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Butler, William (1535-1618) (DNB00)


BUTLER, WILLIAM (1535–1618), physician, was born at Ipswich, and educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge, of which he became fellow. He graduated M.A., and was probably incorporated in that degree at Oxford in 1563. In October 1572 the university of Cambridge granted him a license to practise physic, he having then been a regent in arts for six years. He was usually styled Doctor, though he never took the degree of M.D. He acquired the most extraordinary reputation in his profession, and it is said that ‘he was the first Englishman who quickened Galenical physic with a touch of Paracelsus, trading in chemical receipts with great success.’ In October 1612 he was summoned from Cambridge to attend Henry, prince of Wales, in his last illness. Although Sir Edward Peyton has not scrupled to cite Butler's opinion that the prince was poisoned, it appears that, in common with the other physicians, he entertained no such suspicion (Secret Hist. of the Court of James I, ii. 247, 346). In November 1614 Butler attended the king at Newmarket for an injury received in hunting; and when the king was at Cambridge in May 1615 he visited Butler and stayed with him nearly an hour. Butler lived in the house of John Crane, a celebrated apothecary of Cambridge, and many anecdotes are recorded of his eccentricities and empirical mode of practice. Aubrey relates: ‘The Dr. lyeing at the Savoy in London, next the water side where was a balcony look't into the Thames, a patient came to him that was grievously tormented with an ague. The Dr. orders a boate to be in readinesse under his windowe, and discoursed with the patient (a gent.) in the balcony, when on a signall given, 2 or 3 lusty fellowes came behind the gent. and threw him a matter of 20 feete into the Thames. This surprize absolutely cured him.’

Butler died at Cambridge on 29 Jan. 1617–18, and was buried in Great St. Mary's. On the south side of the chancel of that church there is a mural monument with his bust, in the costume of the period, and a Latin inscription in which he is termed ‘Medicorum omnium quos præsens ætas vidit facile Princeps.’

Butler left his estate to his friend John Crane, and he was a benefactor to Clare Hall, to which he bequeathed many of his books and 260l. for the purchase of a gold communion cup. Thirty-five years after his death ‘his reputation was still so great, that many empyrics got credit among the vulgar by claiming relation to him as having served him and learned much from him.’ In the reign of Charles II there was in use in London ‘a sort of ale called Dr. Butler's ale.’ His portrait has been engraved by S. Pass.

[Addit. MSS. 5810, p. 28, 5863, f. 87 b; Aikin's Biog. Memoirs of Medicine, 186; Blomefield's Collectanea Cantab. 92; Cambridge Portfolio, 490; Cooper's Annals of Camb. iii. 73 n, 94 n, 119–124; Lives of Nicholas Ferrar, ed. Mayor; Fuller's Hist. of the Univ. of Camb., ed. Prickett and Wright, 307; Fuller's Worthies (1662), Suffolk, 67; Granger's Biog. Hist. of England (1824), ii. 119; Harl. MS. 7049, f. 39; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. 172, 6th Rep. 269, 7th Rep. 188; Letters written by Eminent Persons in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1813), ii., pt. i., 265; Leland's Collectanea, v. 197; Parker's Hist. of the Univ. of Camb. 43; Peckard's Life of Ferrar, 24; Wadd's Nugæ Chirurgicæ, 31; Winwood's Memorials, iii. 429; Wood's Fasti Oxon. (Bliss), i. 163.]

T. C.