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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Dr. John Brown, Author of "The Brunonian System of Medicine"


Is represented with the ensign of the Roman Eagle Lodge, which used to be carried at public processions before the Master, a situation which he long held.

The miniature scene in the background describes what had frequently happened, namely, the Doctor at a bowl of punch, with Mr. Little of Libberton, Mr. John Lamont, surgeon, and Lord Bellenden, heir to his Grace the Duke of Roxburghe, playing on the fiddle—an accomplishment in which he excelled—for the entertainment of the company. His Lordship, who was remarkable for his free, generous, aud hospitable disposition, in 1787 married Miss Sarah Cumming of Jamaica, a lady paternally of Scottish, but maternally of African descent. The other two gentlemen in conversation at the back of this convivial group, are Dr. William Cullen and Dr. Alexander Hamilton, Professor of Midwifery; the gentleman in white clothes, to the left, is Dr. James Graham, already described.

Dr. John Brown was born in the parish of Buncle, in the county of Berwick, of parents more respectable for decency of character than dignity of rank. Discovering early marks of uncommon talents, his parents were induced, after having fruitlessly bound him as an apprentice to a weaver, to change his destination. He was accordingly sent to the grammar-school of Duns, where, under Mr. Cruickshanks, an able teacher, he studied with great ardour and success. His application, indeed, was so intense, that he was seldom without a book in his hand. It is said that Brown submitted, in his youth, to be a reaper of corn, to procure for himself the means of improvement. With the price of such labour he put himself to school, where his abilities attracted the attention of his master, and procured him the place of assistant. His revolt from the loom, according to this account, must have been attended with highly honourable circumstances.

The years of Brown's grammar education appear to have been, in no common degree, well-spent and happy; and he continued at school until he had nearly attained the age of twenty. In the summer of 1757, his reputation as a scholar procured him the appointment of tutor to a family of some distinction in the neighbourhood of Duns, where, however, he did not long continue au inmate. Upon relinquishing this situation he repaired to the University of Edinburgh, where, after going through the usual course of philosophy, he entered upon his theological studies: he attended the lectures of the professors, diligently applied to the study of the authors recommended by them, and proceeded so far as to deliver in the public hall the usual academical exercise prescribed prior to ordination as a clergyman of the Scottish Establishment. At this point he stopped, and relinquished the profession of divinity altogether: the sequel will sufficiently explain his motives for this change. Its immediate consequence was his retreat from Edinburgh to Duns. Here he engaged himself as usher to the school which he had lately quitted; and in this capacity he officiated a whole year, in the course of which one of the classes in the High School at Edinburgh becoming vacant, Brown appeared as a candidate, but proved unsuccessful.

When Brown renounced divinity, he turned his thoughts to the study of medicine; and in order to defray the necessary expense attendant upon this new pursuit, he became what in college parlance is termed a "grinder," or preparer of Latin translations of the inangular dissertations which medical students are bound to publish before taking their degree as Doctors in Medicine. His attention was first directed to this employment by accident. Application being made to one of his friends to procure a person sufficiently qualified to turn an essay of this kind into tolerable Latin, Brown was recommended, and performed the task in a manner that exceeded the expectations both of the friend and the candidate. When it was observed how much he had excelled the ordinary style of such compositions, he said he had now discovered his strength, and was ambitious of riding in his own carriage as a physician. This occurred towards the close of 1759.

Brown nest turned his attention to the establishment of a boarding-house for students, a resource which would enable him to maintain a family. His reputation for various attainments was, he thought, likely to draw round him a number sufficient to fill a large house. With this prospect he married in 1765 Miss Euphemia Lamont, daughter of Mr. John Lamont, merchant in Edinburgh, by whom he had twelve children. His success answered his expectations, and his house was soon filled with respectable boarders; but he lived too splendidly for his income; and it is said that he managed so ill, that in two or three years he became bankrupt. Towards the end of 1770, he was miserably reduced in circumstances, but he nevertheless continued to maintain his original independence of character. He seemed to be happy in his family; and, as far as could be observed, acquitted himself affectionately both as a husband and a parent. He still attended the medical classes, which, according to his own account, he had done for ten or eleven years.

From the celebrated Cullen he early received the most flattering marks of attention. This specialist, like Boerbaave, and other men of genius in the same station, was accustomed to watch the fluctuating body of students with a vigilant eye, and to seek the acquaintance of the most promising. Brown's intimate and classical knowledge of the Latin language served him as a peculiar recommendation ; and his circumstances might induce Cullen to believe that he could render this talent permanently useful to himself. Taking, therefore, its possessor under his immediate patronage, he gave him employment as a private instructor in his own family, and spared no pains in recommending him to others. A close intimacy ensued. The favoured pupil was at length permitted to give an evening lecture, in which he repeated, and sometimes illustrated, the morning lecture of the professor, for which purpose he was entrusted with Cullen's own notes. This friendship, however, was not of permanent duration.

"When the theoretical chair of medicine became vacant, Brown gave in his name as a candidate. On a former occasion, of a nature somewhat similar, he had disdained to avail himself of recommendations, which he might have obtained with ease; and, though his abilities were far superior to those of the other candidates, private interest then prevailed over the more just pretentions of merit. Such was his simplicity that he conceived nothing beyond pre-eminent qualifications necessary to success. The Magistrates and Council of Edinburgh were the patrons of this professorship, and they are reported, deridingly, to have inquired who this unknown and unfriended candidate was, and Cullen, on being shown the name, is said to have exclaimed, " "Why, sure this can never be our Jock!"

Estranged from Dr. Cullen, Brown gradually became his greatest enemy, and shortly afterwards found out the New Theory, which gave occasion to his publishing the "Element a Medicine?," in the preface to which work he gives an account of the accident that led to this discovery. The approbation his work met with among his friends, encouraged him to give lectures upon his system. Though these lectures were not very numerously attended by the students, owing to their dependence upon their professors, he had many adherents, to whom the sobriquet of "Brunonians" was attached. It is unnecessary to enter upon all the angry disputes that subsequeutly arose. Suffice it to say that the enmity of his medical opponents, his own violence, and the pecuniary embarrassments he laboured under, ultimately compelled him to leave Edinburgh for London in 1786. During his residence in Edinburgh, Dr. Brown was elected President of the Medical Society in 177G, and again in 1780.

Observing that the students of medicine frequently sought initiation into the mysteries of Freemasonry, our author thought their youthful curiosity afforded him a chance of proselytes. In 1784 he instituted a meeting of that fraternity, and entitled it the "Lodge of the Eoman Eagle." The business was conducted in the Latin language, which he spoke with uncommon fluency. "I was much diverted," observes Dr. Macdonald, "by his ingenuity in turning into Latin all the terms used in Masonry."

In lecturing, Dr. Brown had too frequently recourse to stimulants. He usually had a bottle of spirits—whisky generally—on one side, and a phial of laudanum on the other. Whenever he found himself languid preparatory to commencing, he would take forty or fifty drops of laudanum in a glass of whisky, repeating the quantity for four or five times during the course of the lecture. By these means he soon waxed warm, and by degrees his imagination became dreadfully excited. Before leaving Edinburgh, he was so miserably reduced in his circumstances as to be committed to prison for debt, where his pupils attended his lectures. His liberation from jail was principally attributable to the exertions of the eccentric but amiable Lord Gardenstone.

Shortly after his arrival in London, tbe peculiarity of his appearance as he moved along—a short, square figure—with an air of dignity, in a black suit, which made the scarlet of his cheeks and nose the more resplendent—attracted the notice of certain "Chevaliers d" Industrie" on the look-out for spoil in the street. They addressed him in the dialect of his country : his heart, heavy as it must have been from tbe precariousness of his situation and distance from his native land, expanded to these agreeable sounds. A conversation ensued, and the parties by common consent adjourned to a tavern. Here the stranger was kindly welcomed to town, and, after the glass had circulated for a time, something was proposed by way of amusement—a game at cards, or whatever the Doctor might prefer. The Doctor had been too civilly treated to demur; but his purse was scantily furnished, and it was necessary to quit his new friends in search of a supply. Fortunately he applied to Mr. Murray the bookseller, who speedily enlightened him as to the quality of his companions.

A London sharper, of another denomination, afterwards tried to take advantage of the Doctor. This was an ingenious speculator in quack medicines. He thought a composition of the most powerful stimulants might have a run, under the title of "Dr. Brown's Exciting Pill;" and, for the privilege of the name, offered him a sum in hand, by no means contemptible, as well as a share of the contemplated profits. Poor Brown, needy as he was, to his honour indignantly rejected the proposal.

By his sojourn in London, Brown did not improve his circumstances: he persisted in his old irregularities, projecting at the same time great designs, and entertaining sanguine expectations of success; but, on the 7th of October, 1783, when he was about fifty-two years of age, he was seized with a fit of apoplexy, and died in the course of the night.


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