James Cowles Prichard


James Cowles Prichard

James Cowles Prichard MD FRS (February 11, 1786December 23, 1848), English physician and ethnologist, was born at Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire. His influential "Researches into the physical history of mankind" touched upon the subject of evolution.

Life and education

His parents were Quakers: his mother Welsh, and his father of an English family who had emigrated to Pennsylvania. Within a few years of his birth in Ross, Prichard's parents moved to Bristol, where his father now worked in the Quaker ironworks of Harford, Partridge and Cowles. Upon his father's retirement in 1800 he returned to Ross. As a child Prichard was educated mainly at home by tutors and his father, in a range of subjects, including modern languages and general literature. [Stocking, George W. Jr 1973. From chronology to ethnology: James Cowles Prichard and British Anthropology 1800–1850. Introduction to the reprint of "Researches into the physical history of man", 1st ed 1813. Chicago 1973.]

Rejecting his father's wish that he should join the ironworks, Prichard decided upon a medical career. Here he faced the difficulty that as a Quaker he could not become a member of the Royal College of Physicians. Therefore he started on apprenticeships that lead to the ranks of apothcaries and surgeons. The first step was to study under the Quaker obstretition Dr Thomas Pole of Bristol. Apprenticeships followed to other Quaker physicians, and to St Thomas' Hospital in London. Eventually, in 1805, he took the plunge: he entered medical school at Edinburgh University, where his religious affiliation was no bar. Also, Scottish universities were in esteem, having contributed greatly to the Enlightenment of the previous century.

He took his M.D. at Edinburgh, his doctoral thesis of 1808 being his first attempt at the great question of his life: the origin of human varieties and races. [Prichard J.C. 1808. "De generis humani varietate". Abernethy & Walker, Edinbugh.] Later, he read for a year at Trinity College, Cambridge, after which came a significant personal event: he left the Society of Friends to join the established Church of England. He next moved to St John's College, Oxford, afterwards entering as a gentleman commoner at Trinity College, Oxford, but taking no degree in either university. [Stocking, op. cit.]

Work

In 1810 Prichard settled at Bristol as a physician, eventually attaining an established position at the Bristol Infirmary in 1816.

In 1813 he published his "Researches into the Physical History of Man", in 2 vols, on essentially the same themes as his dissertation in 1808. The book grew until the 3rd ed of 1836-47 occupied five volumes. The central conclusion of the work is the primitive unity of the human species, acted upon by causes which have since divided it into permanent varieties or races. The work is dedicated to Blumenbach, whose five races of man are adopted. But where Prichard excelled Blumenbach and all his other predecessors was in his grasp of the principle that people should be studied by combining all available characters.

Evolution

The three British men, all medically qualified and publishing between 1813 and 1819, Lawrence, Wells and Prichard, addressed issues relevant to human evolution. All tackled the question of variation and race in humans; all agreed that these differences were heritable, but only Wells approached the idea of natural selection as a cause. For this reason he is generally held to be the most significant proto-evolutionist of that time. However, it is interesting and noteworthy that Prichard pin-points Africa (indirectly) as the place of human origin, in this summary passage:

:"On the whole there are many reasons which lead us to the conclusion that the primitive stock of men were probably Negroes, and I know of no argument to be set on the other side." [Prichard J.C. 1913. "Researches into the physical history of mankind". Arch, London. p238-9]

In this he is a true antecedent of Charles Darwin, whose "Descent of Man" made the claim for our African heritage explicit (see Race (classification of human beings), Race and genetics, Historical definitions of race for further discussions). Unfortunately, this striking and essentially correct opinion was omitted in later editions, for reasons which are unclear. As a consequence of this and other changes, Prichard's book was at its best (so far as this point goes) in its shorter first edition. [Stocking, op. cit. plxv] However, some others have identified the second edition as the best for its evolutionary ideas. [Morton, Leslie 1970. "A medical bibliography (Garrison & Morton): an annotated checklist of texts illustrating the history of medicine". Deutsch, London. entry #159]

Anthropology

In 1843 Prichard published his "Natural History of Man", in which he reiterated his belief in the specific unity of man, pointing out that the same inward and mental nature is to be recognized in all the races. [Prichard J.C. 1843. The natural history of man, &c. Baillière, London.] Prichard was an early member of the Aboriginal Protection Society, which influenced the 1869 Aboriginal Protection Act.

Prichard was more influential in ethnology and anthropology than is realized today. One investigation begun in this work requires special mention, the bringing into view of the fact that the Celtic nations are allied by language with the Slavonian, German and Pelasgian (Greek and Latin), thus forming a fourth European branch of the Asiatic stock (which would now be called Indo-European or Aryan). His special treatise containing Celtic compared with Sanskrit words appeared in 1831 under the title "Eastern Origin of the Celtic nations". An essay by Adolphe Pictet, which made its author's reputation, was published in ignorance of the earlier and in some respects stricter investigations of Prichard. [Pictet, Adolphe 1837. "De l'Affinité des langues celtiques avec le sanscrit". Paris, Académie Française.]

Psychiatry

In medicine, he specialised in what we now call psychiatry. In 1822 he published "Treatise on diseases of the nervous aystem" (pt. I), and in 1835 a "Treatise on insanity and other disorders affecting the mind", in which he advanced the theory of the existence of a distinct mental disease, moral insanity. In 1842, following up this suggestion, he published "On the different forms of insanity in relation to jurisprudence designed for the use of persons concerned in legal questions regarding unsoundness of mind".

In 1845 he was made a Commissioner in Lunacy, and removed to London. He died there three years later of rheumatic fever. At the time of his death he was president of the Ethnological Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society. [Prichard was elected FRS in 1826 or 1827: Royal Society records give both dates.]

Other works

Among his other works were:
*"A review of the doctrine of a vital principle" (1829)
*"On the treatment of hemiplegia" (1831)
*"On the extinction of some varieties of the human race" (1839)
*"Analysis of Egyptian mythology" (1819).

References and further reading

*Augstein, Hannah Franziska. "James Cowles Prichard's Anthropology: remaking the science of Man in early nineteenth-century Britain". Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999. ISBN 90-420-0414-2; ISBN 90-420-0404-5 (pbk)

*See "Memoir" by Dr Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) in the "Journal of the Ethnological Society" (Feb. 1849); "Memoir" read before the Bath and Bristol branch of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association (March 1849) by Dr JA Symonds ("Journ. Eth. Soc.", (1850); Prichard and Symonds in "Special relation to mental science", by Dr Hack Tuke (1891).

*Symonds, John Addington 1871. On the life, writings and character of the late James Cowles Prichard. In "Miscellanies.. of Symonds", edited by his son, Macmillan, London.

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