Birthplace: Inverbervie, Kincardine, Scotland
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Doctor, Author
Executive summary: Scriblerus Club
British physician and author, 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 Marischal College, Aberdeen, and later went to Oxford to study privately, and was private tutor to Edward Jefferys; and in 1696 he graduated MD 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, or, A Treatise of the Art of Political Lying" best known by its subtitle. 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 twelve-month: 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 John 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.
Father: Alexander Arbuthnot (Episcopalian minister, d. 1691)
Mother: Margaret Lammie
Brother: Robert (b. 1669)
Brother: Alexander (b. 1675)
Brother: George (half-brother, b. 1688)
University: Marischal College, Aberdeen, Scotland
Medical School: University of St. Andrews (1696)
Royal Society 1704
Royal College of Physicians 1710
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