E. G. Browne came of a wealthy family engaged in shipbuilding. He was at first strongly dominated by his father, Sir Benjamin Browne, who sent him to the preparatory school at Glenalmond, to Eton College, and finally to Cambridge University, where he was to study engineering or, as an ultimate compromise, science and medicine. The boy followed his father’s wishes and eventually qualified, and for a short time practiced, as a doctor. But at the age of only fifteen, in 1877, his interest in the Middle East had been aroused by the Russo-Turkish War, in which characteristically his sympathy lay with the side that was unpopular in Britain, the Turks. At this point his “Oriental” studies began, with Turkish, to which Persian and Arabic were soon added. He had (and continued to have) little or no interest in philology as such, and his methods seem to have been entirely pragmatic: the autodidactic use of any manuals and texts he could find, consultation with real and pretended experts, and the genial exploitation of various native speakers, who could nearly always be found in England in the great days of empire. The results, to judge by the reports of his contemporaries and his own published work, were stupendously successful.
Upon his graduation in the Cambridge Natural Sciences Tripos in 1882, he was “bribed” by his father to persevere in his medical studies with the gift of a summer trip to Istanbul (or, as it was still known in Europe, Constantinople). In 1884, on his own initiative, he also took the so-called “Indian” Languages (in fact, languages of the Islamic world) Tripos at Cambridge. There followed three years of further medical study, internship, and practice, interrupted, whenever the occasion allowed, for pursuit of his private, “Oriental” interests. In 1887 be achieved both his final medical qualifications and a fellowship from his Cambridge college (Pembroke), which enabled him to spend his celebrated year in Iran—for it was by then unquestionably Persian studies that were claiming his main attention. It was this visit that generated the remarkable book, A Year Amongst the Persians, which, despite its romantic and archaic title, approach, and style, remains a classic source. It was first published in 1893, after being more than once turned down, and has since been reprinted several times under various auspices (chiefly A. C. Black and Cambridge University Press).
After his return to Britain in 1888, Browne’s life was spent almost wholly in Cambridge, remaining outwardly quite unspectacular. He was first University Lecturer in Persian and then, from 1902 until his death, Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic; the latter post was one of two prestigious but ill-paid chairs nominally in the field of Arabic studies then maintained in the university. Until 1906 he lived a vigorous, if somewhat self-centered, social life as a bachelor in his college; in that year he married Alice Blackburne-Daniell, a well-to-do and influential Roman Catholic, who enlisted his vague but generous sympathies both for Roman Catholicism and for the cause of an independent Ireland. They had two sons, neither of whom followed his father’s interests, though later both lent them moral and financial support. Browne suffered a massive heart attack in November, 1924; his wife died in June, 1925, six months before his own death. The last year or so of his life was little more than a gallant holding action.
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