Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today, while browsing through Sir Thomas Browne's miscellaneous writings, trying to find his assessment upon Peruvian cinchona bark, new to 17th century medicine and hailed as a 'miracle' cure of malaria, I came upon a short amusing paragraph worth reproducing as regards Browne's ornithological inclinations.

Among his numerous interests Browne was a keen bird-fancier. It's recorded that at one time he kept as a pet an owl, a bittern, an eagle and even an ostrich. A short tract upon Falconry survives, and he's also credited with coining the word 'incubation' into the English language. One wonders just how he found time to attend to any of his patients with his many hobbies!

I'm planning to add a page upon the many neologisms Browne coined into the English language soon. Anyway, here's the paragraph from a tract on the Birds of Norfolk which made me chuckle, nearly as much as seeing a photo of an octopus embracing a bottle of Ouzo. And no, a pelican did not fly over my garden today either! In his short tract on the birds of Norfolk, Browne writes-

An onocrotalus, or pelican, shot upon Horsey Fen, May 22, 1663, which stuffed and cleansed, I yet retain. It was three yards and a half between the extremities of the wings; the chowle and beak answering the usual description; the rest of the body white; a fowl which none could remember upon this coast. About the same time I heard of the king's pelican's was lost at St. James; perhaps this might be the same.

Far less funny is the plight this summer of thousands of American pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, due to the oil disaster. Just innocent bystanders in the collision between human greed and nature. Over 612 Brown pelicans killed as a result of the spillage as of July 2010.

The Pelican was the name for a common piece of alchemical apparatus. Its function was 'the digestion of substances by long steeping in hot fluid to extract the essence'. The apparatus worked by reflux distillation - the substance under treatment was boiled and the vapour condensed in a glass head, it then flowed back again, causing a process of circulation.

Alchemical and Christian iconography often used the emblem of the Pelican as a symbol of Christ for it's self-sacrificing qualities. Browne was of course familiar with this emblem, opening the fifth book of his encyclopaedia, Pseudodoxia Epidemica with a discussion upon it, as ever attributing the antiquity of its symbolic roots to his beloved ancient Egypt, writing,

And first in every place we meet with the picture of the Pelican, opening her breast with her bill, and feeding her young ones with the blood distilling from her. Thus is it set forth not only in common Signs, but in the Crest and Scutcheon of many Noble families; hath been asserted by many holy Writers, and was an Hieroglyphic of piety and pity among the Egyptians; on which consideration, they spared them at their tables.

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