Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thurnam, John

THURNAM, JOHN (1810–1873), craniologist, son of William Thurnam, by his wife, Sarah Clark, was born at Lingcroft, near York, on 28 Dec. 1810. He belonged to a quaker family. After a private education he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1834, a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1843, and a fellow in 1859. He graduated M.D. at the university of Aberdeen in 1846. Having served as resident medical officer in the Westminster Hospital from 1834 till 1838, Thurnam was appointed medical superintendent of the Friends' retreat in York. That post he held until 1849. The Wiltshire county asylum at Devizes was then being built, and the committee selected Thurnam to be medical superintendent. It was opened in 1851, and he remained in active charge until his death.

Thurnam's leisure was devoted to the elucidation of the statistical facts of insanity and investigations of anthropological and antiquarian interest. He was twice elected president of the Medico-Psychological Association.

While at the Westminster Hospital he had gained some reputation from his observations on aneurism of the heart. In 1843 he published ‘Observations and Essays on the Statistics of Insanity, and on Establishments for the Insane.’ This work contained a reprint of the ‘Statistics of the York Retreat,’ first issued in 1841, together with an historical and descriptive sketch of that institution. Thurnam's work has proved a sure foundation for subsequent statistical studies of insanity. After his removal to Wiltshire he gave special consideration to craniology. In 1865, with Dr. Joseph Barnard Davis [q. v.], he published a work in two volumes under the title ‘Crania Britannica,’ and the same year he wrote an important paper on the ‘Two Principal Forms of Ancient British and Gaulish Skulls,’ which was reprinted from the ‘Memoirs’ of the Anthropological Society of London (vol. i.), 1865. Thurnam was indefatigable in exploring ancient British barrows, and communicated his results to the Society of Antiquaries (of which he was a fellow) in 1869. During the later years of his life he collected a large number of skulls and objects of antiquity. The former were transferred to the university of Cambridge, the latter are in the British Museum. Although later authorities are of opinion that craniology affords no trustworthy data for ethnical classifications, yet ethnology has still to depend mainly upon comparative tables of cranial capacity and the form of the skulls of different races, and even of different individuals. In this respect Thurnam's work is of enduring value. Two short papers deserve mention, one on ‘Synostoses of the Cranial Bones regarded as a Race Character’ (Nat. Hist. Rev. 1865), and the other on the ‘Weight of the Human Brain’ (Journ. of Ment. Science, 1868). Thurnam recognised the importance of the obliteration of the sutures of the skull, which he had observed in the dolichocephalous crania of the stone age, but not in the brachycephalous crania of the bronze period. His conclusion was that this is a strictly race character.

Thurnam died at Devizes on 24 Sept. 1873. On 18 June 1851 he was married to Frances Elizabeth, daughter of Matthew Wyatt, a metropolitan police magistrate, and sister of Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt [q. v.] By her he left three sons.

[Obituary notices in Journal of Mental Science, 1873, Medical Times and Gazette, and Wilts Archæol. Mag.; family information; personal knowledge.]

A. R. U.