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Robert Burton Publishes a Classic on Depression

This image of the 8th edition (1676) has the advantage of showing the captions to the engraved title page as well as the title page.

This image of the 8th edition (1676) has the advantage of showing the captions to the engraved title page as well as the title page.

In 1621 English scholar and vicar Robert Burton published at Oxford The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up.

This work remains as much a classic of English literature and a profound study of the human condition as it remains a classic of psychiatric literature.

"He wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy largely to write himself out of being a lifelong sufferer from depression. As he described his condition in the preface 'Democritus Junior to the Reader,'

" 'for I had gravidum cor, foetum caput [a heavy heart, hatchling in my head], a kind of imposthume in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of.'

"Therefore, the treatise itself was intended as treatment. Again, from the preface:

" 'I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business.'

"However, this sentence may also be interpreted ironically, as Burton is citing a well-known adage of the time. Indeed, the entire preface is quite satirical in nature — at one point Burton pretends to warn melancholy people to avoid his book for fear of exacerbating their symptoms:

" 'Yet one caution let me give by the way to my present or future reader, who is actually melancholy, that he read not the symptoms or prognostics in the following tract, lest by applying that which he reads to himself, aggravating, appropriating things generally spoken to his own person (as melancholy men for the most part do), he trouble or hurt himself, and get in conclusion more harm than good.'

"The parenthetical aside is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. The work, published under the pseudonym Democritus Junior in 1621, was quite popular. In the words of Thomas Warton:

'the author's variety of learning, his quotations from rare and curious books, his pedantry sparkling with rude wit and shapeless elegance ... have rendered it a repertory of amusement and information'.

"Later authors sometimes drew from the work without acknowledgment (such accusations were leveled at Laurence Sterne's book Tristram Shandy). Samuel Johnson considered it one of his favorite books. (He said of it that it 'was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise'.) [Boswell, Life of Johnson]" (Wikipedia article on The Anatomy of Melancholy, accessed 12-26-2009).

From the medical standpoint the work has been characterized as the first psychiatric encyclopedia, since Burton cited nearly 500 medical authors in the course of classifying the myriad causes, forms and symptoms of depression, and describing its various cures. The work is also a literary tour-de-force in the tradition of Renaissance paradoxical literature. It was Sir William Osler's favorite book.

Carter & Muir, Printing and the Mind of Man (1967) no. 120. Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) no. 381.

Burton put the work through five expanded editions during his lifetime. The third edition of 1638 contained an elaborate engraved title containing ten vignette illustrations.

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