studies in the history of science and culture

© September 2004
revised 27 September 2009


There are three (more or less) contemporary accounts of the much-admired she-philosopher, Susan Holder (née Wren), all of which I give in full below.

Of note, both of her early modern biographers (John Aubrey and John Ward) emphasize Susan’s skilled practice of medicine as an art governed by prudentia, or practical wisdom. Her preference for consulting with “nature” over books was in the same spirit as that of the medical experimentalists taught by William Harvey (George Ent, Thomas Willis, Walter Charleton, Nathaniel Highmore, Ralph Bathurst and Charles Scarburgh) and the Wilkins-Petty circle active at Oxford in the 1640s and 1650s, and it had a lasting influence on her more famous brother, the scientist and architect Sir Christopher Wren.

PSusan Wren married William Holder, the rector of Bletchingdon (a small Oxfordshire village near Bicester), in 1642 when she was 15 years old. Her husband was a “great virtuoso” — a musician and a mathematician of distinction, who published learned works on harmony, ancient Greek music, the Julian calendar, and the elements of speech (the latter, a book describing the “natural” method used by Holder to teach “the only Son of Edward Popham, Admirall for the parliament, being borne deafe and dumbe” to speak). The young Christopher Wren lived with Susan and William Holder for more than five formative years, and according to Aubrey, continued to regard the Holders’ parsonage-house at Bletchingdon as his “home, and retiring-place; here he contemplated, and studied, and found-out a great many curious things in Mathematiques.”)

Susan Holder (1627–1688)

§  Character No. 1

from John Aubrey’s life of William Holder (as printed in Oliver Lawson Dick’s modernized edition of Aubrey’s MSS., Brief Lives. Edited from the Original Manuscripts and with an Introduction by Oliver Lawson Dick (1949; rpt. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960), p. 161

“It ought not to be forgott the great and exemplary love between this Doctor [Holder] and his vertuose wife, who is not lesse to be admired, in her sex and station, then her brother Sir Christopher [Wren]; and (which is rare to be found in a woman) her excellences doe not inflate her. Amongst many other Guifts she haz a strange sagacity as to curing of wounds, which she does not doe so much by presedents and Reciept bookes, as by her owne excogitancy, considering the causes, effects, and circumstances. His Majestie King Charles II had hurt his hand, which he intrusted his Chirurgians to make well; but they ordered him so that they made it much worse, so that it swoll, and pained him up to his shoulder; and pained him so extremely that he could not sleep, and began to be feaverish. Then one told the King what a rare shee-surgeon he had in his house; she was presently sent for at eleven clock at night. She presently made ready a Pultisse, and applyed it, and gave his Majestie sudden ease, and he slept well; next day she dressed him, and in a short time perfectly cured him, to the great griefe of all the Surgeons, who envy and hate her.”

Ornament from Margaret Cavendish's _Orations of Divers Sorts_ (1st edn., 1662)

§  Character No. 2

from John Ward’s The Lives of the Professors of Gresham College (London, 1740), pp. 109–10 (qtd. in Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale 508n8)

“Sir Christopher had a sister, named Susan, married to Dr. William Holder, subdean of the chapel to his majesty king William, subalmoner of St. Paul’s, and canon of Ely, who was a man of great learning and fine parts. Nor was she less eminent for her great virtues, and rare accomplishments; for besides her exemplary prudence, piety, and other charities, expressed on her sepulchral monument, ‘in compassion to the poor she applied herself to the knowledge of medicinal remedies, wherein God gave so great a blessing, that thousands were happily healed by her, and no one ever miscarried; King Charles the second, queen Catharine, and very many of the court, had also experience of her successful hand.’ She died on 30 of June 1688, aged 61 years, forty five of which she had happily passed in a conjugal state, and lies buried with her husband in the vault under St. Paul’s church, near Sir Christopher, her brother.”

Ornament from Margaret Cavendish's _Orations of Divers Sorts_ (1st edn., 1662)

§  Character No. 3

from surviving Wren family documents used to compose the published Parentalia. Or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens volume of 1750, compiled by Wren’s son Christopher, and published by his grandson Stephen Wren (qtd. in Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale 104–5); “tellingly this passage is already bracketed in the manuscript, as presumably not important enough for inclusion in the final text” and indeed “it does not figure there”:

“Susan [Holder was] a Woman of great Ingenuity, and many rare Endowments, who from a Natural propension to the <study &> Practice of Physick and Chirurgery <and by an intimate acquaintance, and conversation with Dr. Willis, Dr. Scarborough & other eminent Physicians of that Time, who had a great Esteem for her>; arriv’d to such skill and success, more especially in the latter, as to be the Wonder and Envy of the most Celebrated in that Profession; of which <her chirurgical skill,> among numerous Examples, His Majesty King Charles the Second was a most happy Instance, by the expeditious and perfect cure of a sore <on his Finger,> after He had been long tortur’d, and His health impair’d, by his own Surgeons; for this Service his Majesty, in his Princely Munificence, was Pleas’d to Honour Her with a rich Present of Plate ingrav’d with ye. Royal Ensigns Armorial, and to Continue his Gracious Favours to her Husband Dr. Holder, who in his own Merit highly deserv’d the Esteem of his Prince, and the Dignity He injoy’d in the Church.”

Ornament from Margaret Cavendish's _Orations of Divers Sorts_ (1st edn., 1662)


further discussion of Susan Holder in the webessay on Margaret Cavendish, Rethinking Mad Madge (in the PLAYERS section)

discussion of Sir Christopher Wren’s design practices & inventions in the introductory write-up to Chambers’ Cyclopædia articles for “Design” and “Designing” in the LIBRARY

an In Brief topic on prudentia (a form of practical reasoning & wisdom long associated with best practices in the professions, including medicine)

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