible for the animal to eat. The similar horns of the rhinoceros and narwhal do not have this feature, and Browne accepts these beasts as genuine. In all three instances he was absolutely right, although his other methodology of empirical observation was not available to him in Norwich. None of these beast had ever been found in Norfolk.
He was knighted in 1672 by King Charles II on his visit to Norwich. Sir Thomas Browne continued to practise medicine in Norwich until his death aged nearly 80.
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