Prichard, James Cowles (DNB00)

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PRICHARD, JAMES COWLES (1786–1848), physician and ethnologist, was born at Ross, Herefordshire, on 11 Feb. 1786. His father was a cultivated man, of great poetical imagination, and both parents were members of the Society of Friends. He was educated at home, learning French, Italian, and Spanish. On his father's removal to Bristol he came into contact with the natives of different countries who visited the port, and thus gained an unusual knowledge of modern Greek and Spanish. In 1802 he became a student of medicine in Bristol, and afterwards at St. Thomas's Hospital. In 1806 he attended classes at Edinburgh, and anthropological investigations soon absorbed much of his attention. He graduated M.D. in Edinburgh in 1808, choosing for the subject of his thesis ‘De Humani Generis Varietate.’ He afterwards resided for a year at Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 1810 Prichard began to practise medicine in Bristol. But he combined with the daily routine of his profession a profound study of ethnology, which bore fruit in 1813 in the publication of his ‘Researches as to the Physical History of Man’ (2nd edit. 2 vols. 1826), an expansion of his Edinburgh thesis. In this volume he contended that the colour of the negro's skin was not the result of the long-continued action of the sun: that our first parents were black, and that the white skin was due to the influence of civilisation. Absorbed as Prichard was in anthropological studies, his practice grew. He freely prescribed blood-letting, and often practised it on himself as a cure for headache, to which he was long subject. In after years he was frequently in request as a consultant by practitioners at a distance. On 11 Aug. 1811 he was elected physician to St. Peter's Hospital, Bristol, and on 29 Feb. 1814 physician to the Bristol Infirmary. He lectured on ‘physiology, pathology, and the practice of physic,’ and wrote articles on purely medical subjects, such as epilepsy and fever. In 1819 he found time to publish ‘An Analysis of Egyptian Mythology,’ in which he traced the early connection between the Hindus and the Egyptians, and made public his hieroglyphic alphabet. Champollion's ‘Précis’ of the latter was not published till 1824. Prichard's deep interest in Egypt led to a friendship between him and the Chevalier Bunsen, to whom he afterwards dedicated his ‘Natural History of Man.’ A German translation of his Egyptian book appeared in 1837.

In 1822 he issued his ‘Treatise on Diseases of the Nervous System,’ part i. comprising convulsive and maniacal affections; no more was published. It was based on the experience he had gained during ten years at St. Peter's Hospital. Among his patients there were many lunatics, whose maladies especially interested him. But this book gave no indication of those new and striking conclusions respecting insanity which he developed later. An invitation to write an article on insanity in the ‘Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine’ led him to pursue the subject, and to publish in 1835 his ‘Treatise on Insanity and other Disorders affecting the Mind.’ This was long the standard work on this branch of medicine. Its leading interest lies in the assertion—in contradiction to the position Prichard had previously assumed—of the existence of a distinct disease of ‘moral insanity.’ This malady Prichard claims to have been the first to recognise and describe. He sought to prove that moral insanity was a morbid condition, not necessarily the concomitant or outcome of mental disorder or incapacity (see Library of Medicine, ed. Tweedie, ii. 110). He pointed out that there are patients truly insane and irresponsible, who suffer from moral defect or derangement, without such an amount of intellectual disorder as would be legally recognised either in a court of law or for the purpose of certification. He showed that madness often consisted ‘in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the intellect or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucination’ (Treatise on Insanity, p. 6). In face of the generally accepted view of the solidarity of the mental functions, the difficulty of accepting Prichard's doctrine is, from a psychological point of view, not inconsiderable. But despite the warm contests that have taken place in regard to Prichard's conclusion among both lawyers and physicians, his position has been confirmed by subsequent observers, and is accepted by leading scientific men in Europe and the United States. Esquirol, who at first opposed Prichard's views, was obliged, as he soon admitted, ‘to submit to the authority of facts’ (Des Maladies Mentales, 1838, ii. 98). Herbert Spencer has acknowledged his belief in moral insanity, which he does not consider irreconcilable with his well-known theories of psychology. Prichard's study of moral insanity induced him to prepare, in 1842, a work specially intended to indicate its bearing on legal questions, under the title ‘On the Different Forms of Insanity in relation to Jurisprudence, designed for the use of persons concerned in legal questions regarding unsoundness of mind.’

Still pursuing his anthropological researches, Prichard stated his chief results in his ‘Natural History of Man,’ which appeared in 1843. It comprised inquiries into the modifying influence of physical and moral agencies on the different tribes of the human family. He dwelt forcibly on the innumerable points of resemblance between man and the lower animals. He observed that ‘to many persons it will appear paradoxical to ascribe the endowment of a soul to the inferior tribes in the creation; yet it is difficult to discover a valid argument that limits the possession of an immaterial principle to man.’ He inquired whether man has not received, in addition to his mental sagacity, a principle of accommodation, by which he becomes fitted to occupy the whole earth, and to modify the agencies of the elements upon himself. Admitting that this is the case, he asks whether these agencies do not also modify him. There exists, however, the alternative opinion—that mankind is made up of races differing from each other from the beginning of their existence. The main object of Prichard's work was to determine which of these views was the better entitled to assent. His conclusion was very decided that ‘we are entitled to draw confidently the conclusion that all human races are of one species and one family’ (p. 546). Prichard's conclusion is that generally held by ethnologists of the present day.

Between 1836 and 1847 he brought out, in five volumes, ‘Researches into the Physical History of Mankind,’ and in 1855 appeared a fourth edition of his ‘Natural History of Man,’ 2 vols. In the words of Professor Tylor of Oxford, Prichard's work as an anthropologist is admirable; and it is curious to notice how nowadays the doctrine of development rehabilitates his discussion of the races of man as varieties of one species. We may even hear more of his theory that the originally dark-complexioned human race produced, under the influences of civilised life, the white man. Prichard's merit as the philologist who first proved the position of Keltic languages as a branch of the Indo-European has not met with due recognition; Adolphe Pictet, who made his reputation by a treatise on the same point, did not publish it until after Prichard's results on this topic had appeared in the ‘Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations,’ 1831 (ed. R. G. Latham, 1857).

In an address before the Ethnological Society of London on 22 June 1847, ‘On the Relations of Ethnology to other Branches of Knowledge,’ Prichard asserted the importance of ethnology as a science, and argued—vainly at the time—that the British Association for the Advancement of Science ought to acknowledge its value by allotting its treatment to a distinct section at its annual meetings. In this address his views on the unity of the human race were finally summed up. ‘The further we explore the various paths of inquiry which lie open to our researches, the greater reason do we find for believing that no insurmountable line of separation exists between the now diversified races of men, and the greater the probability, judging alone from such data as we possess, that all mankind are descended from one family.’

Prichard was made a commissioner in lunacy in 1845, and from that time till his death resided in London. He died, on 23 Dec. 1848, of rheumatic fever and pericarditis. He was at the time president of the Ethnological Society. He was also fellow of the Royal Society, corresponding member of the National Institute of France and of the French Academy of Medicine, and had received the degree of doctor of medicine by diploma from the university of Oxford in 1835.

Prichard married, on 28 Feb. 1811, Anne Maria Estlin, sister of John Bishop Estlin [q. v.], and daughter of John Prior Estlin [q. v.], at whose house he frequently met Southey and Coleridge. He left issue.

As an investigator into both mental science and anthropology, Prichard ranks very high. Had he not divided his energies between the two subjects, he would doubtless have achieved results in one of them that would have entitled him to a place among the greatest of men of science. Of exceptional mental capacity, Prichard possessed a good memory and a strong philosophical tendency, and was able to undertake the most strenuous mental labour. His expression of countenance was singularly benevolent, and he was free from all feeling of professional rivalry.

His works, besides those noticed, were: ‘A Review of the Doctrine of a Vital Principle,’ London, 1829, 8vo; ‘On the Treatment of Hemiplegia, and particularly on an important Remedy in some Diseases of the Brain’ (‘Medical Gazette,’ 1831, and British Association for the Advancement of Science, Bristol, 1836); ‘On the Extinction of some Varieties of the Human Race’ (British Association, Birmingham, 1839).

[Memoir of Dr. Prichard by Dr. Hodgkin, read before the Ethnological Society of London on 28 Feb. 1849; Memoir read before the meeting of the Bath and Bristol Branch of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association, March 1849, by Dr. J. A. Symonds (‘Journal,’ 1850, vol. ii.); Miscellanies, by John Addington Symonds, M.D., edited by his son, 1871; Prichard and Symonds in especial relation to Mental Science, by Dr. Hack Tuke, M.D., 1891; information kindly given by Dr. E. B. Tylor.]

D. H. T.