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Sir James Crichton-Browne (1840–1938)
  1. J M S Pearce
  1. 304 Beverley Road, Anlaby, Hull HU10 7BG; jmspearce{at}

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    James Crichton-Browne1 was born in Edinburgh, the son of Dr WAF Browne, first superintendent of Crichton Royal, Dumfries. James was educated in Dumfries and began his medical studies at Edinburgh University in 1857, a pupil of Joseph Lister (1827–1912) and James Syme (1799–1879).

    His interests in psychiatry were soon evident. As a medical student he read a paper to the Royal Medical Society, The psychical diseases of early life. Crichton-Browne graduated in 1861, and obtained the MD in 1862. He worked in asylums in Derby, Devon, and Newcastle. In 1866, at the early age of 26, he was appointed as Superintendent Medical Director of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum at Wakefield, and in nine years established the hospital as a leading centre of research and treatment. Though lacking Ferrier’s scientific ability, he was a skilled administrator and a flamboyant highly persuasive speaker. He inaugurated the Annual medical reports of the West Riding Asylum in 1871, which were published annually for six years, and 62 of these 79 articles came from Wakefield Asylum. And he appointed a pathologist, the first to occupy a research laboratory within an asylum. He attracted many talented young men to cooperate in his research. They included David Ferrier and Hughlings Jackson, who worked on cerebral localisation, and on epilepsy.2 They painstakingly studied clinical phenomena and the neuropathology of their patients. For instance, in general paralysis of the insane, over 1500 autopsies were performed. In search of therapies, Crichton-Browne also experimented with the effects of electrical stimulation of the cranium (analogous to ECT) and investigated the effects of ergot, nitrous oxide, and opium. One can understand the high reputation of their medical reports of the West Riding Asylum.3 In 1878, Crichton-Browne with Ferrier, Jackson, and Sir John Bucknill founded the celebrated neurological journal Brain. By now the doyen of mental health, Crichton-Browne moved to London in 1876 and became the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy, a post he held until 1922. This was a well paid and highly prestigious job: one he secured against the competition of Henry Maudsley, the most illustrious psychiatrist of the day, who founded the Maudsley Hospital. But Crichton-Browne had abandoned research, and became a portentous public figure who worked to good effect in improving lighting, sanitation, and many public health problems. As an impressive after dinner speaker and radio broadcaster he kept himself prominent in the public eye; a favourite subject was his opposition to teetotalism, maintaining that “no writer has done much without alcohol”.

    Well versed in the great poets and novelists, his writings are a joy to read.3,4 He published an acclaimed book on Robert Burns, and a five volume autobiography. He met Thomas Carlyle and his family in London and after Carlyle’s death he wrote extensively about him and his wife Jane Carlyle; he entered the seething controversy initiated by Froude, their biographer, about their personal lives and behaviour,5 which would now fill the tabloids for weeks.

    Crichton-Browne assisted Charles Darwin with drawings and pictures when Darwin was writing his Expression of the emotions in man and animals. Such was Darwin’s regard for him that he proposed his election to the Royal Society in 1883. Queen Victoria bestowed a knighthood in 1886. He lived until 1937, publishing his last book in his, that, year. In 1865, he had married Emily, youngest daughter of Dr J Halliday, a surgeon in Seacombe, Cheshire. She died in 1903 leaving a son and a daughter. His second wife Emily, was daughter of General Sir E Bulwer, and a great-niece of Bulwer-Lytton (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, writer (1803–1873), who coined the memorable adage, “A good heart is better than all the heads in the world”).

    A portrait of Crichton-Browne by Hannah Gluckstein, 1928, is catalogued at the National Portrait Gallery. And you may not wish to learn that he was portrayed on a cigarette card in a series on Famous Scots published by Mitchell, Ardath in 1935.

    His recipe for longevity was—“work and plenty of it”.


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