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Charleton, Walter

1. Dates
Born: Shepton Mallet, Somerset, 2 Feb. 1620
Died: London, 24 April 1707 If it matters, DSB, different from everyone else, gives 13 Feb. and 6 May as the dates of birth and death.
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 87
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric
Walter Charleton [sic] was the rector in Shepton Mallet.
No clear information on financial status. On the one hand, Biographia Britannica says that the father was indifferently furnished with the goods of fortune. Nevertheless, on the other hand, Charleton does not appear to have matriculated in Oxford as a servitor. On the first hand again, it is made clear that he studied medicine because he needed to think in terms of a remunerative career. 3. Natonality:
Birth: English.
Career: English.
Death: English.
3. Nationality
4. Education
Schooling: Oxford, M.D.
Oxford University, 1635-43; Magdalen Hall; M.D., 1643.
In Magdalen Hall he was the pupil of Wilkins, who influenced him.
The M.D., rather early, was bestowed upon mandate from Charles I.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Charleton is described as a high churchman.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Medicine, Natural Philosophy
Subordinate: Physiology, Natural History, Anatomy
Charleton was not a leader of English medicine; nevertheless he did publish a number of works on medicine.
His most important work was in general natural philosophy. He entered the world of learning as a disciple of van Helmont (Spiritus gongonicus, a Helmontian theory of the formation of stones in the human body, and A Ternary of Paradoxes, mostly a translation from Helmont, both in 1650. Then three works in the atomist tradition: The Darkness of Atheism, 1652; Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charletoniana, 1654; The Immortality of the Human Soul [sic], 1657.
The Natural History of Nutrition, Life and Voluntary Motion, 1659, was one of the first books in English on physiology.
Onomasticon zoicon, 1668, was a work more or less in taxonomy.
He also published some anatomical lectures and Onomasticon contained anatomies of two animals that he had dissected.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine
Secondary: Patronage, Scientific Society
Medical practice, from 1643. Physician in ordinary to the King, 1643.
Charleton, a royalist, left Oxford no later than 1650 for London, where he opened a practice.
Upon the Restoration, he because physician in ordinary to Charles II. Very little is said of this, and it is not clear what income he derived from it.
Toward the end of Charleton's long life, when his royalist patients had died off, his practice dwindled. He had to leave London for a time. When he returned to London, the Royal College of Physicians helped him, by appointing him in 1706 Harveian Librarian of the College, with a salary of 20. He is said to have died destitute.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Aristrocrat, Gentry, Physician, Merchant
In The Darkness of Atheism Charleton acknowledged his debts to John Prideaux, who was an important and influential figure in Oxford while Charleton was a student and who became a Bishop later. This is very vague, and it is not clear that he referred to anything more than the help a teacher owes to a student.
In 1643 Charleton was created M.D. through the favor of Charles I, and he was then almost immediately appointed physician to Charles.
During the Interregnum he was appointed physician in ordinary to Charles II in exile. Most accounts have taken this appointment to have been merely nominal since Charleton remained in London, but Sharp's account, the most recent and most detailed, thinks that Charleton was in Paris during 1655.
The crown rewarded him for his service and loyalty; there was a marked upturn in his fortune in 1660. (One source on patronage: Biographia Britannica, 3, 443-9.) Charleton published An Imperfect Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majesty Charles the II in 1661, a pretty shameless encomnium. He also dedicated Exercitationes pathologicae, 1661, to Charles.
Charleton was a prolific writer and a liberal dedicator. Thus Darkness of Atheism to Sir Francis Prujean, a successful court physician who was President of the Royal College of Physicians at the time and who had helped Charleton register as a Candidate in 1650. He dedicated Natural History of Nutrition to Viscount Fauconberg and Dr. George Ent; he also dedicated another work to Ent. He dedicated the 1680 edition of Natural History, reworked and retitled Enquiries into Human Nature, to Sir John Cutler. He dedicated Immortality of the Human Soul, 1657, and Oeconomia animalium 1659, to the Marquis of Dorchester. In 1650 Lord Brouncker, a friend at Oxford, was forward in urging Charleton to publish A Ternary of Paradoxes, and to Brouncker he dedicated Disquisitiones duae anatomicae- physicae, 1665. Physiologia, 1654, was dedicated to Mrs. Elizabeth Villiers, wife of Sir Robert Villiers, at whose home he was then staying. In 1668 he translated Lady Margaret Cavendish's biography of her husband, William Cavendish, into Latin; I certainly assume a remuneration.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Medical Practice
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, Medical College
Informal Connections: friendship with John Wilkins, W.
Cavendish, Hobbes, Evelyn, and others.
Royal Society, 1660-1707.
Royal College of Physicians, 1650-1707; President, 1689-91. Charleton was a Candidate in 1650, an Honorary Fellow in 1664 (a status that allowed him to pay dues and to practice), and ordinary Fellow in 1676.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-1950), 4, 116-19. Biographia Britannica, 2nd ed. (London, 1778-93), 3, 443-9.
  2. William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1878), 1, 390-3.
  3. Anthony Wood, Athenae oxonienses, 4 vols. (London, 1813-20), 4, 752-6.
  4. Humphrey Rolleston, "Walter Charleton, D.M., F.R.C.P., F.R.S.," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 8 (1940), 403-16.
  5. Lindsay Sharpe, "Walter Charleton's Early Life, 1620-1659, and Relationship to Natural Philosophy in Mid-Seventeenth Century England," Annals of Science, 30 (1973), 311-40. This is easily the best account for the period it covers.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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1995 Al Van Helden
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