Lives of the fellows

William Brown

b.5 December 1881 d.17 May 1952
BA Oxon(1905) MA Oxon(1907) DSc Lond(1910) MB BCh Oxon(1914) DM Oxon(1918) MRCP(1921) FRCP(1930)

William Brown was remembered by his students as a tall, distinguished looking intellectual, with a natural reserve and reticence that gave him an air of aloofness. He went from Collyer’s School, Horsham, to Christ Church, Oxford, and post-graduate studies in Germany, preparing himself by mathematics, moderations and final honours in physiology and Greats for his life interest in experimental psychology and his belief in its importance for the progress of social life and culture. It was with a view to its study and application in the clinical field that he graduated in medicine from King’s College Hospital.

Service in World War I, when he was neurologist to the 4th and 5th Armies and worked at both the Maghull Military Hospital in Lancashire and at the Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurosthenic Officers in Edinburgh, turned his thoughts to a subject he developed in his earlier days, that wars begin in the minds of men. To it he brought a wide view of philosophy and physiology, for he had been John Locke scholar in philosophy in 1906, and at the instigation of his teacher William McDougall had worked with Burt, Flugel, and later with Charles Spearman, to produce for the committee of the British Association the Spearman-Brown formula for the checking of mental tests in the assessment of intelligence, which he applied in 1908 as head of the psychological department at King’s College, London. This work had gained him the Carpenter medal.

As he had been appointed reader in psychology to the University of London in 1914 he returned to this post till 1921, now with an urge to check by statistical psychology and laboratory techniques the theories he had formed on the place of mental tests he used at the Maudsley Hospital. He then succeeded McDougall as Wilde reader in mental philosophy at Oxford and, not without the opposition of misunderstanding, founded the Institute of Experimental Psychology. But he overtaxed himself, for not only was he then consulting psychotherapist to King’s College Hospital and director of research in clinical psychology at Bethlem, testing out at both his own theories, but also an active member of the Mind Association, the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, the Royal Institute of Philosophy, the Society for the Study of Addiction and the British Psychological Society. Of the last two he became president, and in 1927 was president of the psychology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

After 1946 he had to confine himself to consulting practice. He still found time to write prolifically. His books reflected his catholicity of view, ranging from a purely mathematical contribution like his The Essentials of mental measurement (1911), through philosophical works like Mind and personality (1926), to works of practical instruction in psychotherapy such as his Psychology and psychotherapy (1921).

Brown was at all times an enthusiast and so tended to move away now and again from the trends supported by his contemporaries; for example for a time he placed more reliance on the use of suggestion than on the psycho-analytical approach in diagnosis, and after a staunch support of Freudian principles revolted against their over-emphasis on materialism. But these enthusiasms like his researches were never allowed to interfere with the best interests of his patients; he took the most meticulous care to exclude every physical cause of the illness before making a psychiatric diagnosis.

Brown was married twice, first to May Rayment English, by whom he had a son, and after her death to Dorothea Mary Stone, who survived him with one son and two daughters.

Richard R Trail

[Brit. J. med. Psychol., 1952, 25, 1;, 1952, 1, 1136 (p); Lancet, 1952, 1, 1073, 1119; Nature (Lond.), 1952, 170, 911.]

(Volume V, page 56)

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