Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 1. Arbuthnot’s early life and scientific work

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

V. Arbuthnot and Lesser Prose Writers

§ 1. Arbuthnot’s early life and scientific work

ARBUTHNOT’S name is familiar to all readers of the literature of the early portion of the eighteenth century; but, to most people, he is known only by the references to him in the correspondence of Pope and Swift, and what he wrote is now little read. This is due, in part, to the nature of the topics which he chose, but chiefly to the fact that he was lavish in the assistance which he gave to his friends and took little trouble to preserve his work or to ensure its receiving recognition.

John Arbuthnot was born in 1667 at Arbuthnott, where his father had become parson in 1665. The village is near Arbuthnott castle in Kincardineshire; but whether the Arbuthnots were connected with the patron of the living, Viscount Arbuthnott, is not certain. After the revolution, Arbuthnot’s father refused to conform to the General Assembly and was deprived of his living. He retired to a small property in the neighbourhood, and died in 1696. His sons left their old home; John—who had studied at Marischal college, Aberdeen, from 1681 to 1685—going to London, where he earned a living by teaching mathematics. In 1692, he published a translation of a book by Huygens on the laws of chance, and, two years later, he entered University college, Oxford, as a fellow-commoner, and acted as private tutor to a young man admitted to the college on the same day. In the summer of 1696, Arbuthnot decided to try some other course of life, and, in September, he took his doctor’s degree in medicine at St. Andrews, where, we are told, he acquitted himself extraordinarily well in both his public and private trials. He seems to have returned to London to practise, and, at the end of 1697, he published An Examination of Dr. Woodward’s Account of the Deluge, etc., in which he pointed out the difficulties which made it impossible to accept Woodward’s theory. Arbuthnot was now on friendly terms with many well-known literary and scientific men, including Pepys. In 1701, he published at Oxford an admirable essay On the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning. In 1704, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and, in 1705, was created an M.D. of Cambridge. In this latter year, he had the good fortune to be at Epsom when prince George of Denmark was taken ill, and he was always afterwards employed by the prince as his physician. In the summer, he dedicated to the prince a little volume, Tables of the Grecian, Roman and Jewish Measures, Weights and Coins, and was appointed physician extraordinary to the queen, a post which gave him considerable influence at court. In 1709, he became physician in ordinary to the queen.