October 19, 1605 — An incredible memorial stands in the main shopping street of one of England’s finest rural cities to commemorate philosopher and writer Sir Thomas Browne who was born on this day. It is a large reproduction of his brain. Children climb over it and weary shoppers use it as a seat when they need a rest.
Of those who do so, how many have actually heard of Sir Thomas or know any of his works is open to question. But in 2005 the local authority in the city of Norwich commissioned a sculpture in honour of Browne who had lived there for most of his life. The oversized marble brain was the result. It is located near where Browne’s magnificent house once stood, the land now occupied by shops.
Sir Thomas Browne’s real brain – or at least the skull that contained it – has an unfortunate history. After he died on his 77th birthday in 1682 he was buried in the chancel of the local church.
But in 1840 workmen carrying out renovations accidentally broke open his lead coffin. The church’s un-Christian sexton took the skull and tried to sell it, a buyer eventually being found in the shape of Edward Lubbock, a surgeon. He wanted it for his collection of curiosities.
When Lubbock died the skull was handed over to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum, and that’s where it remained until 1922 when it was reinterred in Browne’s church grave. The burial register recorded an age of 317 years.
Perhaps Sir Thomas had something of a premonition when he wrote three centuries earlier: “To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking bowls and our bones turned into pipes is a Tragical abomination”.
Much revered by academics for the originality of his prolific output, Sir Thomas nevertheless remains unknown to the average person in the street.
Perhaps hoping to change that, in 2019 the BBC broadcast a radio programme in which three academics discussed the life and work of Sir Thomas Browne. Presenter Melvyn Bragg introduced him as “a medical doctor whose curious mind drew him to explore and confess his own religious views, challenge myths and errors in science and consider how humans respond to the transience of life.”
Sir Thomas produced three major works, all with Latin titles: Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician); Pseudodoxia Epidemica, in which he tried to correct many popular beliefs and superstitions; and Urn Burial, a study into the burial rites and funerary customs of Western cultures through history.
Bragg commented: “His Religio Medici became famous throughout Europe and his openness about his religion, in that work, was noted as rare when others either kept quiet or professed orthodox views.
“His Pseudodoxia Epidemica challenged popular ideas, whether about the existence of mermaids or if Adam had a navel! – and his Urn Burial was a meditation on what matters to humans when handling the dead.”
Browne was born in London, graduated from Oxford University in 1627, then studied medicine before receiving a medical degree in 1633. He settled in Norwich in 1637 – then England’s second city after London – and practised medicine there for the rest of his life.
He married local girl Dorothy Mileham in 1641 and together they produced ten children, six of whom died before their parents. Despite producing a large family the process of doing so apparently repelled Browne. He wrote: “I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar act of coition.
“It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there anything that will more deject his cooled imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed.”
Like William Shakespeare, Browne would simply invent a word if one did not already exist to express what he wanted to say. The Oxford English Dictionary has 4,131 entries giving Browne’s work as the first evidence of a word.
They include: approximate, ambidextrous, coma, computer, disruption, ferocious, gymnastic, hallucination, holocaust, medical, migrant, suicide, insecurity, locomotion, ultimate, precocious, coexistence, and electricity.
He defined electricity as “a tenuous emanation or continued effluvium, which after some distance retracteth into itself”.
One of the academics appearing on Melvyn Bragg’s programme was Claire Preston, Professor of Renaissance Literature at Queen Mary University of London. He asked her: “Could you give us a sentence or two giving an example of his style?”
She thought and responded: “But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.
“Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any that stand remembered in the known account of time?
“Without the favour of the everlasting register, the first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuselah’s long life had been his only chronicle.”
Professor Preston commented: “Isn’t that wonderful? In all of Browne, that’s my favourite passage. All Browne is there in what he is doing and it sums up his most gorgeous style.”
In 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote: “Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth.”
Clearly, a man whose brain should be held in high esteem . . .
Published: September 19, 2020