John Arbuthnot, often known simply as Dr. Arbuthnot, was a physician, satirist and polymath in London. He is best remembered for his contributions to mathematics, his membership in the Scriblerus Club (where he inspired both Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels book III and Alexander Pope's Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus, and possibly The Dunciad), and for inventing the figure of John Bull.


In his mid-life, Arbuthnot, complaining of the work of Edmund Curll, among others, who would commission and invent a biography as soon as an author died, said, "Biography is one of the new terrors of death," and so a biography of Arbuthnot is made difficult by his own reluctance to leave records. Alexander Pope noted to Joseph Spence that Arbuthnot allowed his infant children to play with, and even burn, his writings. Throughout his professional life, Arbuthnot exhibited a strong humility and conviviality, and his friends complained that he would not take credit for his own work.

Arbuthnot was born in Kincardineshire, on the northeastern coast of Scotland, son of Rev Alexander Arbuthnot, an Episcopalian priest and Margaret, née Lammie. He may have graduated with an arts degree from Marischal College in 1685. Where John's brothers took part in Jacobite causes in 1689, he remained with his father. These brothers included Robert, who fled after fighting for King James VII in 1689 and became a banker in Rouen and half-brother George, who fled to France and became a wine merchant. However, when William and Mary came to the throne and the new Act of Settlement required all ministers to swear allegiance to them as heads of the Church of England, Arbuthnot's father would not comply. As a non-conformist, he was removed from his church, and John was there to take care of affairs when, in 1691 his father died.

Arbuthnot went to London in 1691, where he is supposed to have supported himself by teaching mathematics (which had been his formal course of study). He lodged with William Pate, whom Swift knew and called a "bel esprit." He published Of the Laws of Chance in 1692, translated from Christian Huygens's De ratiociniis in ludo aleae. This was the first work on probability published in English. The work, which applied the field of probability to common games, was a success, and Arbuthnot became the private tutor of one Edward Jeffreys, son of Jeffrey Jeffreys, an MP. He remained Jeffreys's tutor when the latter attended University College, Oxford in 1694, and he there met the variety of scholars then teaching mathematics and medicine, including Dr. John Radcliffe, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Pepys. However, Arbuthnot lacked the money to be a full-time student and was already well educated, although informally. He went to the University of St. Andrews and enrolled as a doctoral student in medicine on September 11, 1696. The very same day he defended seven theses on medicine and was awarded the doctorate.

He first wrote satire in 1697, when he answered Dr. John Woodward's An essay towards a natural history of the earth and terrestrial bodies, especially minerals... with An examination of Dr. Woodward's account &c. He poked fun at the arrogance of the work and Woodward's misguided, Aristotelian insistence that what is theoretically attractive must be actually true. In 1701, Arbuthnot wrote another mathematical work, An essay on the usefulness of mathematical learning, in a letter from a gentleman in the city to his friend in Oxford. The work was moderately successful, and Arbuthnot praises mathematics as a method of freeing the mind from superstition.

In 1702, he was at Epsom when Prince George of Denmark, husband of Queen Anne fell ill. According to tradition, Arbuthnot treated the prince successfully. According to tradition again, this treatment earned him an invitation to court. Also around 1702, he married Margaret, whose maiden name is possibly Wemyss. Although there are no baptismal records, it seems that his first son, George (named in honor of the prince), was born in 1703. He was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1704. Also thanks to the Queen's presence, he was made an MD at Cambridge University on April 16, 1705.

Arbuthnot was an amiable individual, and Swift said that the only fault an enemy could lay upon him was a slight waddle in his walk. His conviviality and his royal connections made him an important figure in the Royal Society. In 1705, Arbuthnot became physician extraordinary to Queen Anne, and at the same time was put on the board trying to publish the Historia coelestius. Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley wanted it published immediately, to support their work on orbits, while John Flamsteed, the Royal Astronomer whose observations they were, wanted to keep the data secret until he had perfected it. The result was that Arbuthnot used his leverage as friend and physician to Prince George, whose money was paying for the publication, to force Flamsteed to allow it out, albeit with serious errors, in 1712. Also as a scholar, Arbuthnot took up an interest in antiquities and published Tables of Grecian, Roman, and Jewish measures, weights and coins; reduced to the English standard in 1705, 1707, 1709, and, expanded with a preface (which indicated that his second son, Charles, was born in 1705), in 1727 and 1747.

Although Arbuthnot was not a Jacobite after the fashion of his brothers, he was a Tory, for national and familial reasons. Anne was advised (and many said controlled) by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who was a champion of Whig causes. In 1706, the Duchess of Marlborough fell out with Anne — a schism which the Tories were pleased to encourage. The marriage of lady-in-waiting Abigail Hill to Samuel Masham, which was the first overt sign of Anne's displeasure with Sarah Churchill, took place in Arbuthnot's apartments at St. James's Palace. The reasons for the choice of apartment and the degree of involvement of Arbuthnot in either the love match or Anne's estrangement, are not clear. As a Scotsman, Arbuthnot served the crown by writing A sermon preach'd to the people at the Mercat Cross of Edinborough on the subject of the union. Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10, Verse 27. The work was designed to persuade Scots to accept the Act of Union. When the Act passed, Arbuthnot was made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He was also made a physician in ordinary to the Queen, which made him part of the royal household.

Arbuthnot returned to mathematics in 1710 with An argument for Divine Providence, taken from the constant regularity observed in the births of both sexes (linked below) in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, where he analyzed birth data and demonstrated that males were born at a greater rate than females. This being against probability, he deduced that divine providence accounted for it, because males die young more often than females.

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