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Winthrop, John

1. Dates
Born: Groton Manor, Suffolk, England, 12 Feb. 1606.
Died: Boston, Mass., 5 April 1676,
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 70
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry
Also John Winthrop, he was from the gentry.
Obviously prosperous.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English colonial society
Death: English colonia society
4. Education
Schooling: Trinity (Dublin)
Grammar School at Bury St. Edmunds.
Trinity College, Dublin--no degree.
Read Law at the Inner Temple, 1624-7.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist
A Puritan very prominent in New England.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural Philosophy, Alchemy
It is hard to know how to categorize Winthrop, a problem made more acute by his isolation in a frontier community. He was interested in natural phenomena of all sorts. He had a telescope and he observed the heavens, though not as a professional astronomer. He was the first scientific investigator of note in British North America.
He was a devoted student of hermetic philosophy with the reputation of being an adept. He collected an extensive library on alchemy.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means, Government, Agriculture
Secondary: Merchant, Medicine
Winthrop's parents were very well to do gentry. As an infant he was heir to a good estate from his grandfather and more followed before he was twenty. In 1631 he joined his father in New England. It is hard to judge what happened to the estate in the transfer to wilderness colonies. On the one hand, he was always in debt, and his finances were always chaotic. On the other hand, he always had large grants of land.
Assistant to Governor in New England, 1634, 35, 40, 41, 44-49.
According to Black, Winthrop was appointed Governor of Connecticut by the projectors in England planning the colony.
The early appointments are funny in that Connecticut did not then exist; it was a plan in the mind of some entrepreneurs. However, he apparently got a salary.
Magistrate of Connecticut, 1651--I do not known whether this carried a salary, considering what reality in Connecticut was then.
Governor of Connecticut, 1657-76--this position definitely carried a salary, albeit not a huge one.
Throughout his life in New England, Winthrop engaged in a continuous succession of commercial enterprises--ironworks, black lead, salt-making, a saw mill in New London, speculation in sugar. Little or nothing came from any of them.
He always had agricultural land in New England. He raised and sold a lot of animals. In 1650 he moved to his agricultural estate in New London.
Winthrop began to practise medicine in the late 40s; by his death he was recognized as the leading physician in New England, granting always that physicians were extremely rare. About 1650 his correspondence became heavily medical; he was consulted by mail from all over New England and even New York. He frequently gave remedies free to the poor and lodged them in his home; one stayed a full year. From others he definitely received payment.
8. Patronage
Type: None
I am unsure how to treat the projectors in England who appointed Winthrop to positions, but in the end I see enough peculiarities here that I am unwilling to call it patronage.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology, Agriculture, Metallurgy
He was the leading physician in Connecticut, even though he had no formal medical education. He treated a large number of people, and he was always concerned with pharmacology, especially of the Paracelsian kind. He made heavy use of nitre and of antimony, although he also used herbal remedies. He devised some new remedies, especially one he called rubila, made up of nitre, antimony, and a touch of salt of tin.
In the Philosophical Transactions he published a paper on "The Description, Culture, and Use of Maize."
The iron works. Possibly I could list the salt works as practical chemistry, but evaporating sea water hardly seems like applied chemistry.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Winthrop carried on an extensive correspondence with scientific circles in England.
Royal Society, 1662.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 21, 702-3. Robert C. Black, The Younger John Winthrop, (New York and London, 1966). This is easily the best source I have found. Ronald S. Wilkerson, "'Hermes Christianus:' John Winthrop, Jr.
  2. and Chemical Medicine in Seventeenth Century New England," in Allen Debus, ed., Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance: Essays to Honor Walter Pagel, (New York, 1972), 1, 221-41. Charles A. Browne, "The Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of Chemical Industry in America," Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 11 (1919), 16-19.
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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