John Arbuthnot (16671735)

Identifiers

Occupations

  • Author
  • M.D.

Biographical details

Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
September 2022

John Arbuthnot was a proud Scot who retained a keen interest in his native country even though he would live in London from the age of thirty until his death. A learned polymath, he is best remembered today for his activities as a satirist alongside Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Gay. A devout Christian, he wrote a number of the most hard-hitting and risqué pamphlets of an age that was not noted for its tender-minded accents in public discourse. A royal physician to Queen Anne, last of the Stuart monarchs, he came to positions of trust under the Hanoverian King George II and his consort, Queen Caroline—not many people enjoyed the confidence of both regimes. A colleague of the most eminent doctors in the Royal College of Physicians, he did not refrain from exposing some of them to ridicule. Highly regarded by men like Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley in the Royal Society, he delighted in waging money on card games in the coffee houses and taverns of St Martin’s Lane. One of Handel’s earliest friends in London, he made fun of the impresario Heidegger who managed the opera house, as well as of the antics of the warring divas whom the composer had recruited. An expert on care of the self in terms of diet, he took no exercise.

He came from a well-established family on the east coast of Scotland, mostly between Aberdeen and Brechin. It was at the village of Arbuthnott near Inverbervie in the county of Angus that he was baptised on 29 April 1667. His father was minister of the local kirk, having been educated at Marischal College, which later became a constituent part of the University of Aberdeen. John would follow him to the college in 1681, aged fourteen, and graduate after four years’ study. Rev. Alexander Arbuthnot was a man of learning and evidently respected in the local community, but after the Revolution of 1688 he was ejected from his benefice as a nonjuror, having refused to take the oaths to William and Mary. He died in 1691, by which time both John and his brother Robert had graduated at the college. As an episcopalian, Robert had supported the rising to reinstate James VII on the Scottish throne, led by the Laird of Claverhouse, “Bonnie Dundee,” and he later became a financial agent in France for James’s son, the Old Pretender. There is no evidence that John ever gave active aid to the Jacobite cause, even though he stayed on terms of close friendship with many who did.

Not long afterwards Arbuthnot had moved south from his homeland and was living in London, seemingly working as a teacher of mathematics. In 1692 he published a translation of a short book on probability by the great Dutch scientist, Christiaan Huygens, under the title Of the Laws of Chance. The topic continued to fascinate Arbuthnot and underpinned some of his later work. Huygens treated the subject by illustrating its principles from the game of dice, an approach in line with the doctor's own interests. Two years after this, Arbuthnot moved to Oxford and entered University College. He joined the circle of the Savilian professor of astronomy David Gregory, a disciple of Isaac Newton; Gregory was a fellow Episcopalian as well as a native of Aberdeen, and it is possible Arbuthnot had undertaken studies with him at Edinburgh before he left Scotland. At this date Oxford did not offer degrees in medicine, but he was able to circumvent this obstacle to progress in his profession by presenting himself at St. Andrews in 1696 to be examined for the award of MD. There he advanced seven theses under the collective title De Secretione Animali (of animal secretion), describing the ways in which fluids percolate though the body by means of the action of glands, channels and arteries. It is in effect an iatromechanical account of this process, estimating the differing speeds of such circulation in various organs. The Principal of the university certified that the candidate had acquitted himself “extraordinarily well” in defending his theses before the assembled professors and doctors of medicine. The newly fledged physician could now return to establish his clinical career in London, where he would remain as the celebrated “Dr. Arbuthnot” for the rest of his days. Soon after the turn of the century, he was married to Margaret Wemyss (d. 1730), almost certainly connected with an old Scottish family originating in Fife. They had two sons and two daughters: Margaret (ca. 1702–40), George (1703–79), Charles (1705–31), and Anne (1707–51).

He did indeed make rapid progress in the first years of the new century, and achieved wide recognition for his skills. This came after his successful treatment of the Queen’s consort, Prince George, leading to appointment as physician to the queen, election to the Royal Society (swiftly followed by his first term on the Council of that august body), and Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1710 he would produce one of his most important papers for the Transactions of the Society, entitled “An Argument for Divine Providence, taken from the Regularity Observed in the Births of Both Sexes,” based on the bills of mortality for London. This paper has been described more than once as the earliest application of probability theory to social statistics, and the first study to employ a test of significance in such an enquiry. He now moved among many of the most distinguished individuals in the nation—some of whom, such as Newton, Halley, Christopher Wren, Richard Mead, and Hans Sloane, would have been eminent figures in any age. He built up many friendships in their company, but enjoyed less cordial relations with others. He had already clashed with one of his colleagues within the learned community. Dr. John Woodward, like himself a doctor and bibliophile, had produced An Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth in 1695, postulating an innovative theory regarding the formation of the crust of the globe following a kind of explosion from subterranean regions that resulted in the biblical Flood and left its traces in the form of fossils. Arbuthnot gave a detailed reply in his Examination (1697), criticising Woodward’s methods and his use of evidence. The exchange was the start of a lasting battle that went on for thirty years, extending even beyond Woodward’s grave. Both men were learned, inquisitive, and fluent authors, but generally Arbuthnot had the advantage in their polemical debates since he lacked pomposity and possessed a keen sense of humour—an attribute that Woodward, with all his qualities, conspicuously lacked.

A man of such wide intellectual concerns could never restrict himself to medical matters alone. In 1701 Arbuthnot published An Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning, a short but persuasive argument that displays his comprehensive knowledge of ancient knowledge: there was one further edition in the author’s lifetime. A more specialised monograph to appear in 1705 was entitled Tables of the Grecian, Roman, and Jewish Measures, Weights and Coins, later reworked in 1727. Again this exhibited a unusual mastery of the classical sources, rivalling the compass of professional scholars not just in numismatics but in literary sources at large. By now, possibly under the influence of friends in the Royal Society who respected his judgment, he had extended his interests to include astronomy. He never carried out experimental work in the field, but he could be chosen by the Royal Society to superintend the publication of John Flamsteed’s groundbreaking map of the heavens Historia cælestis. Once again, Flamsteed’s personal arrogance made him the butt of satirists, and Arbuthnot was probably behind a later skit on the astronomer attributed to “Joanidion Fielding.” He had already served on a somewhat rigged commission assembled by the Society to determine the priority as between Newton and Leibniz in the discovery of differential calculus. Arbuthnot was clearly seen as a good committee man and he continued to be called on to serve on public bodies for the rest of his life.

The pace quickened with the change of administration in 1710, which saw government pass into the hands of Tory ministers more congenial to Arbuthnot’s developing political interests. He was often seen at court, became one of the ailing Queen’s most trusted medical advisors, which gave him a lodging in St. James’s Palace, and grew familiar with Robert Harley, Henry St. John and other ministers. One consequence was his admission on its formation in 1711 to the Society, otherwise known as the Brothers Club, a group meant to rival the Whig Kit Cat Club. It was composed chiefly of high ranking politicians and courtiers, but there was also room for likeminded writers, namely Jonathan Swift and Matthew Prior. Arbuthnot’s credentials as a man of broad cultivation in humane studies were enhanced when he joined a more select group of literary men to form the Scriblerus Club at the end of 1713. His fellow members were Swift, Pope, Gay, and Thomas Parnell, with the Lord Treasurer Harley (now Earl of Oxford) allowed to attend meetings and add his mite to their witty effusions designed to ridicule pretentious and misapplied learning (rather in the vein of Pseuds Corner in the contemporary magazine Private Eye). Here lay some roots of masterpieces of satire that members of the club would produce in years to come, such as Gulliver’s Travels, the Dunciad, and The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus.

But Arbuthnot had himself joined the company by this time. His best known work of political satire, The History of John Bull, came out in five instalments during 1712. The History provides an account of events surrounding the War of the Spanish Succession, which had raged since 1701. The mode of the work is one of satiric allegory, drawing on the tradition of beast fables to characterise the different European nations. Thus, Arbuthnot invented the stereotypical Briton, recognisably the male version of human nature and mostly the English embodiment. He had no fears of the country’s enemies, but he was “very apt to quarrel with his best Friends, especially if they pretended [aspired] to govern him.” Elements of this portrait survive into Victorian ideas of the typical Brit, independent, physically brave and resourceful, but sometimes naïve in dealing with the Machiavellian subtleties of Continental neighbours. Other principal figures in the story are Lewis Baboon, that is the Louis XIV representing the Bourbon monarchy of France; Nicholas Frog, the Dutch nation, a major ally; and Esquire South, meaning Charles VI, head of the Austrian empire. An unflattering portrait is given of Hocus Pocus, “an old cunning Attorney,” the great general John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, who had recently been dismissed from his post by the Tory government. Bull’s two wives represent first the outgoing Whig ministry of Lord Godolphin, and then the administration of Harley and St. John. These two latter were friends of the author, and so exempt from criticism. Sharper and more accessible to a modern readership is The Art of Political Lying (also 1712). A topic that naturally attracted his attention, bearing in mind his close association with Halley, the prime student of navigation, was the quest for the longitude, and he can be confidently linked with an early satire on the more outlandish methods proposed, The Longitude Examin’d (1714).

A massive reversal came with the death of the queen on 1 August 1714: Arbuthnot was one of a team of physicians vainly seeking to preserve her life. The Oxford administration had collapsed just days before. Following the advent of the Hanoverian monarch, George I, the political landscape changed overnight. The doctor lost his place at court and his lodgings, besides another post at Chelsea Hospital with attached accommodation. The authorities even dismissed him from the commission to supervise the construction of the new Queen Anne churches that had started to go up round London. He was in good company, for among others purged were Christopher Wren and James Gibbs, who might be thought to know a thing or two about architecture, but who like Halley were deemed renegades in need of political re-education. As for literary colleagues, Swift and Parnell had retreated to Ireland, and Gay was out of the picture as regards government patronage. Pope, while having no prospect of employment as a Catholic, underwent regular abuse on account of his faith.

The low point arrived in 1715. Oxford was impeached and sent to the Tower of London; St. John (now Lord Bolingbroke) fled to France; another friend, Mathew Prior, was held in house arrest. The aftermath of the Jacobite rising that broke out late in the year affected many of Arbuthnot’s acquaintances: Pope would be driven with his family from his boyhood home in Windsor Forest. Worse, the fact that John’s brother Robert Arbuthnot was acting as a banker for the Pretender in France rendered him suspect, as the government found Jacobites under every bed. There was little that John could do about this, though subsequently he did make an extended stay in Paris, probably attempting to smooth things over and to mitigate any bad consequences. Not surprisingly, the flow of correspondence drops off in this period, though there are scattered letters to or from Pope, Swift, Gay, and Parnell.

The doctor’s response was to engage in a wide range of cultural activities while he repaired his private practice. These included musical occasions with his friend and neighbour Handel and sojourns with Lord Burlington, the great Maecenas of the arts, at his nearby mansion. From Arbuthnot’s home, close to Bond Street and Piccadilly, he had a perfect vantage point within the heart of St. James’s to follow the comings and goings of place-seekers at court and parliament. He could attend the grand new opera house in the Haymarket, where the fashionable masquerades that turn up in every second Augustan satire took place. In addition, he might visit the gentlemen’s clubs of St. James’s to satisfy his taste for gambling. If he ambled a short way in the opposite direction, he would quickly reach St. Martin’s Lane, where a diverse collection of painters, sculptors, engravers, cabinet-makers, architects and craftspeople had assembled. The streets were thronged with coffee-houses, where actors and musicians met with prominent émigrés such as a friend of the doctor, the Huguenot mathematician Abraham de Moivre. An easy ten-minute walk brought him to Covent Garden, and from there it was only a hop and a skip to Drury Lane, which gave access to a couple of theatres and more coffee-houses, as well as taverns and bookshops.

His most durable contribution in the years that followed was made in a torrent of writing. His satires became more frequent and harder-edged. Some were devoted to a serio-comic dispute about the best way of treating smallpox, culminating in a hilarious demolition pf his old antagonist in An Account of the Sickness and Death of Dr. Woodward (1719). Better known today is a notorious farce on which he collaborated with Gay and Pope, Three Hours after Marriage (1717), where the central role of the foolish antiquarian is taken by a certain Dr. Fossile, of obvious nonfictional origins. Among other Scriblerian items probably dating from this period where he may have shared authorship with his friends, the most effective is An Essay Concerning the Origine of Sciences, claiming that an ancient race of pygmies were responsible for the earliest scientific discoveries of mankind. The most vicious is Notes and Memorandums of the Six Days, Preceeding the Death of a late Right Reverend -------- (1715, a cruel portrayal of the last days of Gilbert Burnet, a Whig bishop cordially disliked by Swift and his circle.

In the early 1720s Arbuthnot was often consulted as an expert on public health, something overlooked by his biographers. He served on a small committee of the College of Physicians

with Sloane and Mead that reported to the Privy Council on measures to ward off the threat of plague spreading from Marseilles. He defended the new method of inoculation against smallpox, introduced to Britain by his friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Less agreeably to modern eyes, Arbuthnot acted as an advisor to the Royal African Company, along with Sloane once more. Under the direction of the Duke of Chandos, a longtime ally of Arbuthnot in musical matters, the Company was attempting to cut down the mortality among slaves it shipped.

In addition, he took a major share in activities surrounding a new bill that came before Parliament in 1724, which permitted the College of Physicians to inspect all London druggists’ stocks and destroy anything they regarded as below standard. Its main proponent was Dr. Henry Plumptre, who was serving as a Censor of the Physicians’ body at this time alongside Arbuthnot. The two men immediately targeted an apothecary named James Goodwin, who had vociferously opposed the bill. When they set out on their quest, the censors condemned as unsafe virtually everything they found for sale in two shops belonging to Goodwin. Despite an appeal to the House of Lords, Goodwin was unable to get this rather arbitrary judgment reversed. Then in 1726 Arbuthnot was one of the medical experts to review the case of Mary Toft, the woman who claimed to have given birth to seventeen rabbits: he visited her when she was moved to a bagnio in Long Acre, and like many of his colleagues seemingly felt some initial hesitation about the authenticity of the births. Finally, in 1727 he was given charge of a “wild boy” found in the woods near Hanover, in an attempt to see whether it would be possible to educate this child of nature. The results were not promising. All these episodes demonstrate the respect which Arbuthnot now commanded.

They served another purpose: the three cases just named supplied the basis for satiric pamphlets from the hand of the doctor, as did a number of contemporary events. We shall probably never know how many such efforts he tossed heedlessly into the world. More than one contemporary noted how little thought he gave to the fate of pieces he wrote: “Pope used to say, that of all the Men he met with or heard of, Dr. Arbuthnot had the most prolific Wit, and that in this Quality Swift only held the Second Place. No Adventure of any Consequence ever occurred on which the Doctor did not write a pleasant Essay in a great folio Paper-book which used to lie in his Parlour; of these however he was so negligent, that while he was writing them at one End he suffered his Children to tear them out at the other, for their Paper Kites.” Several of those that did reach print, and were included in a collection of two volumes, have been rejected mainly because of the unsupported word of John’s prim son George who wished to distance the respectable doctor from such degrading productions. Only in the last generation have certain of these items begun to be reattributed by scholars. Among the most successful was Annus Mirabilis (1722), an account of a universal sex change first observed at the opera house. Arbuthnot went on collaborating with Pope, and probably had at least a share in a pamphlet dating from 1720 that describes how the bookseller Edmund Curll was converted to the Jewish religion. Later in the decade, he would contribute to other Scriblerian projects, adding his mite to Gulliver’s Travels, supplying examples of bad poetry to the sottisier called Peri Bathous, and offering a parody of the methods of the classical scholar Richard Bentley that was included in the augmented Dunciad. Several of his works, published or unpublished, went into the Miscellanies assembled as a collective record of the Club’s literary activities—but most did not.

When Swift came over to England in 1726 and 1727, Arbuthnot was one of his friends to host the visitor, and introduced him at court to the Princess of Wales, who became Queen on the accession of her husband as George II. In his letters we are given amusing accounts of the early reaction to Gulliver, including the occasion when Caroline burst into laughter on reading the book. His standing in professional bodies continued to grow: he became an elect of the College of Physicians, delivered the Harveian lecture in Latin on the history of medicine, and served again on the Council of the Royal Society. This was the prelude to an Indian summer of scientific publications, two of them larger in scope than anything he had previously written. An Essay Concerning the Nature of Aliments (1732, enlarged 1733) was a significant contribution to the literature of diet. It was followed by An Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies (1733), later translated into French and Latin. While he was not a deeply original thinker on medicine, he had the ability to produce a clearly ordered syncretism based on his wide acquaintance with texts ancient and modern in several languages that filled the shelves of his personal library.

Arbuthnot’s own health had been declining for several years, and he took up residence at Hampstead in an attempt to delay the inevitable. In January 1735 Pope issued a moving tribute to his “social, cheerful, and serene” friend of long standing, in the work which more than other preserves his name today, An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Soon after, the doctor died on 27 February and was buried at the parish church of St. James’s, Piccadilly. Six years later Pope finally gave to the world the Memoirs of Scriblerus, a collaborative production whose content was heavily dependent on the good sense, wit, and diverse learning that the doctor had exhibited in many places since he arrived in England more than forty years before.

The best biographic source is now to be found in the Introduction by Angus Ross to his edition of The Correspondence of Dr John Arbuthnot (München, 2006), 28-94. See also Ross’s entry for Arbuthnot in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/610.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

ARBUTHNOT, JOHN (1667–1735), physician and wit, was the son of a Scotch episcopal clergyman settled at Arbuthnot, Kincardineshire. He is said to have studied at Aberdeen, but he took his doctor's degree in medicine at St. Andrew's on 11 Sept. 1696. His father lost his preferment upon the revolution, and retired to a small estate of his own; and the sons, who shared his high-church principles, found it desirable to seek their fortunes abroad. One of them, Robert, became ultimately a banker in Paris; his extraordinary amiability is celebrated by Pope (Letter to Digby, 1 Sept. 1722); he married a rich widow of Suffolk in 1726 (Swift to Stopford, 20 July 1726); and he was suspected of Jacobite tendencies (Gent. Mag. ii. 578, 766, 782). Another was in the army (Journal to Stella, 26 Sept. 1711). John Arbuthnot settled in London, where he first stayed at the house of Mr. William Pate, a woollendraper, and gave lessons in mathematics. In 1697 he published 'An Examination of Dr. Woodward's Account of the Deluge, &c.,' criticising a crude theory suggested by Woodward (1695) in an 'Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth.' Arbuthnot next published an able 'Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning, in a letter from a gentleman in the city to his friend in Oxford,' dated 25 Nov. 1700. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, 30 Nov. 1704; and in 1710 he contributed a paper to its 'Transactions' upon the slight average excess of male over female births; which he regards as a providential arrangement intended to provide against the greater risks of the male sex, and as proving that polygamy is contrary to the law of nature. Arbuthnot was meanwhile rising in his profession, and had the good luck to be at Epsom when Prince George of Denmark was suddenly taken ill and to prescribe for him successfully. He was appointed physician extraordinary to Queen Anne, 30 Oct. 1705; and on the illness of Dr. Hannes, fourth physician in ordinary, 11 Nov. 1709. Swift calls him the 'queen's favourite physician.' On 27 April 1710, he was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, was censor in 1723, and pronounced the Harveian oration in 1727. Arbuthnot's favour at court was strengthened by his intimacy with the leading statesmen of the Harley administration. He formed a close friendship with Swift, and is frequently mentioned in the 'Journal to Stella.' He was a member of the famous 'Brothers Club,' and took an active share in the literary warfare against the whigs. He was the author, as Swift tells us (Journal to Stella, 12 Dec. 1712) of the 'Art of Political Lying,' one of the best specimens of the ironical wit of the time. A more celebrated production was the well-known pamphlet called ultimately, 'Law is a Bottomless Pit; or, the History of John Bull,' published 1712. Both Swift and Pope ascribe this to Arbuthnot (Spence's Anecdotes, p. 145; Journal to Stella, 12 Dec. 1712). It is an ingenious and lively attack upon the war policy of the whigs; and, if it wants the force of Swift's profounder satire, it is an admirably effective and still amusing party squib. It does not seem to be known whether Arbuthnot originated or only adopted the nickname, John Bull. During the last years of Queen Anne's reign Swift and Arbuthnot had become intimate with the younger wits. Pope, Gay, and Parnell. They called themselves the 'Scriblerus Club,' and projected a kind of joint-stock satire to be directed against 'the abuses of human learning in every branch.' Lord Oxford carried on an exchange of liumorous verses with them; and, according to Pope (Spence's Anecdotes, p. 10), Atterbury, Congreve, and even Addison, proposed to join in their scheme. Arbuthnot writes a letter to Swift with various suggestions for Scriblerus during his friend's retirement at Letcombe; and Swift in his reply says that Arbuthnot was the only man capable of carrying out the plan, which had been originally suggested by Pope. The scheme dropped for a time upon Anne's death and the retirement of Swift to Ireland. Fragments, however, had been executed and formed part of the 'Miscellanies' printed by Pope in 1727. The 'Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus' were first published in the quarto edition of Pope's works in 1741; they are mainly, if not exclusively, Arbuthnot's, and give the best specimen of his powers. The ridicule of metaphysical pedantry is admirable, though rather beyond popular appreciation. Other passages are directed against the antiquarians and Arbuthnot's old opponent, Woodward, and his supposed discovery of an ancient shield. The account of Scriblerus's education clearly gave some hints to Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy.' Arbuthnot was in attendance upon Queen Anne in her last illness. Upon her death he retired for a short time to France. He went there again in 1718, his chief business being, as he told Swift (14 Oct. 1718), to leave his two girls with their uncle. Such visits might be suspicious in the eyes of good whigs. Upon the accession of George I he lost his place at court, but he appears to have retained his practice among the great people. We find him introducing Swift to the Princess of Wales—soon to become Queen Caroline—in April 1726. He was the friend and physician both of Chesterfield and of Pulteney, the last of whom tells Swift that no one but Arbuthnot understood his case. He attended Mrs. Howard, afterwards Lady Suffolk, and Congreve. He was the trusted friend and adviser of all the wits. He helped to get up a subscription for Prior when the poet was in distress. He was the constant adviser, medical and otherwise, of his friend Gay. Pope constantly expressed his gratitude to Arbuthnot, paid to him some of his finest poetical compliments, and dedicated the most perfect of his satires to this

Friend to my life, which did not you prolong, The world had wanted many an idle song.

Though his correspondence with Swift was often interrupted, their friendship never changed. Arbuthnot, who was a musician, helped Swift to get singers for his cathedral, and sent him prescriptions and medical advice. If there were a dozen Arbuthnots in the world, said Swift (Letter to Pope, 29 Sept. 1725), he would burn his 'Travels.' 'Our doctor,' he adds, 'hath every quality in the world that can make a man amiable and useful: but, alas! he hath a sort of slouch in his walk.' Elsewhere (Letter to Gay, 10 July 1732), he calls Arbuthnot 'the king of inattention,' and Chesterfield confirms the statement that Arbuthnot was frequently absent-minded in company. 'The doctor,' said Swift on another occasion, 'has more wit than we all have, and his humanity is equal to his wit.' And this seems to have been the universal opinion. Arbuthnot was singularly careless of his literary reputation. His witty writings were anonymous; he let his children make kites of his papers, allowed his friends to alter them as they pleased, and took no pains to distinguish his share. After the death of Queen Anne he took part, with Pope and Gay, in the silly farce called 'Three Hours after Marriage,' in which his old enemy Woodward is once more ridiculed, and which, being unworthy of all the three authors, was deservedly damned in 1717. Another trifle, called 'A Brief Account of Mr. John Ginglicutt's treatise concerning the Altercation or Scolding of the Ancients,' is identified as Arbuthnot's by letters to Swift from Pulteney (9 Feb. 1731) and Pope (1 Dec. 1731); but Pope's view that it is of 'little vakie' seems to be better founded than Pulteney's admiration of its humour. Arbuthnot had published about 1707 a collection of 'Tables of Grecian, Roman, and Jewish Measures, Weights, and Coins reduced to the English Standard,' and dedicated to Prince George of Denmark. He republished these in 1727, with preliminary dissertations and with a dedicatory poem to the king by his son Charles, then a student of Christ Church, for whose benefit, he tells us, they were again printed. The death of this son in 1731 was a severe blow to Arbuthnot, and is mentioned with pathetic resignation in the father's letter to Swift, 13 Jan. 1732–3. Arbuthnot's health had long been uncertain. Swift notices, in the 'Journal to Stella' (4 Oct. 1711), that the doctor was suffering from symptoms of stone. In 1723 he tells Swift that he is as cheerful as ever on public affairs, 'with a great stone in his right kidney, and a family of men and women to provide for.' His characteristic cheerfulness seems to have declined under illness and domestic trouble, and some of his later letters express some sympathy with Swift's misanthropical views. In his last years he published three medical treatises: 'An Essay concerning the Nature of Aliments and the Choice of them' (1731); 'Practical Rules of Diet in the various Constitutions and Characters of Human Bodies' (1732); and an 'Essay concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies' (1733). He retired for a time to Hampstead in 1734, to try the effect of the air, and there wrote touching letters to Pope (17 July) and to Swift (4 Oct. 1734), taking leave of them with affectionate goodwill. 'A recovery in my case and in my age,' he wrote, 'is impossible; the kindest wish of my friends is euthanasia.' He died peacefully, though in much suffering, 27 Feb. 1734–5. Arbuthnot had two sons—Charles, mentioned above, and George, who became secondary in the Remembrancer's Office—and two daughters, who died unmarried. George, whose melancholy is contrasted with his father's cheerfulness by Swift's friend Erasmus Lewis, was one of Pope's executors; Pope left to him a portrait of Bolingbroke and a watch given by the King of Sardinia to Peterborough, and by Peterborough to Pope. He also bequeathed 200l. to George and 200l. to his sister Ann Arbuthnot. Arbuthnot's acknowledged works are given above. Two volumes, called 'The Miscellaneous Works of the late Dr. Arbuthnot,' were published at Glasgow in 1751. George Arbuthnot advertised that they were not his father's works, but 'an imposition upon the public' They were republished in 1770, with a few additional pieces and a life, the accuracy of which was admitted by George Arbuthnot (see Biog. Brit. 1778). The collection has no authority, but includes the following, which were clearly Arbuthnot's: the 'Usefulness of Mathematical Learning,' the 'Scolding of the Ancients,' the 'Examination of Woodward,' a sermon at the Mercat Cross, Edinburgh (see Elwin's Pope, Letters, ii. 489), and a poem called Γνῶθι σεαυτόν, first printed by Dodsley in 1748, with Arbuthnot's name. The 'Masquerade,' a poem, is probably Fielding's, with whose 'Grubstreet Opera' it was printed in 1731, having first appeared (it is there said) in 1728. The letter to Dean Swift is attributed to Gordon of the 'Independent Whig' (Monthly Review, iii. 399). It is said in Chalmers's 'Biog. Dict.' that several of the pieces 'were written by Fielding, Henry Carey, and other authors.' They are for the most part worthless, and seem to have been taken at random on account of the subjects. 'Gulliver decypher'd' is attributed to Arbuthnot in the 'Biog. Brit.,' and by a writer in the 'Retrospective Review,' but it is a more than ostensible attack upon Swift, Pope, and himself; it deals with certain sore subjects for all three on which Arbuthnot was very unlikely to touch. The 'third part of John Bull' seems to be quite unworthy of him. Besides these, he has been credited with 'Critical Remarks on Capt. Gulliver's Travels by Dr. Bantley,' 'Don Bilioso de I'Estomac,' 'Notes and Memorandums of the six days preceding the Life and Death of a late Right Rev. —' (that is Bishop Burnet), and the 'Essay upon an Apothecary' in a 'Supplement to Dean Sw—t's Miscellanies,' all in the same collection. They are at best very doubtful. It appears, also, that Arbuthnot helped in the notes to the 'Dunciad' (Nichols, Illustrations, iii. 766, and Anecdotes, v. 586). He may probably have written the 'Virgilius Restauratus' appended to the same; and he is said to have written the 'Reasons offered by the Company of exercising the Trade and Mystery of Upholders against part of the Bill for viewing and examining Drugs and Medicines;' the 'Petition of the Colliers, Cooks, Blacksmiths, &c., against Catoptrical Victuallers;' and 'It cannot rain but it pours, or London strewed with rarities,' generally printed in Swift's works. They first appeared in the additional volume of 'Miscellanies' published by Pope in 1732, together with an 'Essay of the learned Martinus Scriblerus concerning the Origin of Sciences' (which is traced to the monkeys of Ethiopia) attributed to Arbuthnot and Pope himself by Pope (Spence, 167). He may have contributed in some degree to the treatise on the Bathos, which seems, however, to have been almost entirely Pope's. The 'History of John Bull' originally appeared in 1712, in successive parts, entitled 'Law is a Bottomless Pit, exemplified in the case of Lord Strutt, John Bull, Nicholas Frog, and Lewis Baboon, who spent all they had in a lawsuit;' 'John Bull in his Senses,' being the second part of the above; 'John Bull still in his Senses,' the third part; 'Appendix to John Bull still in his Senses;' and 'Lewis Baboon turned honest and John Bull politician,' being the fourth part. They are described on the title-page as written by the author of the 'New Atalantis.' The history was reprinted in Pope's 'Miscellanies' (1727), rearranged and divided into two parts.


[Life in Miscellaneous Works, 1770; Biographia Britannica; Works of Swift and Pope, passim; Spence's Anecdotes; Chesterfield's Works, 1845, ii. 446; Retrospective Review, vol. viii.; Munk's College of Physicians (1878), ii. 27.]

L. S.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

ARBUTHNOT, JOHN (1667–1735), British physician and author, was born at Arbuthnott, Kincardineshire, and baptized on the 29th of April 1667. His father, Alexander Arbuthnot, was an episcopalian minister who was deprived of his living in 1689 by his patron, Viscount Arbuthnott, for refusing to conform to the Presbyterian system. After his death, in 1691, John went to London, where he lived in the house of a learned linen-draper, William Pate, and supported himself by teaching mathematics. In 1692 he published Of the Laws of Chance ..., based on the Latin version, De Ratociniis in ludo aleae, of a Dutch treatise by Christiaan Huygens. In 1692 he entered University College, Oxford, as a fellow-commoner, acting as private tutor to Edward Jefferys; and in 1696 he graduated M.D. at St Andrews university. In An Examination of Dr Woodward's Account of the Deluge (1697) he confuted an extraordinary theory advanced by Dr William Woodward. An Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning followed in 1701, and in 1704 he became a fellow of the Royal Society. He had the good fortune to be called in at Epsom to prescribe for Prince George of Denmark, and in 1705 he was made physician extraordinary to Queen Anne. Four years later he became royal physician in ordinary, and in 1710 he was elected fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Arbuthnot's ready wit and varied learning made him very valuable to the Tory party. He was a close friend of Jonathan Swift and of Alexander Pope, and Lord Chesterfield says that even the generous acknowledgment they made of his assistance fell short of their real indebtedness. He had no jealousy of his fame as an author, and his abundant imagination was always at the service of his friends. In 1712 appeared "Law is a Bottomless Pit, Exemplify'd in the case of the Lord Strutt, John Bull, Nicholas Frog and Lewis Baboon, who spent all they had in a law-suit. Printed from a Manuscript found in the Cabinet of the famous Sir Humphrey Polesworth." This was the first of a series of five pamphlets advocating the conclusion of peace. Arbuthnot describes the confusion after the death of the Lord Strutt (Charles II. of Spain), and the quarrels between the greedy tradespeople (the allies). These put their cause into the hands of the attorney, Humphrey Hocus (the duke of Marlborough), who does all he can to prolong the struggle. The five tracts are printed in two parts as the "History of John Bull" in the Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1727, preface signed by Pope and Swift). Arbuthnot fixed the popular conception of John Bull, though it is not certain that he originated the character, and the lively satire is still amusing reading. It was often asserted at the time that Swift wrote these pamphlets, but both he and Pope refer to Arbuthnot as the sole author. In the autumn of the same year he published a second satire, "Proposals for printing a very Curious Discourse in Two Volumes in Quarto, entitled, Ψευδολογία Πολιτική; or, A Treatise of the Art of Political Lying," best known by its sub-title. This ironical piece of work was not so popular as "John Bull." "'Tis very pretty," says Swift, "but not so obvious to be understood." Arbuthnot advises that a lie should not be contradicted by the truth, but by another judicious lie. "So there was not long ago a gentleman, who affirmed that the treaty with France for bringing popery and slavery into England was signed the 15th of September, to which another answered very judiciously, not by opposing truth to his lie, that there was no such treaty; but that, to his certain knowledge, there were many things in that treaty not yet adjusted." Arbuthnot was one of the leading spirits in the Scriblerus Club, the members of which were to collaborate in a universal satire on the abuses of learning. The Memoirs of the extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus, of which only the first book was finished, first printed in Pope's Works (1741), was chiefly the work of Arbuthnot, who is at his best in the whimsical account of the birth and education of Martin. Swift, writing on the 3rd of July 1714 to Arbuthnot, says:—"To talk of Martin in any hands but yours, is a folly. You every day give better hints than all of us together could do in a twelvemonth: and to say the truth, Pope who first thought of the hint has no genius at all to it, to my mind; Gay is too young: Parnell has some ideas of it, but is idle; I could put together, and lard, and strike out well enough, but all that relates to the sciences must be from you." The death of Queen Anne put an end to Arbuthnot's position at court, but he still had an extensive practice, and in 1727 he delivered the Harveian oration before the Royal College of Physicians. Lord Chesterfield and William Pulteney were his patients and friends; also Mrs Howard (Lady Suffolk) and William Congreve. His friendship with Swift was constant and intimate; he was friend and adviser to Gay; and Pope wrote (2nd of August 1734) that in a friendship of twenty years he had found no one reason of complaint from him. Arbuthnot's youngest son, who had just completed his education, died in December 1731. He never quite recovered his former spirits and health after this shock. On the 17th of July 1734 he wrote to Pope: "A recovery in my case, and at my age, is impossible; the kindest wish of my friends is Euthanasia." In January 1735 was published the "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot," which forms the prologue to Pope's satires. He died on the 27th of February 1735 at his house in Cork Street, London. Among Arbuthnot's other works are:—An Argument for Divine Providence, taken from the constant regularity observed in the Births of both sexes (Phil. Trans. of the Royal Soc., 1710); "Virgilius Restauratus," printed in the second edition of Pope's Dunciad (1729); An Essay concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies (1733); An Essay concerning the Nature of Ailments ... (1731); and a valuable Table of Ancient Coins, Weights and Measures (1727), which is an enlargement of an earlier treatise (1705). He had a share in the unsuccessful farce of Three Hours after Marriage, printed with Gay's name on the title–page (1717). Some pieces printed in A Supplement to Dr Swift's and Mr Pope's Works ... (1739) are there asserted to be Arbuthnot's. The Miscellaneous Works of the late Dr Arbuthnot were published at Glasgow in an unauthorized edition in 1751. This includes many spurious pieces.


See The Life and Works of John Arbuthnot (1892), by George A. Aitken.