Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brown, John (1735-1788)

BROWN, JOHN, M.D. (1735–1788), founder of the Brunonian system of medicine, was born at a village in the parish of Buncle, Berwickshire. The father was probably a day-labourer, and he followed the teaching of the seceders. He died early in life, and his widow married another seceder, a weaver by trade. When Brown was twelve or thirteen he gave offence to the seceding community by going once to public worship in the parish church of Dunse, and, refusing to be admonished, he formally left the sect. As he grew up he began to develop a philosophical turn, after the manner of Hume, and continued all his life to be somewhat free in his thinking. His quickness induced his father to send him, when five years old, to the parish school of Dunse, then under an unusually good Latinist named Cruickshank, and attended by boys generally Brown's superiors in position. Before he was ten he was head of the school; but he was then taken away and put to his stepfather's trade. This made him miserable, and Cruickshank soon persuaded the parents to let him have the boy back to continue his schooling free of charge. Brown made himself generally useful in the school, and at thirteen he became pupil-teacher. He had fought his way to respect in the school no less by his superior intelligence than by his physical prowess. He was a stout thickset boy, with a ruddy face and a strong voice, and he was among the foremost at wrestling, boxing, and football. In a note to one of his books he says that he once, when fifteen, walked fifty miles in a day. His memory was prodigious ; one of his old pupils tells of him that on one occasion, after going through two pages of Cicero with the class, he closed the book and repeated the whole passage word for word. The country people found out that he was a prodigy, and it was popularly believed that ' he could raise the devil.'

When he was eighteen his master found him a tutorship which proved irksome, and he went to Edinburgh to support himself by private tuition, and to attend the lectures in philosophy and divinity. After several years of Edinburgh he came back to Dunse, and resumed his place as usher in the school. A year after, being then twenty-four, he went again to Edinburgh, and applied fruitlessly for a vacant mastership in the high school. He then bethought himself of the medical profession, and obtained leave from Monro, the professor of anatomy, to attend his lectures free. The other professors gave him a like privilege, and he continued to attend the medical classes for five years, supporting himself by giving private lessons in the classics during the first year or two, and afterwards by preparing medical students for their examinations. He was in great request among the students for his convivial qualities. Meanwhile Cullen employed him as tutor to his children, and afterwards as a kind of assistant to himself, the precise nature of his duties being a matter of dispute between Cullen's apologists and Brown's biographers. In 1765 ho married the daughter of an Edinburgh citizen named Lamond, and set up a boarding-house for students. Cullen encouraged him to look forward to a professor's chair. He took an extra course of dissections for nearly a year, and studied botany in order to qualify himself for a new chair in the American colonies to which Cullen had the presentation. However he remained a private tutor in Edinburgh ; and it became clear after a few years that he was somehow not likely to gain academical Promotion. His varied powers were well known, and there can be no question that his technical knowledge of medical subjects was adequate. Unfortunately he had an unconscious art of putting his respectable colleagues irretrievably in the wrong. He had some venial faults ; he became involved in debt, and had to compound with his creditors ; high feeding gave him the gout at five-and-thirty. His society was mostly composed of admirers, and he took no pains to make interest with men of infiuence. He put off taking his degree of M.D. for years after his medical course was done. When he sought to graduate in 1779, the Edinburgh degree had become impossible, and he got one at St. Andrews. At an earlier period he might as a matter of course have joined the society for publishing medical essays and observations (afterwards the Royal Society of Edinburgh), but when he resolved to seek admission in 1778, Cullen privately advised him not to try; but he tried and was rejected. The antagonism to him had probably grown up in connection with his influence as a private tutor. Brown had to the last a large following of young men in Edinburgh. In 1776 the students had made him president of their Royal Medical Society, and they made him presiaent again four years later, when the rupture between him and the professors was complete. His divergence from the teaching of Cullen had probably found expression in his private prelections. He afterwards exposed Cullen's errors in his trenchant criticism, 'Observations on the Present System of Spasm as taught in the University of Edinburgh ' (1787). The first formal indication of Brown's emendations on the basis of Cullen is said to have been given in a draft of his future 'Elementa Medicinee,' which he had written with a view to a vacant chair, and had shown to his patron. Then came his formal ostracism in 1 778, and Brown at once took up the cudgels for his own doctrines. He began a course of public lectures on the practice of physic, in which the errors of all former systems of medicine, and of Cullen's in particular, were very freely handled. In two years' time he had got ready a temperate exposition of his doctrine, the celebrated 'Elementa Medicinae' (1780). The purity of his Latin style at once insured for him an attentive reading abroad, especially in Italy and Germany ; and the practical good sense of much of brown's teaching at length obtained for it an enormous vogue. That the great majority of diseases were expressions of debility and not of redundant strength, and that consequently the time-honoured practice of indiscriminate lowering was a mistake, waa a doctrine that commended itself to the sensible and unprejudiced. The 'Elementa Medicinæ' consists of 'a first or reasoning part,' which proceeds upon a philosophical conception of life and diseased life more fundamental than any that had ever before been framed, a conception which reappears in Erasmus Darwin's 'Zoonomia,' and in Spencer's 'Principles of Biology' ('Incitatio, potestatum incitantium operis effectus, idonea prosperam; nimia aut deficiens, adversam valetudinem. Nulla alia corporis humani vivi, rite secusve valentis ; morborum nulla alia origo). In the second part he takes concrete diseases in systematic order, after the nosological fashion of the time, and ap- plies his doctrine to each. The sound practical truth running through the Brunonian system, that many paradoxical manifestations of morbid action were really evidences of debility which called for supporting treatment, has m the end been quietly absorbed among the commonplaces of modern practice. But it was many years before the opposing prejudices were overcome. So late as 1841 Cullen's biographer appeals triumpliantly to 'the intelligent practitioner' on behalf of bloodletting in inflammatory fever (Life of Cullen, ii. 326).

Brown carried on the war in Edinburgh six years longer against the professors and the general body of practitioners. Hardly any practice came to him, and the attendance at his public lectures fell away. The needs of a large family and his own improvidence brought him into serious money troubles, and he was at one time lodged in prison for debt. During his last year in Edinburgh he published 'A Short Account of the Old Method of Cure, and Outlines of the New Doctrine.' He also founded the masonic lodge of the Roman Eagle, for the encouragement of Latin scholarship, and attracted to it a number of the best known wits and scholars of the place. In 1786 he removed with his family to London, and established himself in a house in Golden Square.

In his domestic circle he had his greatest happiness. He had taught his three eldest girls and his eldest boy Latin, and had carried them some little way in Greek. Among his papers there was found a considerable fragment of a Greek grammar, written in Latin with rules in hexameter verse, which he had designcd primarily for the use of his children. His cheerfulness never failed him. In London men of letters came to see him, among others Dr. Samuel Parr; but not many patients. He gave in his house courses of lectures on medicine, which do not appear to have excited much interest among London practitioners or students, althoughliis name was well known among them. An invitation to him from Frederick the Great to settle at the court of Berlin somehow miscarried or was rescinded. Debts again overtook him, and, through a piece of sharp practice, and perhaps treachery, he was obliged for a time to become an inmate of the king's bench prison. One means of extricating himself, closely pressed upon him by a group of greedy speculators, was to give {lis name to a pill or other nostrum ; but the temptation was resisted. He now wrote more than he had done. He made an English translation of his 'Elementa Medicinse,' writing it in twenty-one days. He contracted with a publisher for 500l. to produce a treatise on the gout, and he haa other literary projects which would occupy him, he said, for ten years to come. His prospects were certainly brightening; he had several families to attend and patients were coming in, when he was struck down by apoplexy, and died on 17 Oct. 1788. He was buried in the churchyard of St. James's, Piccadilly. A portrait of him was engraved by William lake, from a miniature now in the possession of his grandson, Mr. Ford Madox Brown. He left four sons and four daughters, who were provided for by the generosity of his friends, Dr. Parr among^the rest. His eldest son, William Cullen Brown, subsequently studied medicine at Edinburgh, where he was received with much kindness by Dr. Gregory and other professors, and admitted to the lectures without fee. He, like his father, became president of the Royal Medical Society, and brought out an edition of his father's works in 3 vols. 8vo, London, 1804, with a biography of the author. A life by Dr. Beddoes of Bristol, with a portrait, was prefixed to the second edition (2 vols. 1795) of Brown's own English version of his 'Elementa Medicince.' Some 250 pages of vol. ii. of Professor John Thomson's 'Life of Cullen' (1832-59) are devoted to a laboured examination of the Brunonian episode and the Brunonian doctrine, from the Edinburgh professorial point of view.

The fortunes of the brunonian doctrine, after the death of its author, occupy a considerable space in the history of medicine. The ' Elementa ' was reprinted at Milan in 1792, and at Hildburgshausen in 1794. The English version was republished at Philadelphia in 1790 by Dr. Benjamin Bush ; a German translation of it was made at Frankfurt in 1795, and again in 1798 ; another at Copenhagen (three editions) ; there was also a French translation which was laid before the National Convention and honourably commended; and one in Italian. A very personal book, 'An Inquiry into the State of Medicine on the Principles of Inductive Philosophy, &c.,' ostensibly by Robert Jones, M.D. (Edin. 1782), but probably by Brown himself, was brought out in Italian by Joseph Frank, at Pavia, in 1795. An earlier account of the doctrines had been published by Kasori, at Pavia, in 1792. An exposition of the system, with the complete Brunonian literature up to date, was published by Girtanner, at Gottingen, 2 vols. 1799. As late as 1802, the university of Gottingen was so convulsed by controversy on the merits of the Bnmonian system, that contending factions of students in enormous numbers, not unaided by professors, met in combat in the streets on two successive days, and had to be dispersed by a troop of Hanoverian horse. The stimulant treatment of Brown was formally recommended for adoption in the various forms of camp sickness in the Austrian army, although the rescript was recalled owing to professional opposition. Scott, in his 'Life of Napoleon,' narrates that the Brunonian system was often a subject of inquiry by the First Consul. For some years there were Brunonians and anti-Brunonians all over Europe and in the colonies; until at length the sound and valuable part of Brown's therapeutic practice passed imperceptibly into the common stock of medical maxims. 'The History of the Brunonian System, and the Theory of Stimulation ' was once more written in German by Hirschel in 1846.

[Lives by W. C. Brown and Dr. Beddoes as above; Haser's Geschichte der Medicin, ii. 750, 3rd ed. Jena, 1881.]

C. C.