Brown, John

born 1735, Buncle, Berwickshire, Scot.
died Oct. 17, 1788, London, Eng.

British physician.

He propounded the "excitability" theory published in Elementa medicinae (1780), which classified diseases as over-or understimulating and held that internal and external "exciting powers," or stimuli, operate on living tissues. Brown viewed diseases as states of decreased excitability, requiring stimulants, or increased excitability, requiring sedatives. Hermann von Helmholtz discredited the theory.
born May 9, 1800, Torrington, Conn., U.S.
died Dec. 2, 1859, Charles Town, Va.

U.S. abolitionist.

He grew up in Ohio, where his mother died insane when he was eight. He moved around the country working in various trades and raised a large family of 20 children. Though he was white, he settled in 1849 with his family in a black community founded at North Elba, N.Y. An ardent advocate of overt action to end slavery, he traveled to Kansas in 1855 with five of his sons to retaliate against proslavery actions in Lawrence. He and his group murdered five proslavery settlers (see Bleeding Kansas). In 1858 he proposed to establish a mountain stronghold in Maryland for escaping slaves, to be financed by abolitionists. He hoped that taking the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., would inspire slaves to join his "army of emancipation." In 1859 his small force overpowered the arsenal's guard; after two days it was in turn overpowered by federal forces led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried for treason, convicted, and hanged. His raid made him a martyr to northern abolitionists and increased the sectional animosities that led to the American Civil War.

* * *

▪ American abolitionist
born May 9, 1800, Torrington, Connecticut, U.S.
died December 2, 1859, Charles Town, Virginia [now in West Virginia]
 militant American abolitionist whose raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), in 1859 made him a martyr to the antislavery cause and was instrumental in heightening sectional animosities that led to the American Civil War (1861–65).

      Moving about restlessly through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, Brown was barely able to support his large family in any of several vocations at which he tried his hand: tanner, sheep drover, wool merchant, farmer, and land speculator. Though he was white, in 1849 Brown settled with his family in a black community founded at North Elba, New York, on land donated by the New York antislavery philanthropist Gerrit Smith (Smith, Gerrit). Long a foe of slavery, Brown became obsessed with the idea of taking overt action to help win justice for enslaved black people. In 1855 he followed five of his sons to the Kansas Territory to assist antislavery forces struggling for control there. With a wagon laden with guns and ammunition, Brown settled in Osawatomie and soon became the leader of antislavery guerrillas in the area.

      Brooding over the sack of the town of Lawrence by a mob of slavery sympathizers (May 21, 1856), Brown concluded that he had a divine mission to take vengeance. Three days later he led a nighttime retaliatory raid on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie (Pottawatomie Massacre) Creek, in which five men were dragged out of their cabins and hacked to death. After this raid, the name of “Old Osawatomie Brown” conjured up a fearful image among local slavery apologists.

      In the spring of 1858, Brown convened a meeting of blacks and whites in Chatham, Ontario, at which he announced his intention of establishing in the Maryland and Virginia mountains a stronghold for escaping slaves. He proposed, and the convention adopted, a provisional constitution for the people of the United States. He was elected commander in chief of this paper government while gaining the moral and financial support of Gerrit Smith and several prominent Boston abolitionists.

 In the summer of 1859, with an armed band of 16 whites and 5 blacks, Brown set up a headquarters in a rented farmhouse in Maryland, across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, the site of a federal armoury. On the night of October 16, he quickly took the armoury and rounded up some 60 leading men of the area as hostages. Brown took this desperate action in the hope that escaped slaves would join his rebellion, forming an “army of emancipation” with which to liberate their fellow slaves. Throughout the next day and night he and his men held out against the local militia, but on the following morning he surrendered to a small force of U.S. Marines who had broken in and overpowered him. Brown himself was wounded, and 10 of his followers (including two sons) were killed. He was tried for murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state and was convicted and hanged.

      Although Brown failed to spark a general slave revolt, the high moral tone of his defense helped to immortalize him and to hasten the war that would bring emancipation.

▪ British physician
born 1735, Buncle, Berwickshire, Scot.
died Oct. 17, 1788, London

      British propounder of the “excitability” theory of medicine, which classified diseases according to whether they had an over- or an understimulating effect on the body.

      Brown studied under the distinguished professor of medicine William Cullen (Cullen, William) at the University of Edinburgh, but was forced to receive his M.D. from St. Andrews (1779) because of his unpopularity with his colleagues. It was while studying with Cullen that Brown began to develop his theory, which held that all living tissues are “excitable” and postulated that the state of life is dependent on certain internal and external “exciting powers,” or stimuli, that operate on it. Brown viewed diseases as states of either decreased or increased excitability, and generally prescribed stimulants for the former condition and sedatives for the latter. His recommended treatments often consisted of wine or laudanum.

      In 1780 he published the celebrated exposition of his doctrine, Elementa Medicinae, which was appreciated as much for the purity of Brown's Latin as for the practicality of its teachings. It was read with attention and was well received throughout the medical centres of Europe. In the meantime, Brown's detractors in Edinburgh grew, his practice declined, and attendance at his lectures dropped. In debt—he had served time in a debtor's prison—and out of favour in Edinburgh, he moved his family to London, where he died not long after.

      Brown's theory was at the height of its popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it gradually went out of favour.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.