Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornton, Robert John
THORNTON, ROBERT JOHN (1768?–1837), botanical and medical writer, younger son of Bonnell Thornton [q. v.] by Sylvia, daughter of John Brathwaite, was born probably in 1768, the year of his father's death. He was partly educated by the Rev. Mr. Taylor, vicar of Kensington, who took eight private pupils into his house. At sixteen he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, being intended for the church, but evinced a strong predilection for the medical profession, which his father, the son of an apothecary, had abandoned. He attended Professor Thomas Martyn's botanical lectures, and, when the death of his only brother put him in a position to fellow his inclination, he entered Guy's Hospital medical school, where during a three years' course he attended the lectures of Henry Cline [q. v.] on anatomy, and of William Babington (1756–1833) [q. v.] on chemistry. In 1793 he graduated M.B. at Cambridge, taking as the subject of his thesis a discovery of his own, ‘that the animal heat arises from the oxygen air imbibed by the blood flowing through the lungs, and taken from the atmosphere received by them, and that in its circulation through the body it decomposes.’ After his mother's death he visited Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, Holland, and Germany to obtain further professional experience, and in 1797 began to practise in London. He had already begun the publication of his first work, ‘The Politician's Creed,’ issued under the pseudonym of ‘An Independent.’ Adopting from Thomas Beddoes (1760–1808) [q. v.] the Brunonian system, he began the administration of ‘factitious airs,’ and in 1796 published ‘The Philosophy of Medicine, being Medical Extracts … including … the Doctrine of Pneumatic Medicine.’ This work speedily went into five editions; and, though he offended the profession by his methods, Thornton seems to have acquired a considerable practice. For four years he acted as physician to the Marylebone dispensary, and is said to have introduced the use of digitalis in scarlet fever. Subsequently he succeeded Sir James Edward Smith [q. v.] as lecturer on medical botany at the united hospitals of Guy and St. Thomas.
Almost at the outset of his career Thornton ruined himself by the lavish scale on which he published his ‘New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnæus.’ For this sumptuous work in imperial folio he engaged the services of Sir William Beechey, Opie, Raeburn, Russel, Reinagle, Harlow, Miss Burney, and others, as painters; Bartolozzi, Vendramini, Holl, Ward, and the Landseers as engravers; and Dr. George Shaw, George Dyer, Seward, and Maurice as poets. The work was advertised in 1797, and seems to have been issued in parts at twenty-five shillings each between 1799 and 1807. In its best state it is a very splendid work, about 24 inches by 18 inches; but its bibliography is very difficult, hardly two copies being alike (W. B. Hemsley and W. F. Perkins in Gardeners' Chronicle, 1894, ii. 89, 276). It consisted of three parts, with a profusion of elaborately written sub-titles. The first contains portraits of the author by Bartolozzi, after Russel; of Linnæus by Henry Meyer, after Hoffmann, ornamented by Bartolozzi; of Queen Charlotte by Sir William Beechey, ornamented by Bartolozzi; of Sir Thomas Millington by Woolnoth, after Sir Godfrey Kneller; and of Linnæus in his Lapp dress by Henry Kingsbury, after Hoffmann; with ‘a prize dissertation on the sexes of plants,’ which is a translation of Linné's ‘Sexum Plantarum Argumentis et Experimentis Novis …,’ with copious notes strongly defending Millington's claims to the discovery of the sexuality of plants, and a plate representing the pollen of various flowers, reproduced from one published by Geoffroy in 1711. The second part was apparently ‘The Genera of Exotic and Indigenous Plants that are to be met with in Great Britain’ (168 pp., without date or publisher's name); but this part is often missing. The third part was issued in 1799 as ‘Picturesque Botanical Plates of the New Illustration …’ priced with the text at twenty guineas, but also issued simultaneously, apparently without the text, as ‘Picturesque Botanical Plates of the Choicest Flowers of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.’ In 1804 it was reissued as ‘The Temple of Flora, or Garden of Nature, being Picturesque Plates …;’ and in 1812, re-engraved on a smaller scale, 20 inches by 151/4, as ‘The Temple of Flora, or Garden of the Botanist, Poet, Painter, and Philosopher.’ This part has no fewer than eight titles and sub-titles, and thirty-one plates (cf. Notes and Queries, viii. v. 467, vi. 15).
In 1804 Thornton had an exhibition of the originals of his plates at 49 New Bond Street, of which he issued a descriptive catalogue (British Museum press-mark, T. 112), from the advertisements in which it appears that he had then published No. 20 of ‘The Philosophy of Botany, or Botanical Extracts, including a New Illustration … and the Temple of Flora;’ No. 1 of ‘A Grammar of Botany,’ to be completed in fifteen monthly numbers or less, with seven or eight plates each, price three shillings, but given gratis to purchasers of the ‘Philosophy;’ No. 4 of ‘The Empire of Flora, or Scientific Description of all known Plants, Natives and Exotics, [with] more than one thousand Dissections from Drawings by John Miller,’ also in monthly parts, at three shillings, each with eight copper-plates, the British plants forming about fifty numbers, making two octavo volumes, with four hundred plates, to be followed by foreign plants in three volumes, with six hundred plates; and No. 3 of ‘Portraits of Eminent Authors,’ at three shillings each. The part of the ‘Empire of Flora’ that was actually published was ‘The British Flora’ (5 vols. 1812), and the three portraits then issued were Erasmus Darwin, engraved by Holl after Rawlinson; Professor Thomas Martyn, engraved by Vendramini after Russell; and Sir James Edward Smith, engraved by Ridley after Russel. Some twenty-four more were afterwards published, of which a complete list is given by Messrs. Hemsley and Perkins (loc. cit.). They were issued separately at five guineas, were included in ‘Elementary Botanical Plates … to illustrate Botanical Extracts’ (London, 1810, folio), and in some copies of the ‘New Illustration;’ in fact, as Mr. Hemsley says, Thornton seems to have sent each subscriber what he thought would please him.
Thornton became an M.D. of St. Andrews in 1805, and a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1812. In 1811 he obtained an act of parliament (51 Geo. III, cap. 103), authorising him to organise a lottery of his botanical works, and this was advertised as ‘The Royal Botanical Lottery, under the patronage of the prince regent, of twenty thousand tickets at two guineas each, and ten thousand prizes, of a total value exceeding 77,000l.’ The first prize was the collection of original pictures at that date on exhibition at the Europæan Museum, King Street, St. James's which was valued at over five thousand pounds. The second class of prizes consisted of copies of ‘The Temple of Flora,’ ‘in five folio volumes;’ the third class, of sets of the plates coloured; the fourth class, of the quarto edition; the fifth class, of the ‘British Flora’ (5 vols. 8vo, with four hundred plates); and the sixth class, of the ‘Elements of Botany’ (2 vols. 8vo, with two hundred plates).
The lottery does not appear to have proved remunerative; and, in spite of his numerous subsequent publications, when Thornton died at Howland Street, Fitzroy Square, on 21 Jan. 1837, he left his family very poor. He had a son, who lectured on astronomy and geography, and a daughter. There are four engraved portraits of Thornton: one, in folio, by Bartolozzi, after Russel, with a view of Guy's Hospital, from the ‘New Illustration,’ 1799; another, in octavo, by Ridley from the same original, illustrating a memoir in the ‘European Magazine’ for July 1803; another, engraved by Hill from the same, in the ‘Family Herbal,’ 1810; and one, also in octavo, engraved by the deaf and dumb B. Thomson, from a drawing made by Harlow in 1808, when only sixteen, in the ‘Outline of Botany,’ 1812. The genus Thorntonia, dedicated to his memory by Reichenbach, has not been maintained by botanists.
Besides the great work already described and contributions to the ‘Philosophical’ and ‘Monthly’ magazines (Roy. Soc. Cat. v. 982), Thornton published: 1. ‘The Politician's Creed … by an Independent,’ 1795–1799, 8vo. 2. ‘The Philosophy of Medicine, being Medical Extracts,’ 1st ed. 1796, 4 vols. 8vo; 2nd and 3rd ed. 1798; 4th ed. 1809, 5 vols.; 5th ed. 1813, 2 vols. 3. ‘The Philosophy of Politics, or Political Extracts on the Nature of Governments and their Administration,’ 1799, 3 vols. 8vo. 4. ‘Facts decisive in Favour of the Cow Pock,’ 1802, 8vo. 5. ‘Sketch of the Life and Writings of William Curtis,’ 1802?, 8vo; another edition in Curtis's ‘Lectures on Botany,’ 1804–5, 3 vols. 8vo. 6. ‘Plates of the Heart illustrative of the Circulation,’ 1804, 4to. 7. ‘Vaccinæ Vindiciæ, or a Vindication of the Cow Pock,’ 1806, 8vo. 8. ‘Practical Botany,’ 1808, 8vo. 9. ‘Botanical Extracts, or Philosophy of Botany,’ 1810, 2 vols. fol., with two portraits and one plate. 10. ‘Elementary Botanical Plates to illustrate “Botanical Extracts,”’ 1810, fol., with twenty-six portraits and 165 plates. 11. ‘Alpha Botanica,’ 1810, 8vo. 12. ‘Sketch of the Life and Writings of James Lee, prefixed to Lee's Introduction to the Science of Botany,’ 1810, 8vo. 13. ‘A New Family Herbal,’ 1810, 8vo, dedicated to Dr. Andrew Duncan, with woodcuts by Bewick; 2nd ed., dedicated to the Queen, but otherwise a reprint, 1814. 14. ‘A Grammar of Botany,’ 1811, 12mo; 2nd ed. 1814. 15. ‘The British Flora,’ 1812, 5 vols. 8vo. 16. ‘Elements of Botany,’ 1812, 2 vols. 8vo, dedicated to Professor Thomas Martyn. 17. ‘Outline of Botany,’ 1812, 8vo. 18. ‘School Virgil (Bucolics),’ 1812, 12mo; 2nd ed., a reprint, 1821, 8vo. 19. ‘Illustrations of the School Virgil,’ 1814, 12mo, worthless little woodcuts; re-issued in 1824 with additional woodcuts by Blake of fine quality. 20. ‘Juvenile Botany,’ 1818, 12mo; another edition, entitled ‘An Easy Introduction to the Science of Botany, through the Medium of Familiar Conversations between a Father and his Son,’ 1823, 8vo. 21. ‘Historical Readings for Schools,’ 1822, 12mo. 22. ‘The Greenhouse Companion,’ 1824. 23. ‘The Religious Use of Botany,’ 1824, 12mo. 24. ‘The Lord's Prayer, newly translated, with Notes,’ 1827, 4to.[European Mag. July 1803; Gent. Mag. 1837, ii. 93; Munk's Coll. of Phys. iii. 98; Gardeners' Chronicle, 1894, ii. 89, 276.]