Lives of the fellows

William (Sir) Browne

b.1692 d.10 March 1774
AB Cantab(1710) AM(1714) MD(1721) FRCP(1726) FRS 1738/9

Sir William Browne, M.D. — Abundant materials exist for a lengthened sketch of this busy and pedantic physician. His egotism and garrulity were so great as to rivet the attention of his contemporaries, many of whom have delighted in recording their reminiscences, and holding up the worthy old knight to that good-natured ridicule to which he might lay so fair a claim.

Sir William Browne was born in the county of Durham in 1692, and was the son of a physician. In 1707 he was entered at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he describes himself in 1711 as in his soph’s year, and attentively studying the Articles of the Church of England. He proceeded A.B. 1710; A.M. 1714; and having obtained a licence ad practicandum from the university, settled about the year 1716 at Lynn, in Norfolk, under the patronage of the Turner family. It was about this time that our physician wrote the well-known epigram on George the First’s handsome present to the university of Cambridge. The circumstances were as follow. Dr. John Moore, successively bishop of Norwich and Ely, one of the most learned men of his time, had collected one of the best and most ample collections of all sorts of good books in England. It comprised, according to Noble, 28,965 printed books and 1,790 manuscripts. The bishop died 31st July, 1714; shortly after which the king purchased his library for 6,000l, and presented it to the university of Cambridge. By a curious coincidence, a regiment of cavalry was despatched to Oxford at the very time that the library was removed to Cambridge. The event was commemorated by Dr. Trapp in the following lines:—
The king, observing with judicious eyes,
The state of both his universities,
To one he sent a regiment, for why?
That learned body wanted loyalty:
To th’ other he sent books, as well discerning
How much that loyal body wanted learning.

Browne, stung by the reflection on his own Alma Mater, replied thus:
The king to Oxford sent a troop of horse,
For Tories own no argument but force;
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent,
For Whigs admit no force but argument.

He took the degree of doctor of medicine at Cambridge in 1721, and shortly afterwards, according to his own statement, got incorporated at Oxford. On the 1st March, 1738-9, he was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society. He practised at Lynn for more than thirty years, and acquired by his profession a competent fortune, though even then he evinced no small amount of eccentricity. Upon one occasion, a pamphlet having been written against him, he nailed it to his own house-door. In 1748, through the influence of the duke of Montague, he was knighted by king George II. A respectable bookseller at Lynn used to relate, that the first time he had to make out his bill after the doctor had been dubbed a knight, he wrote, " Sir William Browne, debtor to Thomas Hollingbury when he delivered it into the knight’s hand, he looked at it a short time, and then turning to him said, " Mr. Hollingbury, you might have said ‘ the honourable Sir William Browne.' " " I beg your pardon, Sir William," replied the bookseller, "but upon my word I did not know it was customary to prefix to the name of a knight the word honourable." "As to that," rejoined the knight, "if it be not customary, it would yet have been pleasing." About the same period he distinguished himself as a champion of the fair sex at Lynn, but under what circumstances, and in what manner, are now unknown. The incident led to the following epigram, the product, it has always been thought, of his own pen:—
Domino Wilhelmo Browne, militi.
Sit, Miles, terror, castigatorque Grigantis,
Victima cui Virgo nocte dieque cadit.
Herculeo monstris purgata est Lerna labore,
Monstris purgetur Lenna labore tuo.

Be thou, O knight, the giant’s scourge and dread,
Who night and day preys on the victim maid.
Herculean labour Lerna’s monsters slew,
Oh! May thy labours those of Lynn subdue.

From an early period of his professional career, Sir William Browne had contemplated an eventual removal to the metropolis; and with the view of securing his due position, whenever that should be feasible, he presented himself before the College of Physicians for examination, and was admitted a Candidate 30th September, 1725, and a Fellow 30th September, 1726. In 1749 Sir William removed to London. He was named one of the Elects of the College 9th April, 1750, and delivered the Harveian oration in 1751. He served the office of Censor in 1750, 1751, 1752, 1753, 1771; was elected Treasurer 3rd December, 1751, in place of Dr. Horseman deceased; was Consiliarius in 1752, 1755, 1762; and President in 1765 and 1766. This was a period of great excitement in the College. The dispute with the Licentiates was then at its height; and Sir William Browne, a man of strong feelings, extraordinary garrulity, and utterly void of discretion, was wholly unfit at such a crisis to occupy the presidential chair. He was an energetic defender of the exclusive privileges of the English universities; and, in the contest between the College and Dr. Schomberg, had unfortunately printed a pamphlet as ill-judged as it must have been offensive to the Licentiates. These circumstances brought him under the lash of Foote, in his "Devil on Two Sticks." Foote gave an inimitable representation of the Esculapian knight on the stage, with the precise counterpart of his wig and coat and odd figure, and glass stiffly applied to his eye. Sir William sent Foote a card, complimenting him upon having so happily represented him, but, as he had forgotten the muff, he sent him his own. Whilst he filled the office of President, the Licentiates in a body forced their way into the College, and even into the room where the Comitia was being held. Sir William maintained his composure, and at once dissolved the Comitia; but the affair left an abiding impression on him, and, dreading a defeat or some indignity, he determined to resign his office, not choosing as he was wont to say, to stay to be beaten by the Licentiates. As another opportunity may not occur, I may here state that a second attempt was made the following year (1767) to break into the College, but the precaution had been taken of closing the iron gates which guarded the entrance from Warwick-lane. The assembled Licentiates offered a smith ten guineas and an indemnification of three hundred pounds to force the gate, but he refused. At this time the following lines vindicating Sir William against the abuse and anger of the Licentiates became public. They were represented as having been sent to him by an anonymous correspondent, but were more probably written by himself:—
AD FUSCUM, EQUITEM, PRÆSIDEM.
Horace, Ode XXII, Book 1.
Integer vitæ, scelerisque purus,
Non timet Scoti obloquium neque iram,
Nec venenatis gravidam sagittis,
FUSCE, pharetram.

Pone te Scotis ubi nulla campis,
Arbor æstivâ recreatur aurâ,
Dulce ridentem comites te habebunt
Dulce loquentem.

TO BROWNE, KNIGHT, PRESIDENT.
He whose just life due honour bears,
Nor Scot’s abuse nor anger fears,
Nor his full loaded quiver:
Browne! Let him try his treach’rous arts
To wound thee with his poison’d darts,
Thou shalt retort them ever.

Place thee in Edin’s foulest air,
Which neither tree,
nor nose can bear,
Nor lungs with pleasure take in;
Ev’n there, such spirits flow in thee,
Thee sweetly laughing all shall see,
All hear thee sweetly speaking.

On quitting the chair, Sir William Browne delivered an oration in Latin, in which he delineates his own character and history, and reviews the prominent events of his presidency. This valedictory address was forthwith published in Latin and in English: from the latter I extract the following:—

"The manly age and inclination with conformable studies I diligently applied to the practice of physic in the country, where, as that age adviseth, I sought riches and friendships; but, afterwards, being satiated with friends, whom truth, not flattery, had procured; satiated with riches which Galen, not fortune, had presented, I resorted immediately to this College, where, in further obedience to the same adviser, I might totally addict myself to the service of honour. Conducted by your favour instead of my own merit, I have been advanced through various degrees of honour—a most delightful climax indeed—even to the very highest of all which the whole profession of physic hath to confer. In this chair, therefore, twice received from the Elects (shewing their favour to himself, he confesses, much more than to the College), your President
Acknowledges, that he has happy been,
And, now, content with acting this sweet scene,
Chuses to make his exit, like a guest,
Retiring pamper’d from a plenteous feast,
in order to attach himself and the remainder of his life no longer, as before, solely to the College, but by turns also to the medicinal springs of his own country, although as a physician never unmindful of his duty, yet, after his own manner, with hilarity rather than gravity, to enjoy liberty more valuable than silver or gold, as in his own right, because that of mankind—not without pride, which ever ought to be its inseparable companion,
Now the free foot shall dance its favourite round.

"Behold an instance of human ambition not to be satiated but by the conquest of three, as it were, medical worlds; lucre in the country, honour in the College; pleasure at medicinal springs! I would, if it were possible, be delightful and useful to all: to myself even totally and equal; to old age, though old, diametrically opposite; not a censor and chastiser, but a com mender and encourager of youth. I would have mine, such as in the satire
Crispus’s hoary entertaining age,
Whose wit and manners mild alike engage.

"The age of presiding, by the custom of our predecessors, was generally a lustrum, five years; although our Sloane, now happy, like another Nestor, lived to see three ages, both as President and as man. But two years more than satisfy me; for that each of the Elects may in his turn hold the sceptre of prudence, far more desirable than power, given by Caius, which the law of justice and equity recommends,
No tenure pleases longer than a year.

"But, in truth, among such endearing friendships with you, such delightful conversations, such useful communications with which this amiable situation hath blessed me, one or two things, as is usual, have happened not at all to my satisfaction. One, that, while most studious of peace myself, I hoped to have preserved the peace of the College secure and entire; I too soon found that it was not otherwise to be sought for than by war; but, even after our first adversary, because inconsiderable, was instantly overthrown, and his head completely cut off by the hand of the law, yet from the same neck, as if Hydra had been our enemy, so many other heads broke out, yea, and with inhuman violence broke into this very senate, like monsters swimming in our medical sea, whom I beheld with unwilling, indeed, but with dry or rather fixed eyes, because not suspecting the least mischief from thence to the College, and therefore laughing, so far from fearing. The other, in reality, never enough to be lamented, that while I flattered myself with having by my whole power of persuasion, in the room of Orphæan music, raised the Croonian medical lecture as it were from the shades into day, if there could be any faith in solemn promises, that faith being to my very great wonder violated, this lecture, like another Eurydice, perhaps looked after by me too hastily, beloved by me too desperately, instantly slipped back again, and fled indignant to the shades below."

As soon as he was out of office, Sir William started on his visit to the springs. Whilst at Bath he paid a visit to bishop Warburton at Prior park. The learned prelate has drawn the following inimitable portrait of him in a letter to Dr. Hurd, dated 18th November, 1767: "When you see Dr. Heberden, pray communicate to him an unexpected honour I have lately received. The other day, word was brought me from below that one Sir William Browne sent up his name, and would be glad to kiss my hand. I judged it to be the famous physician, whom I had never seen, nor had the honour to know. When I came down into the drawing-room, I was accosted by a little well-fed gentleman, with a large muff in one hand, a small "Horace" open in the other, and a spying-glass dangling in a black ribbon at his button. After the first salutation, he informed me that his visit was indeed to me, but principally and in the first place to Prior park, which had so inviting a prospect from below; and he did not doubt but, on examination, it would sufficiently repay the trouble he had given himself of coming up to it on foot. We then took our chairs, and the first thing he did or said, was to propound a doubt to me concerning a passage in Horace, which all this time he had still open in his hand. Before I could answer, he gave me the solution of this long misunderstood passage, and in support of his explanation had the charity to repeat his own paraphrase of it in English verse, just come hot, as he said, from the brain. When this and chocolate were over, having seen all he wanted of me, he desired to see more of the seat, and particularly what he called the monument, by which I understood the Prior’s tower, with your inscription. Accordingly, I ordered a servant to attend him thither, and when he had satisfied his curiosity, either to let him out from the park above into the downs, or from the garden below into the road; which he chose I never asked, and so this honourable visit ended. Hereby you will understand that the design of all this was to be admired, and indeed he had my admiration to the full, but for nothing so much as for his being able at past eighty to perform this expedition on foot, in no good weather, and with all the alacrity of a boy both in body and mind."

How long the knight continued on his travels I have no means of discovering. Ere long, however, he returned to Queen-square, and in a contest for some subordinate parochial office, carried on so warmly as to open taverns for men, and coffee-house breakfasts for women, he exerted himself greatly, wondering, however, as he himself expressed it, that a man bred at two universities should be so little regarded. A parishioner, in reply to some such remark, answered, "That he had a calf that sucked two cows, and a prodigious great one it was." At the age of eighty, on St. Luke’s day, 1771, he went to Batson’s coffee-house, in his laced coat and band and fringed white gloves, to show himself to Mr. Crosby, then Lord Mayor. A gentleman present observing that he looked very well, he replied, "he had neither wife nor debts."

Sir William Browne died at his house in Queen-square, Bloomsbury, 10th March, 1774, aged eighty-two. His lady died 25th July, 1763, in her sixty-fourth year. His remains were interred at Hillington, co. Norfolk, and in the church is a handsome monument to his memory, with the following inscription, admitted in his will to have been the offspring of his own pen:
M. S.
D. Gulielmi Browne Militis
Medicorum Londini bis Præsidis
S. R. S.
Studium opusque qui valde persequens
Medicinam haud sine Deo fecerat
Die nocteque nitens pro viribus
Salutem hilaris hominibus dare
Labor tum ipse sibi voluptas fuit
Eheu! Jam agendo haud spectatur amplius
Beatum tamen vixisse se adserens

Probe contentus exacto tempore
Uti conviva cedit vita satur
Homo humani a se alienum nil putans
Die decimo Martii 1774 mortuus
Die Ciceronis natali 3 Janii 1692 editus
Beatiorem bis præfatus adpetens
Patria O! perpetua esto et libera
Sit anima mea cum Christosophis
Prope Newtonum, Boylium, Lockium
Procul insanis a sapientibus
Velim edicas, Lector, quanti est vivere
Licet qua terris noscere et agere.

Sir William Browne’s will, drawn up by himself, was a curiosity: it is singularly demonstrative of his character and oddities, but is not wanting in philanthropy. In the preamble he lashes orthodox and heterodox alike, and the Greek and Latin with which it was interlarded puzzled the people at Doctors’ Commons. On his coffin, when in the grave, he desired might be deposited, " in its leather case or coffin," his pocket Elzevir Horace, " comes vise vitæque dulcis et utilis," he adds, "worn out with and by me." He disposed of his property judiciously and equitably, and left certain prize medals to be given yearly to Cambridge undergraduates.

His publications are numerous, but unimportant. They are curious and witty, but dreadfully burdened with quotations. Their titles, even, are characteristic.

Dr. Gregory’s Elements of Catoptrics and Dioptrics, translated from the Latin original by William Browne, M.D., at Lynn Regis, in Norfolk. By whom is added: I. A Method for finding the Foci of all Specula, as well as Lenses universally; as also Magnifying or Lessening a given object by a given Speculum or Lens in any assigned proportion. II. A Solution of those Problems which Dr. Gregory has left undemonstrated. III. A particular account of Microscopes and Telescopes from Huygens, with the Discoveries made by Catoptrics and Dioptrics. 8vo. Lond. 1735.

Oratio Harveiana, Principibus Medicis parentans; Medicinam, Academias utrasque laudans; Empiricos, eorum cultores perstrin-gens; Collegium usque a natalibus illustrans: in Theatro Collegii Reg. Med. Lond, habita Festo Divi Lucae mdccli. A Gul. Browne Equite Aurato, M.D. Cantab. Et Oxon, hujusce Collegii Socio, Electo, Censore, S.R.S. et a Consiliis. 4to. Lond. 1751.

This oration was embellished with Sir William’s arms in the title-page, and a head-piece representing the theatre at Oxford, the Senate-house at Cambridge, and the College of Physicians, with an emblematic initial letter. These ornaments accompanied all his future publications.

A Letter from Sir William Browne, deputy-lieutenant of the county of Norfolk, to his tenants and neighbours, seriously recommended at this time to the perusal of all the people of England. 8vo. Lond. 1757.
Ode in imitation of Horace, Ode iii, 1. 3, addressed to the Right Hon. Sir Robert Walpole, on ceasing to be Minister, February 6, 1741, designed as a just panegyric on a great Minister, the glorious Revolution, Protestant succession, and principles of Liberty. To which is added the original Ode, defended in Commentariolo. 4to. Lond. 1765.
Opuscula varia utriusque Linguae: Medicinam; Medicorum Collegium; Literas, utrasque Academias; Empiricos, eorum cultores; Solicitatorem, Præstigiatorem; Poeticen, Criticen; Patronum, Patriam; Religionem, Libertatem, spectantia. Cum Præfatione eorum editionem defendente. 4to. Lond. 1765.
Appendix Altera ad Opuscula ; Oratiuncula, Coll. Med. Lond, cathedræ valedicens. In Comitiis, postridie Divi Michaelis, mdcclxvii ad Collegii administrationem renovandam designatis; Machinaque Incendiis extinguendis apta contra Permissos rebelles munitis, &c. 4to. Lond. 1768.
A Farewell Oration, &c., a translation of the preceding. 4to. Lond. 1768.
Fragmentum Isaaci Hawkins Browne Arm. Sive Anti-Bolin-brokius. Liber Primus, translated for a second Religio Medici. 4to. Lond. 1768.
Fragmentum Isaaci Hawkins Browne completum. 4to. Lond. 1769.
Appendix ad Opuscula. 4to. Lond. 1770.
Odes. 4to. Lond. 1771.
A Proposal on our Coin : to remedy all present and prevent all future disorders. 4to. Lond. 1771.
A New Year’s Gift : a problem and demonstration on the xxxix Articles. 4to. Lond. 1772.
The Pill Plot. To Dr. Ward, a quack of merry memory, written at Lynn, November 30, 1734. 4to. Lond. 1772.
Corrections in verse from the Father of the College, on Son Cado-gan’s Gout Dissertation, containing false physic, false logic, and false philosophy. 4to. Lond. 1772.
Elogy and Address. 4to. Lond. 1773. (1)

A full-length portrait of Sir William Browne in his gown as president, painted by Hudson, is at the College. It was presented by himself 13th April, 1767, in the second year of his presidency.

William Munk

[(1) See Nichols’s Literary Anecdotes]

(Volume II, page 95)

<< Back to List