Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Derham, William (1657-1735)

DERHAM, WILLIAM (1657–1735), divine, was born at Stoulton, near Worcester, on 26 Nov. 1657. He was educated at Blackley grammar school, and on 14 May 1675 admitted to Trinity College, Oxford. He graduated B.A. in January 1678–9. Ralph Bathurst [q. v.], president of his college, recommended him to Seth Ward, bishop of Salisbury, through whose interest he became chaplain to the dowager Lady Grey of Werke. He was ordained deacon in 1681, and priest in 1682. In 1682 he was presented by Mr. Neville to the vicarage of Wargrave, and on 31 Aug. 1689, by Mrs. Bray, to the vicarage of Upminster, Essex. Here he lived quietly, cultivating his tastes for natural history and mechanics. He became acquainted with his scientific contemporaries, and in 1702 was elected fellow of the Royal Society, to whose ‘Transactions’ he contributed a number of papers from 1697 to 1729, treating of observations of the barometer and the weather, of the great storm of 1703, the habits of the deathwatch and of wasps, of the migration of birds, of the will of the wisp, and other subjects, which would have interested White of Selborne. His later papers include some astronomical remarks. In 1696 he had published ‘The Artificial Clockmaker, a Treatise of Watch and Clock work, showing to the meanest capacities the art of calculating numbers to all sorts of movements … with the Ancient and Modern History of Clockwork …’ (4th edition in 1734). His studies thus fitted him admirably for the Boyle lectures, which he delivered in 1711 and 1712, and published in 1713 as ‘Physico-Theology, or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from his Works of Creation.’ This book reached a twelfth edition in 1754 (French translation 1732, Swedish 1736, German 1750). It shows much reading as well as ingenious observation, and is a statement of the argument from final causes, of which Paley's ‘Natural Theology’ is the most popular exposition. Paley used it (see, e.g., his references to the vision of birds, the drum of the ear, the eye-socket, and the digestive apparatus) and occasionally refers to it. In 1715 Derham published ‘Astro-Theology, or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from a Survey of the Heavens,’ a continuation of the same argument (ninth edition 1750, German translation 1732).

On the accession of George I, Derham became chaplain to the Prince of Wales, afterwards George II, and on 19 Sept. 1716 was installed canon of Windsor. In 1730 the university of Oxford gave him the D.D. degree by diploma.

Derham's other original publications were ‘Christo-Theology, or Demonstration of the Divine Authority of the Christian Religion,’ 1730 (substance of a sermon at Bath, 2 Nov. 1729), and a ‘Defence of the Church's Right in Leasehold Estates,’ 1731, in answer to a book published under the name of Everard Fleetwood. Derham also edited Ray's ‘Synopsis of Birds and Fishes,’ 1713, and ‘Philosophical Letters’ of Ray and Willoughby, 1718; besides publishing new editions of Ray's ‘Physico-Theological Discourses’ in 1713, and ‘Wisdom of God’ in 1714. He left a brief life of Ray, published by G. Scott in 1760 in Ray's ‘Remains,’ and edited for the Ray Society by Dr. Lankester in 1846 in ‘Memorials of John Ray.’ He contributed notes to the histories of birds and insects (1724–31) by Eleazar Albin [q. v.] He revised an edition of ‘Miscellanea Curiosa, a Collection of some of the greatest Curiosities in Nature, accounted for by the greatest Philosophers of this age,’ in 1726 (first edition in 1705–7), and edited the ‘Philosophical Experiments of … Robert Hooke and other eminent Virtuosoes’ (1726). He is also said to have made large collections of birds and insects. He was strong, healthy, and amiable, and he served his parishioners in their bodily as well as their spiritual ailments, few of them requiring another physician during his lifetime. He died on 5 April 1735. By his wife Anne, aunt to George Scott of Chigwell, he left several children, the eldest of whom was William, who gave an account of his life to the ‘Biographia Britannica.’ He was fellow and afterwards president of St. John's College, Oxford, and died on 17 July 1757.

[Biog. Brit.; Nichols's Anecdotes, i. 143.]

L. S.