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Q U I C K   L I N K S

For more on Susan Holder, see the introductory webessay on Margaret Cavendish, Rethinking Mad Madge, in the PLAYERS section.

For more on Susan’s younger brother — the famous architect, mathematician, and astronomer, Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) — see the introductory write-up to Chambers’ Cyclopædia articles for “Design” and “Designing” in the She-philosopher.​com LIBRARY.

Susan Holder’s modeling of the healer as phronimos dates back to Aristotle, who first linked best practices in the professions (including medicine) with an active pursuit of practical wisdom. Today, the Aristotelian intellectual virtue of phronesis — “the moral will to do the right thing, and the moral skill to figure out what the right thing is” — is having a renaissance within the professions. For more, see the IN BRIEF topic on phronesis.

To learn about another woman practicing medicine around the same time as Susan Holder, see the introductory webessay on Mary Trye in the PLAYERS section of She-philosopher.​com.

First Published:  September 2004
Revised (substantive):  2 July 2021


An introductory note for the In Brief biography which follows:
   There are three accounts by her contemporaries 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 phronesis, 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 Susan’s famous brother, the scientist and architect Sir Christopher Wren.
   Susan Wren married William Holder, the rector of Bletchingdon (a small Oxfordshire village near Bicester), in 1642 when she was still a teenager. 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.”

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)

[ a In Brief biography ]

Susan Holder (1626/7–1688)

§ Character No. 1

Opening quotation markIt 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.Closing quotation mark

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SOURCE:  Aubrey, John. “William Holder.” In Brief Lives. Edited by Oliver Lawson Dick. 1949; rpt. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960. 161.

§ Character No. 2

Opening quotation markSir 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.Closing quotation mark

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SOURCE:  Ward, John. The Lives of the Professors of Gresham College (London, 1740), 109–10. Qtd. in Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale, 508n8.

§ Character No. 3

Opening quotation markSusan [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.Closing quotation mark

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SOURCE:  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.”

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)


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