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Significant Scots
John Brown


BROWN, JOHN, M. D. founder of what is termed the Brunonian system in medicine, and one of the most eccentric and extraordinary men of his time, was a native of the parish of Bunkle, in Berwickshire, where he was born, in the year 1735, or, as others assert, in 1737. Though only the son of a day-labourer, he contrived to obtain an excellent classical education at the school of Dunse, which was then taught by Mr William Cruickshank, one of the most celebrated teachers that Scotland has produced. The genius and application of Brown were alike so great, that, at an age when the most of children are only beginning their letters, he was far advanced in a knowledge of Latin. His studies, after some time, were broken off in consequence of the inability of his father to maintain him at school He was bound apprentice to the gloomy and monotonous craft of a weaver, which must have been peculiarly unsuitable to his lively faculties. However, he seems to have afterwards been enabled by the kindness of his teacher to renew his studies; and it is known that for this purpose he had employed himself on the harveswield. His proficiency in the Latin recommended him, first to the situation of usher in the school, and afterwards to that of tutor in a neighbouring family. When about twenty years of age, he removed to Edinburgh, and entering the university, advanced so far in the study of divinity, as to deliver a discourse preparatory to commencing his trials before the presbytery. Brown, however, was not destined to be a member of this profession. Owing to some unexplained freak of feeling, he turned back from the very threshold, and for some years supported himself in the humble capacity of a grinder in the university. His services in this capacity to the medical students introduced him to a knowledge of medicine, which he suddenly resolved to prosecute as a profession. His natural ardour of mind enabled him very speedily to master the necessary studies, in which he was greatly assisted by the particular kindness and attention of Dr Cullen, then professor of medicine in the university. At one period, he acted as Latin secretary to this great man, with whom he afterwards quarrelled in the most violent. manner. In 1765, be married, and set up a house for the purpose of receiving medical students as boarders. But, his irregular and improvident conduct reduced him to bankruptcy in the short space of two years. A vacancy occurring in the High School, he became a candidate; but being too proud of his real qualifications to think any other recommendation necessary, he was overlooked in favour of some child of patronage. It is said that, when his name, and his name alone, was presented to the eyes of the magistrates, they derisively asked who he was; to which Cullen, then separated in affection from his former pupil, is stated to have answered, with some real or affected hesitation—" Why, sure, this can never be our Jock !" Brown met with a similar repulse, on applying for the chair of theoretical medicine in the university. Yet, notwithstanding every discouragement from the great men of his own profession, this eccentric genius was pressing on towards the completion of that peculiar system by which his name has been distinguished. His views were given to the world, in 1780, under the title "Elementa Medicine ;" and he illustrated them further by lectures, which wore attended, as a supernumerary course, by many of the regular students of the university. The Brunonian system simply consisted in the administration of a course of stimulants, instead of the so-called anti-phlogistic remedies, as a means of producing that change in the system which is necessary to work a cure. The idea was perhaps suggested by his own habits of life, which were unfortunately so very dissolute as to deprive him of all personal respect. He was, perhaps, the only great drinker, who ever exulted in that degrading vice, as justified by philosophical principles. So far from concealing his practices, he used to keep a bottle of whiskey, and another of laudanum, upon the table before hint; and, throughout the course of the lecture, he seldom took fewer than three or four doses from each. In truth, Brown lived at a time when men of genius did not conceive ii to be appropriate to their character as such, to conduct themselves with decency. Thus, a man who might have adorned the highest walks of society by his many brilliant qualities, was only fit for the company of the lowest and most despicable characters. He was a devout free-mason, but more for the sake of the conviviality to which it affords so fatal an excuse, than for the more recondite and mysterious attractions (if any such exist) of the fraternity.

He was the founder of a peculiar lodge in Edinburgh, called the "Roman Eagle," where no language but Latin was allowed to be spoken. Some of his friends remarked with astonishment the readiness with which he could translate the technicalities into slang of masonry into this language, which, however he at all times spoke with the same fluency as his vernacular Scotch. It affords a lamentable view of the state of literary society in Edinburgh between the years 1780 and 1790, that this learned lodge was perhaps characterised by a deetier system of debauch than any other. In 1786, Brown removed to London, in order to push his fortune as a lecturer on his own system of medicine, which had already acquired no little fame. But the irregularity of his conduct, and the irascibility of his temperament, rendered all his hopes fruitless. He died at London, October 7, 1799, of a fit of apoplexy, being then little snore than fifty years of age. His works have been collected and published by his son; but, like the system which they explain, they are now forgotten.


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