“Who knows the fate of his bones?” wrote Sir Thomas Browne in his essay Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial or A Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, originally published in 1658.
Sir Thomas Browne was born in London in 1605. In 1637 he became a physician in Norwich and died there in 1682.
He was buried in the parish church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich.
Browne’s skull was removed from its resting place when, in 1840, his coffin became exposed and suffered damage during the preparations for another grave.
The Norwich surgeon Charles Williams, in a paper written in 1894 for Notes and Queries, describes how “workmen were making a grave for the incumbent when, it is asserted, they accidentally fractured with a blow of the pick-axe the lid of the coffin and thus exposed the skeleton. They then sent for a well-known antiquary living near the church, and still living near the city, who generally displays a certain reticence whenever questioned on this particular subject.”
The skull later came into the possession of Edward Lubbock, physician to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. In 1847 Lubbock presented the skull to the hospital’s pathology museum where it was placed under a glass bell jar and put on display.
Sir William Osler first visited the museum in 1872 to view the skull, and in 1901 he commissioned a glass and silver casket to be made for it. In an address delivered at Guy’s Hospital in 1905 Osler lamented that the “tender sympathy with the poor relics of humanity which Browne expresses so beautifully…has not been meted to his own.” Osler remembers his first sight of Browne’s skull and how “there was on
it a printed slip with these lines from the ‘Hydriotaphia’: ‘To be knaved out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking bowls, and our bones turned into pipes, to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations escaped in burning burials.’”
In 1893 the Vicar of St Peter Mancroft applied to the museum to have the skull returned. Williams recounts how the Hospital Board resisted this request on the grounds that “there is no legal title to, or property in, any such relic, so there can be no question that this and all other specimens in the Hospital Museum belong inalienably to the Governors. That no instance is known of such a claim for restitution having been made after nearly half a century on any museum, and were the Governors to yield to this request they might be unable to resist similar claims.”
Despite this robust defence of the hospital’s continued possession of the skull, Williams perhaps shows some embarrassment regarding the means by which it was acquired and writes: “For obvious reasons no minute of the gift was entered in the hospital books, so that the exact date of its acceptance is unknown.”
In 1921, following an examination to confirm that it truly was that of Sir Thomas Browne, the skull was eventually returned to the church of St Peter Mancroft for re-interment.
Five casts were made of Browne’s skull. The first to be made was presented in 1841 to the Norwich Castle Museum by Charles Muskett, and the second was made by Charles Williams using Muskett’s original cast and presented in 1907 to the Royal Society of Medicine. It is now displayed on the second floor of the Library.
The Society’s archive includes a letter dated September 2nd 1907 from Miss Agatha Williams, the daughter of Charles Williams. She writes:
I am sending you the cast of the skull of Sir Thomas Browne for the Royal Society of Medicine. It was the wish of my father that this should be done and which we found explained in a codicil to his will. You have heard no doubt of his sad death. I hope the skull will arrive safely.
Three more casts were made in 1922. They are housed in the church of St Peter Mancroft, the Sir Thomas Browne Library at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, and at the Royal College of Surgeons.
In 1966 all five casts were displayed together at a meeting of the RSM Section of the History of Medicine held at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
Williams C. The measurements of the skull of Sir Thomas Browne. London & Norwich,1895. Tract 3225.
Keith A. Phrenological studies of the skull and brain cast of Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich. Edinburgh & London: Oliver & Boyd,1924. Quarto Tract 949.
Shaw AB. Sir Thomas Browne, physician and man of letters, with an account of his skull. J Med Biog 1993; 1: 230-235
Shaw AB. A historical exhibition from the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Proc R Soc Med 1966; 59:1241-2 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1901359/pdf/procrsmed00175-0020.pdf
Meyrick FJ. Sir Thomas Browne: the story of his skull, his wig, and his coffin plate. BMJ 1922; 1: 725-6.
Obituary for Charles Williams. The Lancet 1907; 2: 562
Osler W. Religio Medici. An address delivered at Guy’s Hospital, October, 1905. Reprinted from The Library, January, 1906. London: The Chiswick Press, 1906. Octavo Tract 4145
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