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October 19: Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne (1605)

Thomas Browne

It was on this date, October 19, 1605, that British writer Sir Thomas Browne was born in London, the son of a prosperous silk merchant who died when Thomas was eight. Browne nevertheless studied at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he took his B.A. in 1626 and his M.A. three years later. He earned an M.D. from the University of Leiden in 1633. He practiced medicine in Norwich and was affiliated with the Church of England.

While supported by his medical practice, he published on a wide variety of topics, including religion and science. His Religio Medici, which translated from the Latin means "The Religion of a Physician," written in English, ran through at least eight editions while he was alive. It was translated into most European languages in his day, and is often described as a fine piece of religious literature, but it was put on the Roman Catholic Index of Prohibited Books, all the same.

Although usually taken to be a Christian, in such works as Hydriotaphia - often called Discourse on Sepulchral Urns or simply Urn Burial (1648) and Pseudodoxia epidemica - Browne shows that he was a Deist and a skeptic regarding immortality. In Urn Burial he says that "a dialogue between two infants in the womb concerning the state of this world might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next," and "I perceive the wisest heads prove, at last, almost all skeptics."*

He was knighted by King Charles II in 1671. Thomas Browne died on his 77th birthday in 1682. It was Browne who said, "As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine."**

* Thomas Browne, Discourse on Sepulchral Urns, 1648, p. 158 (1886 ed.).
** Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1642. (pia mater refers to the "innermost of the three membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.")

Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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