Arbuthnot [Arbuthnott], John

(bap. 1667, d. 1735), physician and satirist

by Angus Ross

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Arbuthnot [Arbuthnott], John (bap. 1667, d. 1735), physician and satirist, was baptized on 29 April 1667 at Arbuthnott, Kincardineshire, on the north-east Scottish coast, near Stonehaven, the eldest son of Alexander Arbuthnott (c.1636-1691), minister of Arbuthnott, and Margaret, daughter of John Lammie (or Lamy), minister of Farnell and dean of Brechin. John was the eldest of three surviving sons and four daughters. His brothers, Robert (bap. 3 June 1669) and Alexander (bap. 7 Dec 1675), both became merchants, the latter in Calcutta (where he died in 1738, leaving no legitimate issue). Robert joined the army raised by Viscount Dundee in support of James II, and fought at the battle of Killiecrankie on 27 July 1689. In the collapse of Jacobite resistance after Dundee's death in the hour of victory, he fled to France where he became a wealthy merchant and banker in Rouen, and an important Jacobite financier; he remained in close touch with John. A half-brother George (bap. 1688), by his father's second wife, Catherine Ochterlony, became a career officer in Queen Anne's army but on her death remained in France as a wine merchant. He later traded on London East India Company ships to China, dying in 1733.

Education and early years
The Revd Alexander, like his sons John and Robert a graduate of Marischal College, Aberdeen, was a man of learning with a taste for family history. Although nothing is known about John's schooling, his father was clearly in a position to lay the foundations of his extraordinarily wide, if inexact, knowledge of the classics in Greek and Latin. In 1681 Arbuthnot began the four-year course for the arts degree, which had a substantial element of mathematics and natural philosophy (physics). From 1685, when he paid his graduation fees, to 1691, nothing seems to be recorded of his life. Unlike Robert, he does not seem to have taken an active part in the political events following the flight of James II in 1688-9, since he was at hand to play his part in the sad events of his father's last days. Like his brother Robert he may have travelled abroad, but there is circumstantial evidence that he was known to Dr Archibald Pitcairne in Edinburgh; may have been involved in the Edinburgh fevers controversy; and that David Gregory, another Scot from the north-east, was his mentor in mathematical and medical studies there and in England.

On 24 September 1689 the Revd Alexander, with other ministers who would not conform and take the oaths to William and Mary, was deposed from his parish by the privy council in Edinburgh. Taking the session book with him he retired to a small property nearby, which he bought in 1690, but he died on 27 February 1691. On 4 March the kirk session sent to 'desire his sons to give up the said book, or if they will not to assure them that the ground in order to the said Mr Alexander's burial would not be opened'. Mr John Arbuthnot 'gave his bond to the Viscount of Arbuthnott [the ruling elder] for the delivery of the book'. After the burial on 6 March, Arbuthnot asked the viscount 'to have the liberty of making ane tomb or monument above the grave' but this could not be done without certain formalities, 'as also the inscription of the said tomb must be seen and known, that there be nothing found therein which may be derogatory to the present Government' (Aitken, 6). There is no monument in the kirkyard.

Soon after, Arbuthnot went to London, and according to tradition made a living by teaching mathematics. He lived at the house of William Pate (1666-1746), described by Swift as 'both a bel esprit and a wollen-draper' (letter to Robert Hunter, 12 Jan 1709), who had a fine library and a wide acquaintance in London. The first fruit of Arbuthnot's activities in London was a small anonymous book, Of the Laws of Chance (1692), partly translated from Huygens's treatise De ratiociniis in ludo aleae ('the theory of the game of dice', 1654). It applies the theory of probability to 'the games that are common among us', backgammon, the royal oak lottery, raffling, whist (Arbuthnot's lifelong consuming interest), as well as dice. Arbuthnot became private tutor to Jeffrey Jeffreys, the elder son of a rich London merchant and MP. He accompanied his pupil to University College, Oxford, where he was entered as fellow-commoner for the two sessions in 1694-6. He was introduced to the master, Dr Charlett, by Pate and David Gregory, by now Savilian professor of mathematics. Arbuthnot's terms in Oxford offered him an opportunity to study medicine privately, so far as it was taught, and to continue the necessary reading, if he had decided on this as a career. Surviving letters to Charlett give some idea of his networking with the mathematicians, academics, politicians, and others in Charlett's large circle and in his employer's house, including Dr Radcliffe, Newton, and Pepys. To practise creditably as a physician in London, it was necessary to gain a licence from Cambridge or Oxford (available only to their MAs), or a university doctorate in medicine. Accordingly, with help from Charlett, on 11 September 1696 Arbuthnot presented himself at the University of St Andrews, which like Oxford did not teach medicine, but from this time also granted the doctorate; enrolled as a student of medicine; and on the same day successfully defended seven theses 'De secretione animalium' (titles printed by George Mosman, 1696), and graduated MD.

While keeping the thread of scientific thinking that runs all through his work, Arbuthnot's next publication introduced the note of satire that became a characteristic of his writing. In 1695 Dr William Woodward FRS, the combative professor of physic at Gresham College, published An essay towards a natural history of the earth and terrestrial bodies, especially minerals ... with an account of the universal deluge. In 1697 Arbuthnot intervened in the controversy raging over the flood (Beattie, 190-209) with An examination of Dr Woodward's account &c, aiming at Woodward's characteristic weak points, his rash and peremptory addiction to grand theory, and his arrogant and proprietary attitude to his discoveries. He extended his discussion of the practice and application of mathematics in a short anonymous discussion: An essay on the usefulness of mathematical learning, in a letter from a gentleman in the city to his friend in Oxford (1701; repr. 1721, 1745) in which he commended such studies because they free the mind from 'prejudice, credulity, and superstition' (Aitken, 408, 410). Arbuthnot's early publications were not extraneous to his work as a physician; they demonstrated to prospective patients, in a new medical market place, a basis for credibility in his practice.

Politics and satire, 1702-1710
Queen Anne's accession on 19 March 1702 began the twelve years of Arbuthnot's greatest political importance, as well as his best writing. According to tradition Anne's husband, the prince of Denmark, was taken ill at Epsom and Arbuthnot, who was standing by, successfully treated him. Employment at court is evidenced in a letter to Charlett from Windsor, dated 8 June 1703. There is no record of Arbuthnot's marriage, or of his wife's identity other than that her forename was Margaret and her maiden name probably Wemyss (Arbuthnot, 161). Their eldest child, George, was born in 1703. On St Andrew's day 1704 Arbuthnot was elected fellow of the Royal Society, and on 16 April 1705, in the queen's retinue on her visit from Newmarket to Cambridge, he received the degree of MD. In the same year he was appointed to the Royal Society committee set up to oversee the publication of Historia coelestis, the star catalogue based on the observations of the Revd John Flamsteed, the astronomer royal. Sir Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley, fellow members, were in haste to publish quickly for their own work, whereas Flamsteed, a retentive perfectionist, sought completeness and precision. Arbuthnot, physician to Prince George, who was funding the publication, was a cat's-paw of Newton's in the middle of a time-consuming struggle. The sadly imperfect Historia (1712) was published, but then withdrawn, finally appearing after Flamsteed's death. Arbuthnot continued his own publication record with a foray into antiquities, an accepted interest for a physician of the time: Tables of Grecian, Roman, and Jewish measures, weights and coins; reduced to the English standard appeared in 1705, 1707, and 1709. A derivative compilation, with a dedication to the prince, this was expanded into Tables ... explained and exemplified in several dissertations (1727, 1747, with a Latin edition in 1756) with a 'Preface' stating that his motive in publishing was 'to give some profit of them' to his son Charles, born in the year of the original publication. On 30 October 1705 Arbuthnot was appointed one of the physicians extraordinary to the queen, 'by her Majesty's special command in consideration of his good and successful services performed as Physician to His Royal Highness'.

The clandestine marriage of Abigail Hill, the queen's waiting woman, and Samuel Masham, one of the early episodes in the eclipse of the duchess of Marlborough, took place in the queen's presence, in Arbuthnot's lodging at St James's Palace, in summer 1706. Arbuthnot also began his successful interventions as political pamphleteer late in the same year. The debates in Edinburgh over the articles of the treaty of union were heated. Arbuthnot supplied a short pamphlet, setting out in an overtly Scots voice to his countrymen the possible economic benefits of a union: A sermon preach'd to the people at the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh on the subject of the union. Ecclesiastes, Chap. 10, Ver. 27 ('Better is he that laboureth, and aboundeth in all things, than he that boasteth himself, and wanteth bread'), published in Edinburgh in 1706, London and Dublin in 1707, and Edinburgh in 1745. Just after the treaty was signed on 12 December 1707 Arbuthnot was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. In November 1709 he was appointed fourth physician-in-ordinary, one of the permanent royal household. He was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London on 27 April 1710. In the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions for this year (27, no. 328), he published 'An argument for divine providence, taken from the constant regularity observed in the births of both sexes'. Arbuthnot brought the theory of probability to bear on the 'political arithmetic', and argued that it is 'Art not Chance, that governs ... Provident Nature brings forth more Males [who are at most risk] than Females' (Beattie, 340).

John Bull and the Scriblerians
Swift moved to London in September 1710; he was drawn into the circle of Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford, writing the ministerial weekly The Examiner and other pieces. By the autumn of 1711 Arbuthnot was an intimate friend of Swift's. He was the source of 'hints' but cared little for the 'ownership' of ideas or even writing. Pamphlets, poems, squibs are attributed to Swift or Arbuthnot, which often have a communal origin. Swift was a more reliable provider than his busy, dégagé companion of the 1711-13 'Brothers' Club'. Harley's inflexible policy of ditching the allies, and by direct negotiations with France ending the long, enormously costly war of the Spanish succession, had by 1712 fanned a fierce political controversy. In support of Harley, Swift wrote his single most effective political pamphlet, The Conduct of the Allies, and in this context Arbuthnot produced his own most substantial political satire, the five best-selling John Bull pamphlets. These burlesque the war as a whole--its alliances, its purposes, its expense, its futility. The struggle is reduced to a lawsuit between John Bull and Lewis Baboon (Louis XIV) since the death of the late Lord Strutt (Charles II, king of Spain). John Bull--the clothier, well-meaning, hasty, generous, clever in his way, rich, but inconsistent--became a national symbol for England. The first pamphlet's title sets the tone, Law is a Bottomless Pit (4 March). The allegory is apparently opportunistic, but has a sustaining sense of entertaining caricature (Humphrey Hocus, the attorney, and his wife: the duke and duchess of Marlborough), and there is a strand of history (Bull's sister Peg: the Scots). The language is a powerful mixture of proverbs, catch-phrases, political slogans, technical terms: the satire is effectively turned on all the actors.

In the autumn Arbuthnot published Proposals for printing a very curious discourse ... a treatise of the art of political lying, with an abstract of the first volume: in these brief phantom proposals, and an abstract of the first volume of an imaginary book given the title Pseudologia politikeř, Arbuthnot's satiric temper reaches its most ingenious expression, ending on an ironical consideration of the spin-doctor's basic problem, 'whether a lie is best contradicted by truth or another lie'. In 1713 Arbuthnot was appointed physician of Chelsea Hospital, with another house available for convivial meetings of a new group: the famous 'Scriblerus Club' of Swift, Arbuthnot, Pope, Parnell, Gay, and Lord Treasurer Oxford. Pope brought to it a project for a satirical monthly periodical, An Account of the Works of the Unlearned; this idea was dropped in favour of collaboratively producing the satirical Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, a super pedant polymath. The group often met informally in Arbuthnot's lodgings, producing hints and ideas; writing went on by the members independently. The Memoirs form part of Pope's Works in Prose (1741). The dissensions between Oxford and the tory leader, Bolingbroke, in which Arbuthnot leant more to Oxford, reached new heights in 1713, and Oxford was suddenly dismissed by the queen on 27 July 1714. In a state of depressive exhaustion the queen died on 1 August, her will unsigned, and 'her poor Servants' left unprovided for. Arbuthnot and the other physicians had kept her alive just long enough to appoint the duke of Shrewsbury as lord treasurer on 31 July, frustrating any seizure of power by Bolingbroke.

With the accession of George I, Arbuthnot in company with many others lost his offices (and houses), but his practice in town was large though busy, and he moved into a house 'second door from the left in Dover Street', Piccadilly; he was often in Bath for the summer, or visiting friends and patients in the country. Writing to Swift on 19 October, he says 'I have not seen anything as yet to make me recant a certain inconvenient opinion I have, that one cannot pay too dear for peace of mind' (Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 2.137). The 'whole society' of Scriblerians met for the last time in November: thereafter papers related to the project were published separately, and it is often difficult to adjust assignments of authorship. Swift had written to Arbuthnot on 3 July 'You every day give better hints than all of us together could do in a twelvemonth ... all that relates to the sciences must come from you' (ibid., 2.46). A folio sheet probably by Arbuthnot, The Humble Petition of the Colliers, Cooks, Cook-Maids, Blacksmiths ... and Others (1716), against the 'Catoptrical Victuallers', who propose to use sunbeams and burning-glasses for cooking, has Scriblerian echoes related to the 'Academy of Lagado' in Gulliver's Travels (1726), part 3. Three Hours after Marriage, a farcical comedy, was invented by Arbuthnot, Pope, and principally Gay. It ran in 1717 for an extraordinary seven nights, then was taken off, perhaps damned for its absurdity by conventional literary critics. Dr Fossile, based on Dr Woodward, may represent Arbuthnot's input. In 1719 a fierce pamphlet war among the doctors attracted popular interest: at issue was the treatment of smallpox. Woodward had another grand theory, of 'biliose salts', which uniformly indicated emetics instead of the more usual purgatives. Three of the anti-Woodward pamphlets have with less or more probability been assigned to Arbuthnot (Beattie, 242-62).

In 1723 Arbuthnot was appointed second censor of the Royal College of Physicians, an officer with regulatory power over the proceedings of the college, and (so the college claimed) over the practice of apothecaries in London. The officers of the college, including Arbuthnot, were successfully prosecuted by the apothecaries for their interference, and a pamphlet by Arbuthnot, Reasons humbly offered by the ... upholders [funeral directors] against part of a bill for the better viewing, searching, and examining of drugs (1724), was a last shot in the doomed attempt by the college to regulate apothecaries' dispensing activities. A facet of his busy social life is preserved in a record of his presence at a meeting on 27 November 1725 of the lodge of freemasons at the Bedford Head tavern, Covent Garden (Sadler, 'Introduction', Masonic Reprints and Historical Revelations, 1898). In November 1727 he was chosen an 'elect' of the Royal College, and two weeks later delivered the annual Latin Harveian oration (Oratio anniversaria Harvaeana, 1727; summarized, Beattie 345-58). This ceremonial discourse gives without any startling novelty a judicious historical account of the art and science of medicine in England, balancing theory with the need for careful observation, and linking Harvey and Newton as exponents of mechanical and mathematical laws, the one of the microcosm, the other of the macrocosm. In 1726--bringing the manuscript of Gulliver's Travels--and again in 1727, Swift visited England, and there were reunions with Arbuthnot, Gay, and Pope. Pope's Dunciad (first version published 1728; with elaborated satirical critical commentary, 1729) is firmly in this Scriblerian context; the added apparatus of pedantic notes shows the hand of Arbuthnot, and the short appendix, Virgilius restauratus, roasting the arch-emendator Richard Bentley, is probably by him. Arbuthnot's wife died on 3 May 1730, and was buried in St James's, Piccadilly.

Final years and reputation
Arbuthnot's first considerable medical work appeared in 1731: An essay concerning the nature of aliments, and the choice of them, according to the different constitutions of human bodies. An attempt at a physiology of aliment directed to the general reader 'with as much Anatomy as a Butcher knows and moderate skill in Mechanics', though it should be read 'at Leisure and with Attention', it was a success (Beattie, 360). The second edition added 'Practical Rules of Diet'. Further editions appeared in 1736, 1751, 1756; in German in 1744 and in French in 1755. The emphasis is on a scientific attitude; advice is set out cautiously. He planned to treat the other 'Non-Naturals, Air, Rest, and Motion after the same manner', but completed only An Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies (1733; repr. 1751, 1756, 1851; in French in 1742 and in Latin in 1753). He thought it preposterous that there should be no 'Inquiries upon ... the Effects of a Substance that we take inwardly every Moment'. He shows himself aware of recent thinking on respiration and ventures into the epidemiology of fevers. He speculates that 'the Air operates sensibly in forming the constitutions of Mankind ... and consequently Manners', along the lines followed by Montesquieu (who indeed may have met him when he was in London in 1729-31, as a brother mason and a fellow of the Royal Society). He gives practical advice on ventilation in sick-rooms, and fresh air in cities (Beattie, 347-76).

The death at the age of twenty-six of his second son, Charles, a student of Christ Church in holy orders, was a severe blow to Arbuthnot at the end of 1731. The 'third volume' of the Pope-Swift Miscellanies of this year includes An Essay of the Learned Martinus Scriblerus Concerning the Origine of the Sciences which ridicules 'such as build general Assertions upon two or three Quotations from the Ancients'. It contains a generous share of Arbuthnot's characteristic satire. In 1734 Arbuthnot's health began to fail seriously; a tall man, he suffered from kidney stones and asthma, and decades of good eating had left him overweight, with 'a sort of Shuffle in [his] Gate', which Swift long ago had thought 'the worst your mortal Enemy could say of you with Truth' (25 July 1714). In January 1735 Pope published his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, an honour he denied Swift:

Friend of my Life! (which did not you prolong,
The world had wanted many an idle Song).

The doctor died shortly after on 27 February 1735 at his house in Cork Street in Burlington Gardens, Piccadilly, where he had moved in 1729. He was buried on 4 March in St James's, Piccadilly. He left three children: his son George, a clerk (later first secretary) in the office of the king's remembrancer, who died unmarried on 8 September 1779, and two daughters, of whom Anne (who helped Gay with the songs in The Beggar's Opera) died unmarried in 1751, and Margaret died also unmarried in 1740.

As well as writing, prompting, and assisting the works cited, Arbuthnot had a vast circle of friends and acquaintances including many of the men of note in London, and not excluding members of the new royal family. In common with all the Scriblerians he was an accomplished and witty letter-writer. His correspondence with Swift is a monument to both. He also had an active and knowledgeable interest in music, and as a founding subscriber and member of the court of directors of the Royal Academy of Music he was a friend of Handel's and took part in managing his Italian opera in London from 1719 to 1729. Swift and others called on his knowledge and on his musical contacts, which included European performers. As his own poem 'Know thyself' (1734) shows, his Christianity had a sombre side. He wrote to Swift on 12 August 1714, after the queen's death:

I have an opportunity calmly and philosophically to consider That treasure of vileness and baseness that I always believed to be in the heart of man, & to behold them exert their insolence, and baseness[.] every new instance instead of surprising and grieving me, as it does some of my freindes, really diverts me, & in a manner improves my Theory.
Arbuthnot, Dr Johnson wrote in his Life of Pope:
was a man of great comprehension, skilful in his profession, versed in the sciences, acquainted with ancient literature, and able to animate his mass of knowledge by a bright and active imagination; a scholar with great brilliancy of wit; a wit, who, in the crowd of life, retained and discovered a noble ardour of religious zeal. (S. Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. G. B. Hill, 3 vols., 1905, 3.117)


G. A. Aitken, The life and works of John Arbuthnot M.D., fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (1892)
P. S.-M. Arbuthnot, Memories of the Arbuthnots of Kincardineshire and Aberdeenshire (1920)
Arbuthnotiana ... a catalogue of Dr Arbuthnot's library ... to be sold 21, 22, 23 December 1779, Augustan Reprint Society, 154 (1972), incl. introduction by P. Kořster
L. M. Beattie, John Arbuthnot: mathematician and satirist (1935)
A. W. Bower and R. A. Erickson, eds., John Arbuthnot: the history of John Bull (1976)
P. J. Carstens [Kořster], 'Political satire in the works of John Arbuthnot', PhD diss., U. Lond., 1958
C. Brunneteau, 'John Arbuthnot (1667-1735) et les idées au début du 18e siècle', 2 vols., PhD diss., Université de Paris III, 1973
C. Condren, Satire, lies, and politics: the case of Dr Arbuthnot (1997)
C. Kerby-Miller, Memoirs of the extraordinary life, works, and discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus (1950)
A. Ross, 'The correspondence of John Arbuthnot', PhD diss., U. Cam., 1956
The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Williams, 5 vols. (1963-5)
The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. D. Woolley, 4 vols. (1999-2004)
D. E. Shuttleton, '"A modest examination": John Arbuthnot and the Scottish Newtonians', British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 18 (1995), 47-62
The best of our owne: letters of Archibald Pitcairne, 1652-1713, ed. W. T. Johnston (1979)

BL, letters to Sir Hans Sloane, Sloane MSS 4040-4078
BL, letters to Jonathan Swift, Add. MSS 4804-4806

W. Robinson, oils, 1700-1740, Scot. NPG
G. Kneller, oils, 1723, U. Glas. [see illus.]
attrib. C. Jervas, portrait, RCP Lond.; repro. in Aitken, Life and works of John Arbuthnot M. D., frontispiece
G. Kneller, oils, second version, Ickworth House, Park & Garden, Suffolk
portrait (after G. Kneller; copy), Warthill, Aberdeenshire; repro. in Beattie, John Arbuthnot (1954), frontispiece; copy, after

Wealth at death  
earned, and probably spent, approx. £2000 p.a.; £2000 Old South Sea stock; considerable library; house in Cork Street: Arbuthnotiana

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