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Darwin Correspondence Project

James Crichton-Browne


Sir James Crichton Browne
Sir James Crichton Browne, Photograph, ICV No 29012
Wellcome Library, London

James Crichton-Browne became one of the most distinguished psychiatrists of the late nineteenth-century, but the letters he exchanged with Charles Darwin as the young and overworked superintendent of the largest mental asylum in England, are almost the only personal papers to survive from this stage of his career.  They also both show Darwin's own preoccupations and working methods as he researched human emotional expression, and reveal the lives of Crichton-Browne's patients - many of his letters enclosed copies of their case notes and even photographs. 

Browne was the son of William Alexander Francis Browne, a pioneer in the treatment of the insane, and Magdalene Howden Balfour, herself the daughter and sister of doctors. William Browne's name heads the diploma conferring honorary membership of the Edinburgh Royal Medical Society on Darwin in 1861. 

James Crichton-Browne became Medical Superintendent of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, in August 1867 and, in nearly ten years there, established a reputation as an energetic pioneer not only in the spheres of diagnosis and treatment, but also of research.  He moved to the post of Lord Chancellor’s visitor in lunacy in 1876, retiring in 1922.

The information about the hair standing on end is now quite ample.

Crichton-Browne's correspondence with Charles Darwin began in May 1869, when Darwin had recently resumed work on what became Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex (1870) and Expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872), and the last known letter is from December 1875, shortly before Crichton-Browne left Wakefield. Most date before 1872, during the period when Darwin was intensively researching and writing Expression; he sent lists and lists of questions and received immensely detailed responses, including lengthy accounts of individual patients. Darwin, having found his “excellent observer” relied for queries relating to the insane almost entirely on Crichton-Browne, getting information on subjects such as the bristling of the hair, baring of teeth, and blushing, in each case seeking to establish links to behaviour in non-human animals.


In 1873 Crichton-Browne initiated a short exchange seeking Darwin’s support for an ambitious research programme; and in 1874, it was again Darwin’s turn to solicit help, this time for his son George Darwin’s research into the effects of cousin-marriage on the health of offspring.  This cycle reveals Darwin’s role as a patron, an aspect of his contribution to science that has rarely been discussed in any detail, and the construction by both men of complex networks of support and influence.


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