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Biographical entry Browne, Sir George Buckston (1850 - 1945)

KB 1932; MRCS 28 July 1874; FRCS by election 15 April 1926; Hon LMSSA 1944; Hon LLD Aberdeen.

13 April 1850
19 January 1945
Urological surgeon


Born 13 April 1850 in Manchester, the elder son of Henry Browne, MD (1819-1901), physician to Manchester Royal Infirmary, and Ann, his wife daughter of George Hadfield, MP for Sheffield. Henry Browne's father and grandfather had practised at Manchester since the latter, George Buckston Browne (1756-1811), qualified as a Member of the Company of Surgeons of London on 11 March 1779. He was the younger son of Theophilus Browne (born 1715), apothecary of Derby, and Margaret daughter of George Buckston of Bradbourne Hall. Theophilus was the son and grandson of clergymen, both Cambridge graduates; he was friend of Erasmus Darwin; his elder son Henry succeeded to his practice as an apothecary and was twice mayor of Derby.

Sir Buckston Browne was thus the fifth medical man in direct paternal descent from Theophilus. He was educated at Amersham Hall School Reading, and at Owens College, Manchester, and in 1866 matriculated at University College, London. He won medals in anatomy, chemistry and midwifery and a gold medal in practical chemistry, and served for a time as demonstrator of anatomy to Professor G V Ellis. At University College Hospital he won the Liston gold medal in surgery, and was elected after open practical competition house surgeon to Sir John Erichsen. He had qualified MRCS in 1874, but before opportunities for further hospital appointments appeared he was invited by Sir Henry Thompson to become his private assistant. This position Browne held for fourteen years, and in 1884 he also started his own consultant practice. In those days elderly men who would now undergo excision of the prostate had to suffer partial operation followed by a "catheter" life under the personal supervision of their surgeon. Thompson had the largest practice of this nature in London. He was also a man of great social distinction, a connoisseur, an artist, and a famous host. Buckston Browne profited both professionally and intellectually from their long association. Although holding no hospital appointment and the Membership as his sole qualification, he achieved through great dexterity, skill and assiduous work, supported by modest, straightforward self-reliance the leading practice in this line of surgery. He never took a holiday though he often walked twenty or thirty miles out of London and back. Among his distinguished patients were R L Stevenson and George Meredith, as Meredith recorded in an appreciative letter afterward published. Meredith dedicated his novel Lord Ormont and his Aminta 1894: "Gratefully inscribed to George Buckston Browne, surgeon. Browne has recorded (Rationalist annual, 1938) how he used to walk from Wimpole Street to breakfast with his patient at Box Hill, twenty-six miles south of London. Another patient was Sidney Cooper, RA, who lived to be 100 years old.

In 1901 Browne delivered the Harveian Society's lectures, speaking on twenty-five years of urinary surgery in England. He had been a member of the society since the year in which he qualified, but he felt that the invitation to deliver the lectures was of great professional benefit 'to one who had so long practised without public recognition'. He was also a member of the Clinical and Pathological Societies, and of the Medical Society of London of which he was ultimately elected an honorary Fellow. In 1909, when Browne retired, he found himself a very rich man. He had spent much on pictures and objects of art, a taste fostered by Sir Henry Thompson's example, from whom also he acquired appreciation of the worth to professional men of dining together in amity. His first relaxation was a voyage round the world, during which he was shipwrecked off the New Zealand coast. Soon his life was clouded by bereavement. He had married in 1874, the year of his qualification, Helen Elizabeth, daughter of George Vaine of Sparsholt, Hampshire. During the first great war their only son, Lieutenant-Colonel George Buckston Browne, DSO, RFA, was killed, and in 1924 their only grandson, George Buckston Browne, the sixth, died of enteric fever. Mrs Browne died in 1926. Their only daughter married Sir Hugh Lett, Baronet, sometime PRCS. Lady Lett survived her father.

Buckston Browne now devoted himself to public benefactions, especially to those destined to furthering mutual accord within his profession and to the promotion of surgical science. His benefactions were partly prompted by fear that his name might be forgotten, as he had outlived his son and grandson, but at the same time he was sincerely modest and took real pleasure in small private acts of generosity for which he always "begged no acknowledgment". In 1927 Browne endowed at the College an annual Buckston Browne Dinner at which fifty Fellows and fifty Members should sit down together in amity within the College house. The Buckston Browne Dinner was warmly welcomed and encouraged by successive Councils and was a most potent force in bringing the generality of Members back into contact with the College's affairs. Browne himself usually made one of his excellent speeches, simple, direct, and very clearly enunciated, at the dinner. He spoke at the wartime Buckston Browne Luncheon in 1944, when already in his ninety-fifth year. At several of the dinners he gave each guest a small parting present, and in 1938, when his son-in-law Sir Hugh Lett was President, it took the form of a silver snuff-box suitably inscribed and full of "Kendal brown" snuff. Browne had long been a total abstainer from alcohol and smoking, though a generous host providing excellent wine and cigars for his less abstemious friends. But he had long taken snuff which he recommended as a sure prophylactic against the common cold.

In 1928 Browne endowed an annual dinner for the Harveian Society, which became one of the best-liked social foregatherings of the profession. But he did not neglect the more serious work of the Society or the College. At the Harveian Society he endowed a biennial Buckston Browne prize in memory of his son, to be awarded for an essay based on original work, and accompanied by a Harveian medal designed for him by the Royal Mint, at the suggestion of his friend Sir D'Arcy Power, FRCS, from Faithorne's engraved portrait of William Harvey. The Society elected him its life-president.

His benefactions to the College were even more princely the building and endowment to a value of £100,000 of a surgical research-farm under the direct control of the College. Browne who had been brought up in the high day of Victorian agnosticism had one particular hero, Charles Darwin, next to whom he ranked John Hunter, Edward Jenner, and Joseph Lister. In 1928 Sir Arthur Keith, FRCS, when president of British Association, appealed publicly for the preservation of Darwin's house at Downe, Kent, which was for sale. Browne immediately bought it, presented it to the British Association to preserve as a national Darwin memorial, and proceeded with characteristic thoroughness to re-collect Darwin's furniture for it. He was successful in securing the co-operation to this end of the Darwin family, but also placed in the house some his own family portraits, as a memorial to his wife and son. In 1931, when Keith suggested to him the need for young surgeons to have some retreat comparable to John Hunter's farm at Earl's Court, where their researches would be uninterrupted by the pressure of metropolitan interests, Browne bought thirteen acres adjoining the Darwin estate, built the Buckston Browne research farm, and presented it to the College. He had been elected a Fellow in 1926 as a Member of twenty years standing, and in 1931 was awarded the honorary medal of the College. In 1932 he was created a Knight Bachelor. He was also awarded the honorary doctorate of laws by Aberdeen University.

Browne was a generous benefactor to University College Hospital where he equipped the senior common room with fine furniture and pictures of his own collecting, and also endowed a bed in memory his wife. To Wesley College, Cambridge, he presented a previously unknown portrait of John Wesley, and to the Royal College of Surgeons a charming eighteenth-century portrait of John Hunter which he believed to be by Gainsborough. In 1931 he paid for and personally supervised the restoration of the Hunterian museum pictures. He was elected a freeman of the Society of Apothecaries in 1938, and in 1944 an honorary licentiate. At one of his last public appearances (1944) he gave the Society a gift of silver in honour of his son-in-law's Mastership.

Browne's interests and benefactions were not confined to his profession. He served as president of the Old Owensian Association and as vice-president of the Dickens Fellowship. At Sparsholt, his wife's old home, he endowed two cottages in her memory. To the Victoria and Albert Museum he gave a bust of King Charles II and a Chippendale barometer, and also made gifts to the National Portrait Gallery. He had given away during his lifetime very considerably more than £100,000. His pictures and art collections were sold at Christie's in April and his books at Sotheby's in May 1945. Browne continued active till the close of his life. In his eighties, he would frequently walk the fifteen miles between his house, 80 Wimpole Street, and his "farm" at Downe, and always went about London on foot. He still wrote an excellent, bold hand, and was a fairly frequent contributor to the medical journals and to The Times. He lived in London almost throughout the war of 1939-45, being with difficulty persuaded to take refuge at Sparsholt for some months, though in fact he had by then lived through the worst of the air-raids in London. He broke his femur early in the new year of 1945 and died in University College Hospital on 19 January 1945, three months before his ninety-fifth birthday.

Painting in oils by E Bundy, ARA, at the Farm; painted in 1915. Bronze bust by C Hartwell, commissioned in 1931 by the Council of the College, at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Painting in oils by Robin Darwin, great-grandson of Charles Darwin, at Downe House; painted about 1933. Miniature by P Buckman, exhibited at the Royal Academy 1934. Bronze bust by J N Gosse at the Farm, presented by Dr A H Gosse 1935. There are several photographs in the College collection, which show better than the formal portraits his air of genial independence.

Twenty-five years' experience of urinary surgery in England. Harveian Society's lectures 1901.
Urinary surgery, in Heath's Dictionary of surgery.
Edward Jenner. Med Press 1934, 137, 206; reprinted in British masters of medicine, edited by Sir D'Arcy Power, 1936.
The rise of the medical profession (speech at Buckston Browne luncheon, Royal College of Surgeons, 12 February 1942). Privately printed.
Reminiscences. Rationalist annual, 1938.
University College Hospital medical school. Senior common room. An illustrated description of the pictures and furniture presented by Sir Buckston Browne. 44 pages, portrait, and 14 plates. Also an unillustrated edition, 12 pages.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 22 January 1945, p 6f; Lancet, 1945, 1, 132; Brit med J. 1945, 1, 132, with portrait; Med Press, 1945, 213, 79, with photograph of Browne standing on his doorstep; Nature, 1945, 155, 138, eulogy by Sir Arthur Keith, FRS; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England