A native of Ireland, John Brickell (1710-1745) accompanied the future provincial governor, George Burrington, to Edenton, North Carolina in 1724, an event that served as the wellspring for his enduring reputation as a promoter and observer of the colonial southeast. Yet for all of Brickell's energies on behalf of the colonies, he spent fewer than six years there, returning to England in 1731.
Like his predecessor, John Lawson, Brickell was eager to explore the interior reaches of the colony to evaluate its economic potential, so much of which was wrapped up in consideration of the colony's natural productions. As a member of a party of ten, he explored the interior of the province as far west as Tennessee, summarizing his observations, hopes, and expectations in a work of popular science, The Natural History of North Carolina. Drawing heavily upon Lawson's History of Carolina -- often plagiarizing by modern standards -- Brickell's Natural History is distinguished by its close attention to the health conditions of the colony and to the medical practices of its Indian residents. Not quite as acute an observer as Lawson, Brickell's efforts to describe the disease environment of the early colonial Southeast and the tenor of his descriptions of Indians nevertheless made his work valuable to historians.
In this pre-Darwinian and, for all intents and purposes, pre-Linnean world, biotic classification was a rough hewn affair, and the taxonomic categories employed by Brickell in describing the flora and fauna of Carolina confound our own. While modern readers might agree that a "rotten-wood worm" might be categorized as an insect, for example, few of us would include snakes and alligators in the same category. Like Lawson, Brickell too considered the study of Indians to be a part of Natural History, and he included discussions of Indian culture as well as a valuable vocabulary of the Tuscarora, "Pampticough," and Waccon languages. Like Lawson, he was particularly intent upon understanding them and provides a taste of his concerns:
"As for the Indian Women, which now happen in my Way; when young, and at Maturity, they are as fine-shap'd Creatures (take them generally) as any in the Universe. They are of a tawny Complexion; their Eyes very brisk and amorous; their Smiles afford the finest Composure a Face can posess, their Hands are of the finest Make, with small long Fingers, and as soft as their Cheeks; and their whole Bodies of a smooth Nature. They are no uncouth or unlikely, as we suppose them; nor are they Strangers or not Proficients in the soft Passion. They are most of them mercenary, except the married Women, who sometimes bestow their Favours also to some or other, in their Husbands Absence. For which they never ask any Reward. As for the Report, that they are never found unconstant, like the Europeans, it is wholly false; for were the old World and the new one put into a Pair of Scales (in point of Constancy) it would be a hard Matter to discern which was the heavier."
In addition to Indians, the relatively elastic conception of Natural History employed by Brickell also encompassed the colony's burgeoning number of Africans. Even as early as the late 1720s, African slavery had become integral to the colony's culture and economy, a fact that the promoter Brickell did not ignore. While acknowledging that Africans had demonstrated a range of intellectual and productive capacities, from learning to read and write to mastering the intricacies of the manual arts and trades, he was disinclined to cede any emotional depth to them as slaves. He remained noncommittal on the moral status of slavery: even his criticisms of the institution are made carefully, respecting, if not reflecting the planters' perspective:
"The Planters at their Death used to make some of their favourite Negroes free, but there is now an established Law (especially in Virginia) that if they do not quit the Province in about Eleven Days after their Freedom, whoever takes them they become his Property... The Planters seeing the Inconveniencies that might attend these kind of Priviledges to the Negroes, have this and all other Laws against them continually put in practice, to prevent all Opportunities they might lay hold of to make themselves formidable."
The following sketch of the life of John Brickell, author of this work, is by Dr. Thomas C. Parramore and appears in William S. Powell (ed.), Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979-1996), I, 221-222.
John Brickell, an early eighteenth-century naturalist and physician, was a native of Ireland. Virtually nothing is known of him before his appearance in North Carolina in 1729. His Natural History of North Carolina, published in Dublin in 1737 following his return from America, indicates that he was familiar with the coastal towns of Bath, Beaufort, and Edenton. This work, heavily plagiarized from John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), can be used for biographical information on Brickell only with great circumspection. Brickell also drew heavily on letters from the Reverend John Clayton to the Royal Society of London, 1693-1694.
North Carolina records show that Brickell practiced medicine at Edenton during the winter of 1730-1731 and that he was, during that time, physician to the family of Governor Sir Richard Everard. His name does not appear in North Carolina sources after July 1731, about which time he presumably returned to Ireland.
Brickell's Natural History reveals the mind and workmanship of a man of grammar school education at best. He was evidently unfamiliar with such great medical authorities of the age as Sydenham and Boerhaave, as he settled most issues by reference to Pliny the Elder. Irish subscribers to the book included, among medical men, mostly apothecaries and chirurgeons (surgeons), an indication that his contacts were mostly with the lower stratum of the profession. His observations in the area of folk-practices and remedies are not without value, however, and serve as an interesting complement to the more nearly scientific gleanings of Lawson. Brickell showed no discrimination whatever in recording the Carolina medical folkways, a fact which, however much it may please the folklorist, was a disservice to the medical practice of his day: shrewd uses of local herbs by the colonists received no greater emphasis in Brickell's notebook than did the practice of applying the anus of a hen to a snakebite.
Brickell is known to have published another work in London in 1739, entitled "Catalogue of American Tree and Plants which will Bear the Climate of England." It appears that he may have gone from Ireland to England and that he took with him from America a collection of seeds and plants, some of which he grew successfully. Of his later life and career, nothing is presently known.
Something must be said of the issue of misconceptions that has attached itself to Brickell's name in various historical writings. A legend that he received any part of his education at Edinburgh University, then the leading medical school in the world, is without foundation in the school's alumni records. Another legend--that he was a brother of a colonial Bertie County Anglican priest, Matthias Brickell--is substantiated by no known record in North Carolina or in Great Britain. Indeed, the existence of such a person as Matthias Brickell is itself much in doubt. Finally, it is purely speculative to associate Brickell's name with that of a late eighteenth-century Georgia physician also named John Brickell and sometimes alleged to have been the son of the author of the Natural History of North Carolina.
Click Here to download a "Word" document containing Brickell's entire book, "Natural History of North Carolina," published in 1737.