A Cabinet of Rarities: Property of The Genius You Won’t Know


Bronze statue of Sir Thomas Browne by Henry Pegram, 1905 (small version) courtesy Royal College Physicians

“With what strife and pains we come into the world we know not, but ’tis commonly no easy matter to get out of it” is a seventeenth century quote by the remarkable and elusive ‘…very distinguished man, Sir Thomas Browne, Knight, Doctor of Medicine, aged 77 years, who died on the anniversary of his birth, 19th of October in the year of our Lord 1682’.

The quote is to be found in his scholarly work Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, Sir Thomas Brown (1605 – 1682) who was laid to rest ‘sleeping in this coffin of lead, by the dust of his alchemic body’, which ‘transmutes it into a coffer of gold’.


Sir Thomas Browne, portrait copy, 17th century, © Royal College of Physicians

Polymath Thomas Browne’s view of life had been all about having a ‘large view of mankind’, far too big for him to have become a bigot. He is renowned for having ‘seen the extraordinary in the ordinary’ and leaving a collection that provides a ‘fascinating perspective on seventeenth century scientific and medical research’.

When Charles II visited Norwich in 1671, Thomas Browne’s notoriety both as a doctor and as a writer earned him that knighthood.


Cabinet of Natural Rarities

An exhibition about to take place in London A cabinet of rarities': the curious collections of Sir Thomas Browne is to be held at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

It will showcase the property of a genius you won’t know, invoking ‘… the spirit of this phenomenal figure from one of the most troubled and turbulent centuries in Britain’s history’.

On show January 30 – July 27, 2017, the exhibition is part of a larger project, led by Queen Mary University of London, to edit the entire literary works of this very interesting, and often exceedingly puzzling, man.

Search while thou wilt, and let thy reason goe
To ransome truth even to the Abysse below.
Rally the scattered causes, and that line
Which nature twists be able to untwine.


Certain Miscellany Tracts by Sir Thomas Berown…all versions, © Royal College of Physicians

Described as a collector of rarities, debunker of myths, inspiration to writers and doctors alike, a conjuror of words, owner of a live ostrich and expert witness at a witch trial, Sir Thomas Browne, Knight it would be fair to say is perhaps the greatest genius the vast majority of British people, let alone the rest of us, ‘have never even heard of’.

Sure to gain a cult following as did their stunning show about physician John Dee did last year, the same specialised team responsible for that rare gem has been working behind the scenes to gather the works pertaining to this little known genius for presentation.

There will be a remarkable collection of his manuscript letters and notes, animal and plant specimens, books, paintings and artefacts.

They will help to form a portrait of a man whose singular life and exceptional achievements are set to become public knowledge.


Sir Thomas Browne Skull on Books, 17th century, sourced Project Gutenberg

The Royal College of Physicians has advised that ‘a cast of Browne’s own skull, made in the years after 1840 when his coffin was broken open and his head and hair sold on to a later fellow collector will be on loan from the Royal Society of Medicine.

The Royal College of Physicians’ own library will provide a rare pirated copy of Sir Thomas’ masterpiece ‘Religio Medici’. Dated 1642, the version was printed illicitly, but proved an international literary sensation prompting official publication of the hugely influential work the following year.

A reproduction of a letter held by the Bodleian Library reveals Browne’s close relationship with his son Edward and enthusiasm for human dissection, whilst facsimile images of fish from the hand of Elizabeth Lyttleton, Sir Thomas’ third daughter, paint a picture of a family engaged in pursuit of knowledge of the natural world.

Graphically illustrating this passion for nature are a Tegu lizard skin and a dolphin’s skull and mandible, all from the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL. Together they leave a lasting impression of the remarkable sights that awaited a visitor to Browne’s Norwich abode, of which the great diarist and intellectual John Evelyn said ‘his whole house and garden is a paradise’, home to ‘the best collection’.

A subtler, but equally as significant object, is Browne’s collection of pressed plants, on loan from the Natural History Museum. Amongst the delicate, more than three and half centuries old specimens can be found an Iris, one of the very first times the flower was ever seen in England.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society provides a set of brass ‘nesting weights’ similar to those used by Sir Thomas to measure the doses of medicine he prescribed and mixed for his own patients, and to assemble the varied diet he fed his pet ostrich by way of gentle experiment’.

It is thy Makers will, for unto none
But unto reason can he ere be knowne.
The Devills doe know thee, but those damned meteours
Build not thy glory, but confound thy creatures


Pseudodoxia epidemica by Sir Thomas Browne, published London, 1646

Born in the parish of St Michael le Quern, Browne’s father was a London merchant, his mother a Sussex lady. His father died when he was very young, and his mother married again, the boy left to the care of guardians, one of whom is said to have defrauded him out of some of his property.

Educated at Winchester and Oxford, to what is now Pembroke College, he gained his M.A. In 1629, he began practicing as a physician in Oxfordshire and accompanied his father-in-law, Sir Thomas Dutton, on a tour of inspection of the castles and forts in Ireland.

At Montpellier in France he attended their celebrated school of medicine, before going to Padua, one of the most famous of the Italian universities, noted for the views some of its members held on the subjects of astronomy and necromancy.

Teach my endeavours so thy workes to read,
That learning them, in thee I may proceed.
Give thou my reason that instructive flight,
Whose weary wings may on thy hands still light.


Frontispiece of Religio Medici, 1642 © Houghton Library, Harvard University

During his residence here he honed his own views on the science of the heavens and the black arts. He went to Leyden, where moving from a Roman Catholic to a Protestant country allowed him to consider both points of view.

He took the degree of Doctor of Medicine, and shortly afterwards returned to England where in 1635, he published his “Religio Medici,” his first and greatest work, ‘…regarded as the reflection of the mind of one who, in spite of a strong intellect and vast erudition, was still prone to superstition, but having “Through many cities strayed, Their customs, laws, and manners weighed,”

Teach me to soare aloft, yet ever so,
When neare the Sunne, to stoope againe below.
Thus shall my humble feathers safely hover,
And though neere earth, more then the heavens discover.

Back in England Browne soon had an extensive practice as a physician in Norwich and was incorporated Doctor of Medicine at Oxford. In 1641 he married Dorothy Mileham from Norfolk and produced eleven children.

He seldom left that city from that time forward, but corresponded with such men of learning as John EvelynSir William Dugdale, and John Aubrey.

Most of the surviving letters written to his eldest son, Edward Browne provide an intimate picture of his medical practice and relationships with his family, including being criticized for the part he played in 1664 as a witness in the condemnation of two women as witches.


Illustration of an Ostrich by Ulisse Aldrovandi, from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Ornithologiae, published Bologna, 1599

A reproduction of a contemporary account of that trial from the library of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge will also be on show, along with gold ‘touch pieces’ from the Royal College’s own collections: objects originally presented to citizens miraculously ‘cured’ of their illnesses by the laying on of King Charles I’s hands.

It was 1646 when he published his “Pseudodoxia Epi- demica,” or Enquiries into Vulgar Errors. In 1658 the discovery of Roman urns at Burnham in Norfolk, led him to write his “Hydriotaphia” (Urn-burial) and “The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunxcial Lozenge of the Ancients,” a curious work and in 1665 he was elected honorary Fellow of the College of Physicians.

Buried in the church of St Peter, Mancroft, Norwich, where his wife erected to his memory a mural monument, on which was placed an English and Latin inscription and noting he was the author of “Religio Medici,” “Pseudodoxia Epidemica,” and other learned works.

And then at last, when holmeward I shall drive
Rich with the spoyles of nature to my hive,
There will I sit, like that industrious flye,
Buzzing thy prayses, which shall never die
Till death abrupts them, and succeeding glory
Bid me goe on in a more lasting story.

Seems to me Sir Thomas Browne has had his wishes granted, his skull now fated to adorn a museum, on view with all things wonderful relating to his achievements. There is no doubt he will become “per orbem notissimus” or, known throughout the world.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

‘A Cabinet of Rarities’
The Curious Collections of Sir Thomas Browne

30 January – 27 July, 2017

Royal College of Physicians
11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park, London NW1 4LE

Entry FREE

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