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Arbuthnot, John

1. Dates
Born: Arbuthnott (sic), Kincardineshire, Scotland, late April 1667 Baptized 29 April 1667
Died: London, 27 Feb. 1735
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 68
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric
Alexander Arbuthnott (sic) was an episcopal clergyman. He refused to subscribe to the Presbyterian settlement in 1687 and was deprived in 1689.
No information on economic status.
3. Nationality
Birth: Scottish
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Aberdeen; Oxford; St. Andrews, M.D.
Marischal College (Aberdeen), 1681?-5. M.A. 1685. The M.A. was the basic degree in a Scottish university; I count it as equivalent to a B.A.
University College, Oxford, 1694-6.
Doctor of Medicine by examination from St. Andrews, 1696.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Demography
Subordinate: Mathematics, Medicine
Arbuthnot was primarily a political satirist.
His most important scientific work was a paper in the Philosophical Traqnsactions on the regularity in the proportion of male and female births, a paper that used the calculus of chance without advancing it, a paper more in demography than anything else.
He also published (his first publication) The Laws of Chance, 1692, and Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning, 1701.
Toward the end of his career Arbuthnot published several minor works on medicine.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Patronage
Secondary: Government, Schoolmastering
Teacher of mathematics in London, 1691-4.
In 1694 he entered University College, Oxford, as companion to young Edward Jeffreys, son of a wealthy London alderman and M.P. Here me made some important friends and decided to go into medicine.
Immediately upon receiving his degree in medicine, Arbuthnot established a practice in London, which continued until his death as nearly as I can find out. His practice concentrated on the prominent citizens of London.
After the chance of being available when Prince George wa seriously ill (and succeeding in curing him), Arbuthnot was appointed Physician Extraordinary to Queen Anne, 1705-9.
Appointed Physician in Ordinary to Queen Anne, 1709-14.
Appointed to a post in Customs, c.1711.
Appointed Physician at Chelsea Hospital, 1713. By all indications, this was a governmental appointment.
Appointed Second Censor by the Royal College of Physicians, 1723. (I greatly doubt that this entailed income.)
8. Patronage
Types: City Magistrate, Court Official, Government Official
See his relationship with Jeffreys above.
By Queen Anne's command he was appointed Physician Extraordinary to the Queen in 1705 and appointed Physician in Ordinary to the Queen in 1709. He kept the latter position until the death of the Queen. He dedicated a work on ancient coins to Prince George in 1707.
His close relationship with the leading statesmen of the Harley administration strengthened his position at court and surely allowed his appointments to public offices (perhaps sinecures). The sinecure in customs had to be due to patronage. There is a letter from Viscount Dupplin to the Earl of Oxford about Arbuthnot's appointment to Chelsea Hospital that also mentions the position in customs in the language of patronage. Later, upon the accession of George I, he lost his place at court. (Source on patronage: Aitken, pp. 20-32.)
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Medical Practice
He practiced medicine.
He was interested in possible practical applications of mathematics. (In my usage this does not qualify as a true technological connection.)
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, Medical College
Informal connections: The Scriblerus Club, a group of Tory wits--Arbuthnot, Pope, Swift, Gay, Thomson Parnell, and others, 1713-14. (This was literary.) Correspondence with the members of the club.
Correspondence with Dr. Hans Sloane, an eminent physician and naturalist. Note that much of Arbuthnot's correspondence appears to be available, and some is published.
Royal Society, 1704-35. He was one of the committee (dominated by Newton) to oversee the publication of Flamsteed's Historia coelestis. And he was a member of the committee that supposedly investigated the calculus controversy and did publish Commercium epistolicum, an assault on Leibniz that Newton himself in fact composed.
The Royal College of Physicians, 1710-35. Censor, 1723. He delivered the Harveian Oration in 1627.
  1. G.A. Aitken, The Life and Works of John Arbuthnot, (Oxford, 1892). PR3316.A5Z5 L.M. Beattie, John Arbuthnot, Mathematician and Satirist, (Cambridge, Mass., 1935). PR3316.A5Z52 Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-1950), 1, 534-7. Robert C. Steensma, Dr. John Arbuthnot, (Boston, 1979).
  2. Anita Guerrini, Natural Philosophy;, Medicine and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain: George Cheyne and Some Contemporaries, forthcoming. I have read the first two chapters in manuscript.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Angus Ross, The Correspoondence of Dr. John Arbuthnot, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge University, 1956.
  2. Contains 200 letters.
  3. George Sherburn, ed., The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1956).
  4. Harold Williams, The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, (Oxford, 1963-5). Stephen S. Weidenbroner, The Influence of John Arbuthnot on the Scientific Attitudes Expressed by Pope, Swift and the Scriblerus Club, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1969.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University
Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.
1995 Al Van Helden
Last updated
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