Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne (/brn/; 19 October 1605 – 19 October 1682) was an English polymath and author of varied works which reveal his wide learning in diverse fields including science and medicine, religion and the esoteric. His writings display a deep curiosity towards the natural world, influenced by the scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry and are permeated by references to Classical and Biblical sources as well as the idiosyncrasies of his own personality. Although often described as suffused with melancholia, Browne's writings are also characterised by wit and subtle humour, while his literary style is varied, according to genre, resulting in a rich, unique prose which ranges from rough notebook observations to polished Baroque eloquence.

Thomas Browne
Sir Thomas Browne by Joan Carlile.jpg
Sir Thomas Browne (c. 1641–1650),
attributed to Joan Carlile
Born19 October 1605
London, England
Died19 October 1682(1682-10-19) (aged 77)
Norwich, England
Alma materWinchester College, Pembroke College, Oxford, University of Padua, University of Leiden
Known forReligio Medici, Urne-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Christian Morals


Early lifeEdit

Thomas Browne was born in the parish of St Michael, Cheapside, in London on 19 October 1605, the youngest child—having an elder brother and two elder sisters—of Thomas Browne, a silk merchant from Upton, Cheshire, and Anne Browne, the daughter of Paul Garraway of Lewes, Sussex.[1][2] The family lived at Upton for several generations, "evidently people of some importance" who "intermarried with families of position in that neighbourhood", and were armigerous. Browne's paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, was daughter of Henry Birkenhead, Clerk of the Green Cloth to Elizabeth I of England and Clerk of the Crown for the counties of Cheshire and Flintshire.[3] Browne's father died while he was young, and his mother married Sir Thomas Dutton of Gloucester and Isleworth, Middlesex, by whom she had two daughters.[4]

Browne was educated at Winchester College.[5] In 1623, he went to Broadgates Hall of Oxford University. Browne was chosen to deliver the undergraduate oration when the hall was incorporated as Pembroke College in August 1624. He graduated from Oxford in January 1627, after which he studied medicine at Padua and Montpellier universities, completing his studies at Leiden, where he received a medical degree in 1633. He settled in Norwich in 1637 and practised medicine there until his death in 1682.[6][7] In 1641, Browne married Dorothy Mileham of Burlingham St Peter, Norfolk. They had 10 children, six of whom died before their parents.[citation needed]

Literary worksEdit

Browne's first literary work was Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) which was circulated as a manuscript among his friends. It surprised him when an unauthorised edition appeared in 1642, since the work included several unorthodox religious speculations. An authorised text appeared in 1643, with some of the more controversial views removed. The expurgation did not end the controversy: in 1645, Alexander Ross attacked Religio Medici in his Medicus Medicatus (The Doctor, Doctored) and, in common with much Protestant literature, the book was placed upon the Papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum in the same year.[8][page needed]

In 1646 Browne published his encyclopaedia, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenents, and commonly Presumed Truths, the title of which refers to the prevalence of false beliefs and "vulgar errors". A sceptical work that debunks a number of legends circulating at the time in a methodical and witty manner, it displays the Baconian side of Browne—the side that was unafraid of what at the time was still called "the new learning". The book is significant in the history of science because it promoted an awareness of up-to-date scientific journalism.

Browne's last publication during his lifetime were two philosophical Discourses which are closely related to each other in concept. The first, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (1658), inspired by the discovery of some 40 to 50 Anglo-Saxon pots in Norfolk,[9] resulted in a literary meditation upon death, the funerary customs of the world and the ephemerality of fame. The other discourse in the diptych is antithetical in style, subject-matter and imagery. The Garden of Cyrus, or The Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered (1658) features the quincunx which is used by Browne to demonstrate evidence of the Platonic forms in art and nature.[10][page needed]

Later life and knighthoodEdit

An illustration of Sir Thomas Browne's house in Norwich

In Religio Medici, Browne confirmed his belief, in accordance with the vast majority of seventeenth century European society, in the existence of angels and witchcraft. He attended the 1662 Bury St Edmunds witch trial,[11] where his citation of a similar trial in Denmark may have influenced the jury's minds of the guilt of two accused women,[12] who were subsequently executed for witchcraft.[13]

In 1671 King Charles II, accompanied by the Court, visited Norwich. The courtier John Evelyn, who had occasionally corresponded with Browne, took good use of the royal visit to call upon "the learned doctor" of European fame and wrote of his visit, "His whole house and garden is a paradise and Cabinet of rarities and that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things".[14][page needed]

During his visit, Charles visited Browne's home. A banquet was held in St Andrew's Hall for the royal visit. Obliged to honour a notable local, the name of the Mayor of Norwich was proposed to the King for knighthood. The Mayor, however, declined the honour and proposed Browne's name instead.[15][page needed]

Death and aftermathEdit

Sir Thomas Browne's will, dated 2 December 1679

Browne died on 19 October 1682, his 77th birthday, and was buried in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich. His skull was removed when his lead coffin was accidentally re-opened by workmen in 1840. It was not re-interred in St Peter Mancroft until 4 July 1922 when it was recorded in the burial register as aged 317 years.[16][page needed] Browne's coffin plate, which was stolen the same time as his skull, was also eventually recovered, broken into two halves, one of which is on display at St Peter Mancroft. Alluding to the commonplace opus of alchemy it reads, Amplissimus Vir Dns. Thomas Browne, Miles, Medicinae Dr., Annos Natus 77 Denatus 19 Die mensis Octobris, Anno. Dni. 1682, hoc Loculo indormiens. Corporis Spagyrici pulvere plumbum in aurum Convertit. — translated from Latin as "The esteemed Gentleman Thomas Browne, Knight, Doctor of Medicine, 77 years old, died on the 19th of October in the year of Our Lord 1682 and lies sleeping in this coffin. With the dust of his alchemical body he converts lead into gold".[citation needed] The origin of the invented word spagyrici is from the Greek spao to tear open + ageiro to collect, a signature neologism coined by Paracelsus to define his medicine-oriented alchemy; the origins of iatrochemistry, being first advanced by him.[17]

Browne's coffin-plate verse, along with the collected works of Paracelsus and several followers of the Swiss physician listed in his library, are evidence that although sometimes highly critical of Paracelsus, nevertheless, like the 'Luther of Medicine', he believed in palingenesis, physiognomy, alchemy, astrology and the kabbalah.[18][page needed]

The Library of Sir Thomas Browne was held in the care of his eldest son Edward until 1708. The auction of Browne and his son Edward's libraries in January 1711 was attended by Hans Sloane. Editions from the library were subsequently included in the founding collection of the British Library.[19]


On 14 March 1673, Browne sent a short autobiography to the antiquarian John Aubrey, presumably for Aubrey's collection of Brief Lives, which provides an introduction to his life and writings.

...I was born in St Michael's Cheap in London, went to school at Winchester College, then went to Oxford, spent some years in foreign parts, was admitted to be a Socius Honorarius of the College of Physicians in London, Knighted September 1671, when the King Charles II, the Queen and Court came to Norwich. Writ Religio Medici in English, which was since translated into Latin, French, Italian, High and Low Dutch, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Common and Vulgar Errors translated into Dutch four or five years ago. Hydriotaphia, or Urn Buriall. Hortus Cyri, or de Quincunce. Have some miscellaneous tracts which may be published...(Letters 376)[20]

Literary influenceEdit

Title page of 1658 edition of Urn-Burial together with The Garden of Cyrus

Browne is widely considered one of the most original writers in the English language. The freshness and ingenuity of his mind invested everything he touched with interest; while on more important subjects his style, if frequently ornate and Latinate, often rises to the highest pitch of stately eloquence. He has a paradoxical and ambiguous place in the history of ideas, as equally, a devout Christian, a promoter of the new inductive science, and an adherent of ancient esoteric learning. For these reasons, one literary critic succinctly assessed him as "an instance of scientific reason lit up by mysticism in the Church of England".[21] However, the complexity of Browne's labyrinthine thought processes, his highly stylised language, along with his many allusions to Biblical, Classical and contemporary learning, along with esoteric authors, are each contributing factors for why he remains obscure, little-read, and, thus, misunderstood.[22]

Browne appears at No. 69 in the Oxford English Dictionary's list of top cited sources. He has 775 entries in the OED of first usage of a word, is quoted in a total of 4131 entries of first evidence of a word, and is quoted 1596 times as first evidence of a particular meaning of a word. Examples of his coinages, many of which are of a scientific or medical nature, include 'ambidextrous', 'antediluvian', 'analogous', 'approximate', 'ascetic', 'anomalous', 'carnivorous', 'coexistence', 'coma', 'compensate', 'computer', 'cryptography', 'cylindrical', 'disruption', 'ergotisms', 'electricity', 'exhaustion', 'ferocious', 'follicle', 'generator', 'gymnastic', 'hallucination', 'herbaceous', 'holocaust', 'insecurity', 'indigenous', 'jocularity', 'literary', 'locomotion', 'medical', 'migrant', 'mucous', 'prairie', 'prostate', 'polarity', 'precocious', 'pubescent', 'therapeutic', 'suicide', 'ulterior', 'ultimate' and 'veterinarian'.[23][24]

The influence of his literary style spans four centuries.

  • In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, who shared Browne's love of the Latinate, wrote a brief Life in which he praised Browne as a faithful Christian and assessed his prose thus:

"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".[25][page needed]

In the 20th century those who have admired Browne include:

Those that hold that all things are governed by Fortune had not erred, had they not persisted there.

— Sir Thomas Browne
  • The English author Virginia Woolf wrote two short essays about him, observing in 1923, "Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth."[29][page needed]
  • The theosophist Madame Blavatsky.[30]
  • The Scottish psychologist R. D. Laing, who opens his work The Politics of Experience with a quotation by him : " thus is man that great and true Amphibian whose nature is disposed to live not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds."[31]
  • The composer William Alwyn wrote a symphony in 1973 based upon the rhythmical cadences of Browne's literary work Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial.[32]
  • The American author Armistead Maupin includes a quote from Religio Medici in the preface to the third in his Tales of the City novels, Further Tales of the City, first published in 1982.
  • The Canadian physician William Osler (1849–1919), the "founding father of modern medicine", was a well-read admirer of Browne.[33][34][35]
  • The German author W. G. Sebald wrote of Browne in his semi-autobiographical novel The Rings of Saturn (1995).[36]
  • The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges alluded to Browne throughout his literary writings, from his first publication, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) until his last years. He described Browne as "the best prose writer in the English language".[citation needed] Such was his admiration of Browne as a literary stylist and thinker that late in his life (Interview 25 April 1980) he stated of himself, alluding to his self-portrait in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940):[37]

I am merely a word for Chesterton, for Kafka, and Sir Thomas Browne — I love him. I translated him into 17th century Spanish and it worked very well. We took a chapter out of Urne Buriall and we did that into Quevedo's Spanish and it went very well.[37]

  • In his short story "The Celestial Omnibus", published in 1911, E. M. Forster makes Browne the first "driver" that the young protagonist encounters on the magical omnibus line that transports its passengers to a place of direct experience of the aesthetic sublime reserved for those who internalise the experience of poetry, as opposed to those who merely acquire familiarity with literary works for snobbish prestige.[38] The story is an allegory about true appreciation of poetry and literature versus pedantry.
  • In North Towards Homeì, Willie Morris quotes Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial from memory as he walks up Park Avenue with William Styron: "'And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt, whether thus to live were to die; since our longest sun sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness and have our light in ashes...' At that instant I was almost clipped by a taxicab, and the driver stuck his head out and yelled, 'Aincha got eyes in that head, ya bum?'"[39]

One of my favourite early ornithologists is best known among birders for his account of the birds of Norfolk in the mid 1600s. For me it is also as a demolisher of fake news that I love Sir Thomas Browne. Living in the mid 1600s at the start of the scientific revolution Browne sought to disprove some of the nonsense and folklore about birds — vulgar errors, as he called them.

  • Clive James included an essay on Browne in his Cultural Amnesia collection. James celebrated Browne's style and originality, stating that Browne was "minting new coin" with everything he wrote.
  • Tony Kushner's play Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Doctor Browne (written in 1987, first produced in 1998) is an "epic farce" imagining Browne's last days.[42]
Statue of Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich city centre

Portraits and influence in the visual artsEdit

  • The National Portrait Gallery in London has a contemporary portrait by Joan Carlile of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife Dorothy, probably completed between 1641 and 1650.[43]
  • More recent sculptural portraits include Henry Alfred Pegram's 1905 statue of Sir Thomas contemplating with urn in Norwich. This statue occupies the central position in the Haymarket beside St Peter Mancroft, not far from the site of his house. Unveiled on 19 October 1905, it was moved from its original position in 1973.
  • In 1931 the English painter Paul Nash was invited to illustrate a book of his own choice, Nash choose Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, providing the publisher with a set of 32 illustrations to accompany Browne's Discourses. The edition was published in 1932. A pencil drawing by Nash called "Urne Buriall: Teeth, Bones and Hair" is held by Birmingham Museums Trust.
  • In 2005 a small standing figure in silver and bronze, commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Browne's birth, was sculpted by Robert Mileham.
  • In 2016 the artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell elected Browne as honorary Great-Grandfather of the North Sea Magical Realists art-movement. Simultaneously they realised in painting items taken from Browne's Musaeum Clausum in its Rarities in Pictures section. (Rodulfo # 3, Burrell # 12).


Title page of a 1646 copy of Browne's "Pseudodoxia Epidemica," or "Vulgar Errors"

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ R. H. Robbins, "Browne, Sir Thomas (1605–1682)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 accessed 16 Feb 2013
  2. ^ "Munks Roll Details for Thomas (Sir) Browne". Retrieved 30 May 2018.
  3. ^ The Pedigree of Sir Thomas Browne, Charles Williams, Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1902, p. 1
  4. ^ The Pedigree of Sir Thomas Browne, Charles Williams, Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1902, pp. 5-6
  5. ^ Breathnach, Caoimhghín S (January 2005). "Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682)". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 98 (1): 33–36. doi:10.1177/014107680509800115. PMC 1079241. PMID 15632239.
  6. ^ Mary Abbott (1996). Life Cycles in England, 1560-1720: Cradle to Grave. Psychology Press. p. 296. ISBN 9780415108430.
  7. ^ Colin Burrow (21 May 2015). "The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams – review". The Guardian.
  8. ^ J. S. Finch A doctor's Life of Faith and Science. Princeton 1950
  9. ^ "Spoilheap: Antiquities and the Art of Contemplation". British Archaeology. 176: 66. January–February 2021. ISSN 1357-4442.
  10. ^ Frank Huntley, Sir Thomas Browne : A biographical and Critical Study Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 1962
  11. ^ Bunn, Ivan. "The Lowestoft Witches". The Trial Report. Retrieved 29 December 2007.
  12. ^ Thomas, Keith (1971). Religion and the Decline of Magic – studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. London: Penguin Books. pp. 524–525. ISBN 978-0-14-013744-6.
  13. ^ Notestein, Wallace (1911). A History of Witchcraft In England from 1558 to 1718. Whitefish Montana: Kessinger Publishing Co. p. 266. ISBN 978-0-7661-7918-9.
  14. ^ The Diary of John Evelyn ed. John Eve pub. Everyman (2003)
  15. ^ Simon Wilkins Supplementary Memoir citing Francis Blomefield Sir Thomas Browne Collected Works Vol. I pub. 1836
  16. ^ Colin Dickey. The Fate of His Bones // Cabinet Magazine. Issue 28: Bones. Winter 2007/08.
  17. ^ Principe, Lawrence M. (2013). The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226103792. p. 129.
  18. ^ Manchester Guardian 19 October 1905
  19. ^ A Facsimile of the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward's Libraries. Introduction, notes and index by J.S. Finch (E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1986) Page 7
  20. ^ Preston, Claire (1995). Sir Thomas Browne: Selected Writings. Manchester: Carcanet. pp. i. ISBN 978-1-85754-690-3.
  21. ^ Sencourt R., Outflying Philosophy: A Literary Study of the Religious Element in the Poems and Letters of John Donne and in the Works of Sir Thomas Browne., Ardent Media, 1925, p. 126
  22. ^ "The physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne".
  23. ^ Denny Hilton (8 August 2012). "Sir Thomas Browne and the Oxford English Dictionary". Archived from the original on 31 January 2017. Retrieved 5 February 2020.
  24. ^ Adam Nicolson, The Century That Wrote Itself, BBC Four, 21 April 2013
  25. ^ Johnson S., "Life of Browne" in Thomas Browne's Christian Morals, London, 1765
  26. ^ Reid Barbour, Thomas Browne A Life OUP 2013
  27. ^ (quoted in the Historical Note, Elizabeth S. Foster, page 661: "He has borrowed Sir Thomas Brown[e] of me," Evert A. Duyckinck wrote his brother on 18 March 1848, "and says finely of the speculations of the Religio Medici that Browne is a kind of 'crack'd Archangel!' Was ever anything of this sort said before by a sailor?" in "Mardi and A Voyage Thither," Northwestern University Press, c. 1970, paper bound edition)
  28. ^ "Age-Old Fallacies of Thinking and Stinking", in "I Have Landed: Splashes and Reflections in Natural History"
  29. ^ review by Woolf of the Golden Cockerel edition of the Works of Sir Thomas Browne, published in Times Literary Supplement (1923)
  30. ^ Isis Unveiled 1877 vol. 1 H.P. Blavatsky p. 36
  31. ^ from Religio medici, cf. Laing R., (1967), The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 15
  32. ^ Naxos B000A17GGK Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra David Lloyd-Jones 2005
  33. ^ Segall, N (1985). "William Osler and Thomas Browne, a friendship of fifty-two years; Sir Thomas pervades Sir William's library". Korot. 8 (11–12): 150–165. PMID 11614038.
  34. ^ Martens, P (1992). "The faiths of two doctors: Thomas Browne and William Osler". Perspect. Biol. Med. 36 (1): 120–128. doi:10.1353/pbm.1993.0048. PMID 1475152. S2CID 38693451.
  35. ^ Hookman, P (1995). "A comparison of the writings of Sir William Osler and his exemplar, Sir Thomas Browne". Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 72 (1): 136–150. PMC 2359421. PMID 7581308.
  36. ^ [1] Archived 11 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  37. ^ a b "Interview by Daniel Bourne in Artful Dodge". 25 April 1980.
  38. ^ Forster, E.M., Selected Stories, Penguin Classics, 2001, pp.30-46, ISBN 978-0141186191
  39. ^ Willie Morris, North Towards Home, New York: Vintage; part 3 (page 313 ff); ISBN 0375724605 ISBN 978-0375724602; The quote is from Chapter 5.
  40. ^ La religión de un médico. El enterramiento en urnas (Hydriotaphia). De los sueños, nota previa, traducción y epílogo de Javier Marías, Barcelona: Reino de Redonda, primera edición de septiembre de 2002 ISBN 978-84-931471-4-3.
  41. ^ "Guest blog: Fake eggs, fake news and guillemots by Tim Birkhead - Mark AveryMark Avery".
  42. ^ "Tony Kushner Reworks His Hydriotaphia for Houston, Mar. 27". 26 March 1998.
  43. ^ "Dorothy, Lady Browne (née Mileham); Sir Thomas Browne". National Portrait Gallery. Archived from the original on 29 October 2016.


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