HPS Centre Seminar

Dr Elfed Huw Price speaks on ‘Christian mortalism on trial: reaction to William Lawrence's assertion of thought as a function of the brain in Physiology, Zoology, & The Natural History of Man (1819)'

200 years ago, the talented London surgeon William Lawrence shocked orthodox Anglican sensibilities by proclaiming that thought was a function of the brain in his Lectures on Physiology, Zoology and the Natural History of Man. His teaching evoked fears of radical French materialism and ran contrary to longstanding Christian beliefs in the immateriality and immortality of the soul. Under pressure from his employers at Bethlehem hospital (‘Bedlam’), Lawrence was compelled to withdraw his Lectures from circulation.

Three years later, a London bookseller (James Smith) republished the Lectures without consent. Lawrence reacted by applying for an injunction which was contested in the Court of Chancery. Taking advantage of an established legal loophole, Smith’s lawyers argued that the Lectures were heretical and so were not protected by copyright. Rather than denying their accusations of materialism, Lawrence’s attorneys responded by defending mortalism as a legitimate interpretation of the Christian scriptures. Examination of this case and its aftermath, including material from the Bethlehem archives, illustrates the extent to which religious beliefs about the immortality of the soul continued to stymie neuroscientific speculation in early nineteenth-century England.


The research seminar of the Centre for History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds runs fortnightly during term time. Seminars are free and open to all.