Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Arbuthnot, John
ARBUTHNOT, JOHN (1667–1735), physician and wit, was the son of a Scotch episcopal clergyman settled at Arbuthnot, Kincardineshire. He is said to have studied at Aberdeen, but he took his doctor's degree in medicine at St. Andrew's on 11 Sept. 1696. His father lost his preferment upon the revolution, and retired to a small estate of his own; and the sons, who shared his high-church principles, found it desirable to seek their fortunes abroad. One of them, Robert, became ultimately a banker in Paris; his extraordinary amiability is celebrated by Pope (Letter to Digby, 1 Sept. 1722); he married a rich widow of Suffolk in 1726 (Swift to Stopford, 20 July 1726); and he was suspected of Jacobite tendencies (Gent. Mag. ii. 578, 766, 782). Another was in the army (Journal to Stella, 26 Sept. 1711). John Arbuthnot settled in London, where he first stayed at the house of Mr. William Pate, a woollendraper, and gave lessons in mathematics. In 1697 he published 'An Examination of Dr. Woodward's Account of the Deluge, &c.,' criticising a crude theory suggested by Woodward (1695) in an 'Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth.' Arbuthnot next published an able 'Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning, in a letter from a gentleman in the city to his friend in Oxford,' dated 25 Nov. 1700. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, 30 Nov. 1704; and in 1710 he contributed a paper to its 'Transactions' upon the slight average excess of male over female births; which he regards as a providential arrangement intended to provide against the greater risks of the male sex, and as proving that polygamy is contrary to the law of nature. Arbuthnot was meanwhile rising in his profession, and had the good luck to be at Epsom when Prince George of Denmark was suddenly taken ill and to prescribe for him successfully. He was appointed physician extraordinary to Queen Anne, 30 Oct. 1705; and on the illness of Dr. Hannes, fourth physician in ordinary, 11 Nov. 1709. Swift calls him the 'queen's favourite physician.' On 27 April I710, he was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, was censor in 1723, and pronounced the Harveian oration in 1727. Arbuthnot's favour at court was strengthened by his intimacy with the leading statesmen of the Harley administration. He formed a close friendship with Swift, and is frequently mentioned in the 'Journal to Stella.' He was a member of the famous 'Brothers Club,' and took an active share in the literary warfare against the whigs. He was the author, as Swift tells us (Journal to Stella, 12 Dec. 1712) of the 'Art of Political Lying,' one of the best specimens of the ironical wit of the time. A more celebrated production was the well-known pamphlet called ultimately, 'Law is a Bottomless Pit; or, the History of John Bull,' published 1712. Both Swift and Pope ascribe this to Arbuthnot (Spence's Anecdotes, p. 145; Journal to Stella, 12 Dec. 1712). It is an ingenious and lively attack upon the war policy of the whigs; and, if it wants the force of Swift's profounder satire, it is an admirably effective and still amusing party squib. It does not seem to be known whether Arbuthnot originated or only adopted the nickname, John Bull. During the last years of Queen Anne's reign Swift and Arbuthnot had become intimate with the younger wits. Pope, Gay, and Parnell. They called themselves the 'Scriblerus Club,' and projected a kind of joint-stock satire to be directed against 'the abuses of human learning in every branch.' Lord Oxford carried on an exchange of liumorous verses with them; and, according to Pope (Spence's Anecdotes, p. 10), Atterbury, Congreve, and even Addison, proposed to join in their scheme. Arbuthnot writes a letter to Swift with various suggestions for Scriblerus during his friend's retirement at Letcombe; and Swift in his reply says that Arbuthnot was the only man capable of carrying out the plan, which had been originally suggested by Pope. The scheme dropped for a time upon Anne's death and the retirement of Swift to Ireland. Fragments, however, had been executed and formed part of the 'Miscellanies' printed by Pope in 1727. The 'Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus' were first published in the quarto edition of Pope's works in 1741; they are mainly, if not exclusively, Arbuthnot's, and give the best specimen of his powers. The ridicule of metaphysical pedantry is admirable, though rather beyond popular appreciation. Other passages are directed against the antiquarians and Arbuthnot's old opponent, Woodward, and his supposed discovery of an ancient shield. The account of Scriblerus's education clearly gave some hints to Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy.'
Arbuthnot was in attendance upon Queen Anne in her last illness. Upon her death he retired for a short time to France. He went there again in 1718, his chief business being, as he told Swift (14 Oct. 1718), to leave his two girls with their uncle. Such visits might be suspicious in the eyes of good whigs. Upon the accession of George I he lost his place at court, but he appears to have retained his practice among the great people. We find him introducing Swift to the Princess of Wales — soon to become Queen Caroline — in April 1726. He was the friend and physician both of Chesterfield and of Pulteney, the last of whom tells Swift that no one but Arbuthnot understood his case. He attended Mrs. Howard, afterwards Lady Suffolk, and Congreve. He was the trusted friend and adviser of all the wits. He helped to get up a subscription for Prior when the poet was in distress. He was the constant adviser, medical and otherwise, of his friend Gay. Pope constantly expressed his gratitude to Arbuthnot, paid to him some of his finest poetical compliments, and dedicated the most perfect of his satires to this
Friend to my life, which did not you prolong,
The world had wanted many an idle song.
Though his correspondence with Swift was often interrupted, their friendship never changed. Arbuthnot, who was a musician, helped Swift to get singers for his cathedral, and sent him prescriptions and medical advice. If there were a dozen Arbuthnots in the world, said Swift (Letter to Pope, 29 Sept. 1725), he would burn his 'Travels.' 'Our doctor,' he adds, 'hath every quality in the world that can make a man amiable and useful: but, alas! he hath a sort of slouch in his walk.' Elsewhere (Letter to Gay, 10 July 1732), he calls Arbuthnot 'the king of inattention,' and Chesterfield confirms the statement that Arbuthnot was frequently absent-minded in company. 'The doctor,' said Swift on another occasion, 'has more wit than we all have, and his humanity is equal to his wit.' And this seems to have been the universal opinion.
Arbuthnot was singularly careless of his literary reputation. His witty writings were anonymous; he let his children make kites of his papers, allowed his friends to alter them as they pleased, and took no pains to distinguish his share. After the death of Queen Anne he took part, with Pope and Gay, in the silly farce called 'Three Hours after Marriage,' in which his old enemy Woodward is once more ridiculed, and which, being unworthy of all the three authors, was deservedly damned in 1717. Another trifle, called 'A Brief Account of Mr. John Ginglicutt's treatise concerning the Altercation or Scolding of the Ancients,' is identified as Arbuthnot's by letters to Swift from Pulteney (9 Feb. 1731) and Pope (1 Dec. 1731); but Pope's view that it is of 'little vakie' seems to be better founded than Pulteney's admiration of its humour. Arbuthnot had published about 1707 a collection of 'Tables of Grecian, Roman, and Jewish Measures, Weights, and Coins reduced to the English Standard,' and dedicated to Prince George of Denmark. He republished these in 1727, with preliminary dissertations and with a dedicatory poem to the king by his son Charles, then a student of Christ Church, for whose benefit, he tells us, they were again printed. The death of this son in 1731 was a severe blow to Arbuthnot, and is mentioned with pathetic resignation in the father's letter to Swift, 13 Jan. 1732-3. Arbuthnot's health had long been uncertain. Swift notices, in the 'Journal to Stella' (4 Oct. 1711), that the doctor was suffering from symptoms of stone. In 1723 he tells Swift that he is as cheerful as ever on public affairs, 'with a great stone in his right kidney, and a family of men and women to provide for.' His characteristic cheerfulness seems to have declined under illness and domestic trouble, and some of his later letters express some sympathy with Swift's misanthropical views. In his last years he published three medical treatises: 'An Essay concerning the Nature of Aliments and the Choice of them' (1731); 'Practical Rules of Diet in the various Constitutions and Characters of Human Bodies' (1732); and an 'Essay concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies' (1733). He retired for a time to Hampstead in 1734, to try the effect of the air, and there wrote touching letters to Pope (17 July) and to Swift (4 Oct. 1734), taking leave of them with affectionate goodwill. 'A recovery in my case and in my age,' he wrote, 'is impossible; the kindest wish of my friends is euthanasia.' He died peacefully, though in much suffering, 27 Feb. 1734-5.
Arbuthnot had two sons — Charles, mentioned above, and George, who became secondary in the Remembrancer's Office — and two daughters, who died unmarried. George, whose melancholy is contrasted with his father's cheerfulness by Swift's friend Erasmus Lewis, was one of Pope's executors; Pope left to him a portrait of Bolingbroke and a watch given by the King of Sardinia to Peterborough, and by Peterborough to Pope. He also bequeathed 200l. to George and 200l. to his sister Ann Arbuthnot. Arbuthnot's acknowledged works are given above. Two volumes, called 'The Miscellaneous Works of the late Dr. Arbuthnot,' were published at Glasgow in 1751. George Arbuthnot advertised that they were not his father's works, but 'an imposition upon the public' They were republished in 1770, with a few additional pieces and a life, the accuracy of which was admitted by George Arbuthnot (see Biog. Brit. 1778). The collection has no authority, but includes the following, which were clearly Arbuthnot's: the 'Usefulness of Mathematical Learning,' the 'Scolding of the Ancients,' the 'Examination of Woodward,' a sermon at the Mercat Cross, Edinburgh (see Elwin's Pope, Letters, ii. 489), and a poem called Γνῶθι σεαυτόν, first printed by Dodsley in 1748, with Arbuthnot's name. The 'Masquerade,' a poem, is probably Fielding's, with whose 'Grubstreet Opera' it was printed in 1731, having first appeared (it is there said) in 1728. The letter to Dean Swift is attributed to Gordon of the 'Independent Whig' (Monthly Review, iii. 399). It is said in Chalmers's 'Biog. Dict.' that several of the pieces 'were written by Fielding, Henry Carey, and other authors.' They are for the most part worthless, and seem to have been taken at random on account of the subjects. 'Gulliver decypher'd' is attributed to Arbuthnot in the 'Biog. Brit.,' and by a writer in the 'Retrospective Review,' but it is a more than ostensible attack upon Swift, Pope, and himself; it deals with certain sore subjects for all three on which Arbuthnot was very unlikely to touch. The 'third part of John Bull' seems to be quite unworthy of him. Besides these, he has been credited with 'Critical Remarks on Capt. Gulliver's Travels by Dr. Bantley,' 'Don Bilioso de I'Estomac,' 'Notes and Memorandums of the six days preceding the Life and Death of a late Right Rev. —' (that is Bishop Burnet), and the 'Essay upon an Apothecary' in a 'Supplement to Dean Sw—t's Miscellanies,' all in the same collection. They are at best very doubtful. It appears, also, that Arbuthnot helped in the notes to the 'Dunciad' (Nichols, Illustrations, iii. 766, and Anecdotes, v. 586). He may probably have written the 'Virgilius Restauratus' appended to the same; and he is said to have written the 'Reasons offered by the Company of exercising the Trade and Mystery of Upholders against part of the Bill for viewing and examining Drugs and Medicines;' the 'Petition of the Colliers, Cooks, Blacksmiths, &c., against Catoptrical Victuallers;' and 'It cannot rain but it pours, or London strewed with rarities,' generally printed in Swift's works. They first appeared in the additional volume of 'Miscellanies' published by Pope in 1732, together with an 'Essay of the learned Martinus Scriblerus concerning the Origin of Sciences' (which is traced to the monkeys of Ethiopia) attributed to Arbuthnot and Pope himself by Pope (Spence, 167). He may have contributed in some degree to the treatise on the Bathos, which seems, however, to have been almost entirely Pope's.
The 'History of John Bull' originally appeared in 1712, in successive parts, entitled 'Law is a Bottomless Pit, exemplified in the case of Lord Strutt, John Bull, Nicholas Frog, and Lewis Baboon, who spent all they had in a lawsuit;' 'John Bull in his Senses,' being the second part of the above; 'John Bull still in his Senses,' the third part; 'Appendix to John Bull still in his Senses;' and 'Lewis Baboon turned honest and John Bull politician,' being the fourth part. They are described on the title-page as written by the author of the 'New Atalantis.' The history was reprinted in Pope's 'Miscellanies' (1727), rearranged and divided into two parts.[Life in Miscellaneous Works, 1770; Biographia Britannica; Works of Swift and Pope, passim; Spence's Anecdotes; Chesterfield's Works, 1845, ii. 446; Retrospective Review, vol. viii.; Munk's College of Physicians (1878), ii. 27.]