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Book review: Sir Thomas Browne: The opium of time by Gavin Francis

05 January 2024

Browne was much more than a medical memoirist, says Nicholas Goulding

SOMETHING refreshing has emerged within the genre of biography. Here is a new account of the life and works of Sir Thomas Browne, a noted 17th-century English GP, natural philosopher, theologian, and travel writer with an insatiable curiosity for the world around him. The author, Gavin Francis is also a GP, author, and explorer, who shares with Browne an inquisitiveness and an understanding of medical practice.

This slim volume forms part of a series of biographies whose authors express deeply rooted ties with their subjects and who share something of themselves and their own experiences to add an autobiographical dimension. The formula works and the result is a compelling read. Although Francis provides extensive quotations from Browne’s discourses, I felt encouraged to dip into two of Sir Thomas’s major works in conjunction with this book. Religio Medici and Pseudodoxia Epidemica are accessible online through Project Gutenberg.

Thomas Browne’s writings have made pivotal contributions, first, to the establishment of modern science, which some consider to be on a par with those of Francis Bacon. Second, he is recognised as a literary craftsman and innovator. He is credited with having coined hundreds of terms in current usage, including “electricity”, “coma”, “medical”, and “computer”.

Reading extracts from his writing, one is struck by his propensity to use ten words where one would suffice. Dr Samuel Johnson wrote of Browne’s prose that he “poured in a multitude of exotick words; many, indeed, useful and significant”. His published works gained wide popularity, but his acclaim within the Establishment was muted. His knighthood by Charles II was apparently “accidental”, and he was never elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

AlamyThe frontispiece of the authorised 1645 edition of Religio Medici

Gavin Francis’s perspective on Browne’s life and works is through eight traits that beautifully encapsulate the complexity of his character: ambiguity, curiosity, vitality, piety, humility, misogyny, mobility, and mortality. The author successfully avoids the pitfalls of applying 21st-century values to a 17th-century ethical and religious framework. Rather, he teases out tensions and contradictions that existed in his life and that are still relevant today.

Browne’s struggle with the implications of his developing scientific understanding in maintaining orthodox Christian belief is fascinating. Francis hints that his piety may have been based on tradition and virtue. I perceived a warmer and more vibrant personal faith at work, which shines through the centuries and gives encouragement to those of us today who seek to embrace both a passion for science and a living faith in Christ.

The Revd Nick Goulding is Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology and Medical Education at Queen Mary University of London.

Sir Thomas Browne: The opium of time
Gavin Francis
OUP £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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