Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brown, John (1810-1882)

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626945Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 07 — Brown, John (1810-1882)1886John Taylor Brown

BROWN, JOHN, M.D., (1810–1882), author of ‘Horæ Subsecivæ’ and ‘Rab and his Friends,’ was born on 22 Sept. 1810 at Biggar in Lanarkshire, and was the son of Dr. John Brown, the biblical scholar (1784–1858) [q. v.], who was at that time the secession minister there. His education at Biggar was conducted by his father in private, but on the removal of the latter to Edinburgh in 1822, John entered a classical school kept by Mr. William Steele, and at the end of two years passed on to the rector's class in the high school, then under the charge of Dr. Carson. Here he spent another two years, and at the end of that time, in November 1826, became a student in the arts classes of Edinburgh University. In 1828 he commenced the study of medicine, attending the usual college classes in that department, and at the same time becoming a pupil and apprentice of the eminent surgeon, Mr. Syme. In 1833 he graduated as doctor of medicine, and immediately after commenced practice in Edinburgh, where he spent the whole of his after life in the active exercise of his profession. As it is chiefly as a writer that Brown is likely to be permanently remembered, it is only necessary to say that in his medical capacity he was remarkable for his close and accurate observation of symptoms, skill and sagacity in the treatment of his cases, and conscientious attention to his patients. It may even be said that whatever position he may be thought to have taken in literature, he was first of all a physician thoroughly devoted to his profession, and, though not writing on strictly professional subjects, yet originally diverging into authorship on what may be called medical grounds. Naturally unambitious, it is doubtful if, with all his wide culture and enthusiastic love of literature, he would ever, but for his love of his profession, have been induced to appear before the world as an author at all. It is observable that the whole of the first volume of ‘Horæ Subsecivæ’—perhaps, though not the most popular, yet the most substantially valuable of the whole series—is almost exclusively devoted to subjects intimately bearing on the practice of medicine. The importance of wide general culture to a physician; the necessity of attending to nature's own methods of cure, and leaving much to her recuperative power rather than to medicinal prescriptions; the distinction to be always kept in view between medicine as a science and medicine as an art; the necessity of constant attention being paid to the distinctive symptoms of each individual case as a means of determining the special treatment to be adopted; and, in general, the value of presence of mind, ‘nearness of the nous’ (ἀγχίνοια) in a physician—these and the like points are what he is never tired of inculcating and illustrating in almost every page of the volume. And even ‘Rab and his Friends’ belongs properly to medicine, and serves to withdraw the physician from exclusive recognition of science in the exercise of his profession, and to bring him tenderly back to humanity.

In the two later volumes of the ‘Horæ’ Brown's pen took a somewhat wider range. He had, we suppose, discovered his own strength in authorship, and found that he had other things in his mind besides medicine on which he had something to say. Poetry, art, the nature and ways of dogs, human character as displayed in men and women whom he had intimately known, the scenery of his native country with its associations romantic or tender—all these come in for review, and on all of them he writes with a curiously naïve and original humour, and, as it seems to us, a singularly deep and true insight. One great charm of his writings is that, as with those of Montaigne and Charles Lamb, much of his own character is thrown into his books, and in reading them we almost feel as if we became intimately acquainted with the author. And in private he did not belie the idea which his books convey of him. Few men have in life been more generally beloved, or in death more sincerely lamented. He had a singular power of attaching both men and animals to himself, and a stranger could scarcely meet with him even once without remembering him ever afterwards with interest and affection. In society he was natural and unaffected, with pleasantry and humour ever at command, yet no one could suspect any tinge of frivolity in his character. He had read very widely, had strong opinions on many questions both in literature and philosophy, possessed great knowledge of men, and had an unfailing interest in humanity. With all the tenderness of a woman, he had a powerful manly intellect, was full of practical sense, tact, and sagacity, and found himself perfectly at home with all men of the best minds of his time who happened to come across him. Lord Jeffrey, Lord Cockburn, Mr. Thackeray, Mr. Ruskin, Mr. Henry Taylor, and Mr. Erskine of Linlathan were all happy to number themselves among his most attached friends.

There was a strong countervailing element of melancholy in Brown's constitution, as in most men largely endowed with humour. This, we believe, showed itself more or less even in boyhood; but in the last sixteen years of his life it became occasionally so distressing as to necessitate his entire withdrawal for a time from society, and latterly induced him to retire to a great extent from the general practice of his profession. In the last six months of his life, however, his convalescence seemed to be so complete that his friends began to hope he had finally thrown off this tendency, and during the winter immediately preceding his death all his old cheerfulness and intellectual vivacity appeared to have returned; but in the beginning of May 1882 he caught a slight cold, which deepened into a severe attack of pleurisy, and carried him off after a short illness on the 11th of that month.

The first volume of the ‘Horæ Subsecivæ’ was published in 1858, the second in 1861, and a third in 1882, only a few weeks before Brown's death. They have all gone through numerous editions both in this country and in America, while ‘Rab and his Friends’ (first published in 1859) and other papers have appeared separately in various forms, and have had an immense circulation.

[Personal knowledge.]

J. T. B.