Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The two Scottish doctors John Brown

Left: John Brown (1735–1788). US National Archives. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.
Right: John Brown (1810–1882). Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia. CC BY 4.0.


There were two John Brown physicians of note in Scotland, sometimes confused with one another and for practical purposes identified by the date of their birth.

The older John Brown was born in 1735 in a village in the south of Scotland. He had the benefit of a good classical education and is believed to have read the entire Old Testament by the age of five. His family was poor. When he turned ten they took him out of school and apprenticed him to a weaver. Later he was able to return to school free of charge, and showed himself to have a prodigious memory and excel in academics, also in boxing, wrestling, and football.

At about nineteen Brown left his family and went to Edinburgh to study theology. Later he switched to medicine, supporting himself by teaching Latin, coaching students, and opening a boarding house. As his views were considered heretical, they would not give him a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Instead he graduated from St. Andrews, then became a private tutor to the children in the household of William Cullen, one of the prominent Edinburgh physicians of his time. Later he had serious disagreements with Cullen and began to teach his own system of medicine.

In 1761 Brown was elected to the Royal Society of Medicine of Edinburgh. He was influential with students but never able to establish a successful practice. At one time he was even sent to debtor’s prison. In 1786 he moved because of money troubles to London. He was again unsuccessful. Two years later he was found dead in bed, from a stroke or perhaps from too much of his favorite gout medicine, brandy and opium. He is also noted as the great-grandfather of the English novelist Ford Maddox Brown, author of The Good Soldier.

Brown’s views about medicine were radical, and so were those of his pupils and admirers, who came to be known as Brunonians. They argued that there existed only one single disease in the world, but that it could manifest itself in different ways and with different degrees of severity. Its symptoms depended on whether they were manifestations of over-excitement or under-stimulation of the body. Overstimulation was to be treated by inducing vomiting, exposure to cold air, and purging. Under-stimulated patients were to receive opium, roast beef, and alcoholic beverages.
Brown’s views were never accepted in Britain except by a small group of followers. Interestingly, they found some popularity in Europe, especially in Germany, but also elsewhere, as doctors were looking for a scientific explanation for diseases at a time when bacteria had not yet been discovered. Brown’s publication, Elementa Medicinae, was translated into German in 1795 and became for a limited time quite popular.

The younger doctor Brown was born in 1810, the son of a clergyman also called John Brown. After graduating in 1833 from the University of Edinburgh, he was apprenticed to the famous obstetrician James Syme and subsequently acquired a large medical practice in Edinburgh. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1847 and also its honorary librarian. He is remembered for writing essays and papers on art, medical history, and biography. He became become famous for writing “Rab and his Friends” (1859), the story of a ferocious dog who among other incidents has a fight with a bull-terrier. He also wrote Pet Marjorie (1863), the story of a ten-year-old prodigy and an alleged “pet” of Walter Scott.

Brown was a competent doctor with good diagnostic skills and popular in Edinburgh society. He numbered William Makepeace Thackeray and Mark Twain among his friends and supported the arts. Extremely conservative in his views, he opposed specialization in medicine because he thought it was destroying the doctor-patient relationship. Learning medicine from books and lectures, he thought, was a waste of time. He considered examinations to be an inappropriate way of evaluating medical students, but regarded the study of ornithology useful for honing one’s clinical observational skills. He did not think men should practice obstetrics or midwifery, nor should women become doctors. Neither did he approve of the technological advances of his time, apparently not even of Laennec’s stethoscope. He also opposed the use of microscopy and chemical analysis as aids to diagnosis. He lived a long life, is said to have suffered from depression in his old age, and died from pneumonia in 1882. Perhaps Brown represents the prototype of the successful physician practicing in society before the days of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Fall 2022  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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