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Newton and Physicians

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Newton and Physicians

‘A simple and limpid fluid, in which swim Corpuscles of various Figures and Magnitudes, and endowed with different Degrees of an Attractive Force’.

James Keill, Account of Animal Secretion (London, 1708), p. 97.

Newton’s 1692 unpublished essay De natura acidorum, coupled with query 23 of the 1706 Latin edition of the Opticks provided early eighteenth-century physicians with a new physiological explanation which could be related to animal function: short-range attraction (Guerrini, 1985). In his later revision of the Opticks Newton moved away from the concept of attracting particles to attracting fluids, and he highlighted the role of the aether. Both these concepts are visible in Edward Worth’s medical collection which clearly reflects his interest in the application of Newtonian concepts to medicine.

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Portrait of Archibald Pitcairne: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Both Eagles (1977) and Guerrini (1986) have drawn attention to a group of Scottish physicians and astronomers who formed a close knit nexus of Newtonianism in Scotland, England and the Netherlands. Undoubtedly chief among these were Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713) and David Gregory. The mathematician and astronomer David Gregory had influenced Pitcairne, John Keill (1671–1721) and John Freind (1675–1728) and in turn, Pitcairne influenced George Cheyne (1671/2-1743) and Richard Mead (1673-1754). Pitcairne and Gregory had met in Edinburgh in the 1670s and discovered a shared enthusiasm for Newton’s experiments. They shared more than that for, as Guerrini relates, they came from a similar class, had a similar religious outlook and came from a similar political grouping: minor gentry, Episcopalian and with close connections to English Tories. Friesen (2003) suggests that the shared something else: a fear of disorder, which made the order of the Principia particularly appealing.

Pitcairne matriculated at the University of Edinburgh in 1668 and graduated M.A. in 1671. In 1680 he decided to take an M.D. at the University of Rheims and on his return to Edinburgh he became involved with Robert Sibbald’s plan to establish a Royal College of Physicians at Edinburgh. By the late 1680s he was a professor of medicine at Edinburgh but the advent of the Glorious Revolution and the decision of the Convention Parliament at Edinburgh to order a visitation of the universities to ensure allegiance to the new regime, forced Pitcairne and Gregory to face uncomfortable choices, since both were Episcopalians and supporters of the Stuart monarchy. Officially Pitcairne was not required to take the oath of loyalty to William and Mary as his professorship was titular but his support for the Jacobite cause was no secret and, although it may not have been the over-riding reason why he chose to accept the offer of a chair of medicine at Leiden in 1691, it seems likely that his political stance played some role in his decision.

Pitcairne was offered the professorship of medicine at Leiden in November of 1691 and he accepted it without delay, delivering his inaugural lecture there on 26 April 1692. Here he emphasised the importance of Newton’s natural philosophy for medical teaching, This lecture and his subsequent lectures, which emphasised the application of mathematics to medicine (iatromathematics) and the importance of vascular hydraulics, proved a great success and were later published (with other material) under the title Dissertationes medicae at Rotterdam in 1701 – Worth duly bought a copy. Though Pitcairne’s time at Leiden was short (he only stayed a year), his lectures on the theory and practice of medicine made a great impression on other Dutch and English physicians whose works would subsequently be collected by Worth: Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738), George Cheyne, Richard Mead and William Cockburn (1669–1739).


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Portrait of George Cheyne: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

George Cheyne (1671/2-1743), like Gregory and Pitcairne, was a Scottish Episcopalian. Following much the same footsteps as Gregory he had been educated at Marischal College in Aberdeen before moving to Edinburgh and, like Pitcairne, he had moved from Edinburgh to Leiden. It was at Leiden that Pitcairne’s influence began to be felt. The first tangible evidence of this came in 1701 when Cheyne defended Pitcairne’s views on fever in his book A New Theory of Continual Fevers (London, 1701), which was one of three books by Cheyne collected by Worth (Worth had the third London edition of 1722). It was in this text that Cheyne (following his mentor Pitcairne), advocated Newtonian natural philosophy as a basis for a new medical system. Cheyne sought to extend the reach of Newtonian natural philosophy into the area natural religion in the second book which Worth collected: Philosophical principles of natural religion: containing the elements of natural philosophy, and the proofs for natural religion, arising from them (London, 1705), which, as Guerrini (1985) reminds us, showed Cheyne’s adherence to the Newtonian concept of short-range forces. However, by this time Cheyne’s relationship with Newton had deteriorated, due primarily to Newton’s displeasure with Cheyne’s 1703 publication on the Newtonian method of the calculus. Cheyne suffered a breakdown and abandoned his plan to collaborate with Pitcairne on a medical Principia. Cheyne’s mystical revision of the Philosophical principles in 1715 was ignored by Worth in favour of the rather more down to earth Observations concerning the nature and due method of treating the gout, first printed at London in 1720 and collected by Worth in the Dublin 1725 edition.

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Portrait of John Friend: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Worth also collected books by four other Newtonians who formed part of this Scottish Newtonian nexus (though not all were Scots): John Freind, Richard Mead and the brothers James and John Keill. Worth had five texts by John Freind (1675–1728), including his lectures as Ashmolean professor of Chemistry at Oxford which demonstrated his Newtonian approach to chymistry. Though not part of the Scottish Newtonian mafia, Freind was undoubtedly influenced by them as he was taught mathematics by David Gregory at Oxford. Worth had a copy of Freind’s first medical work, Emmenologia (Oxford, 1703), a work on menstruation which was heavily influenced by the writings of Archibald Pitcairne. Appointed Professor of Chemistry at Oxford in the following year, Freind published his Praelectiones chymicae, which Worth bought in a 1710 Amsterdam copy. It included a fulsome dedication to Newton whose unpublished De natura acidorum formed the bedrock of the interpretative structure. Freind’s Praelectiones chymicae also acknowledged the influence of another member of the Scottish group, John Keill (1671–1721), who was at Oxford at the same time as Freind and who, like him, had been taught by Gregory. Both Freind and John Keill would later play an important role in defending Newton in the calculus dispute with Leibniz.

Worth’s third book by Freind was part of a pamphlet war on the use of purging, a debate in which Worth evidently had a professional interest. Initially begun by Freind’s publication of his Commenatarium novem de febribus (1717), which included a letter by Richard Mead on the subject of purging as a treatment for smallpox, the controversy developed when John Wooodward took issue with Mead’s approach in his State of Physick and Diseases (London, 1718). Worth collected both Woodward’s text and Freind’s defence of Mead: Johannis Freind ad celeberrimum virum Ricardum Mead, M. D. de Quibusdam Variolarum generibus epistola (London, 1723). Mead had been instrumental in gaining the release of Freind from imprisonment, following the latter’s involvement in the Atterbury plot of 1722. It was Mead who was responsible for inspiring Freind’s major work The history of physick; from the time of Galen, to the beginning of the sixteenth century (London, 1725-6), a work likewise collected by Worth. This was a response to Daniel Leclerc’s Histoire de la médicine which had focused on the role of Galen. Freind’s rewriting of medical history up the sixteenth century combined a survey of late classical, medieval and early modern medical theory with examples taken from contemporary practices – practices which were based on his own understanding of the application of Newtonian ideas to medicine. To Freind’s mind this was not anachronistic because for him, Newtonian medicine was not an innovation but a return to classical principles.

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Portrait of Richard Mead: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Freind’s colleague, Richard Mead (1673-1754), another Leiden student of Pitcairne’s, proved to be one of the most successful physicians of his age. His father’s involvement in the Rye House plot in 1683 ensured that Richard was educated in the Netherlands, first at the University of Utrecht and, for his medical degree at Leiden. It was at Leiden that he and Hermann Boerhaave (whose Institutiones medicae (Leiden, 1720) and Elementa chemiae (Leiden, 1732) were later collected by Worth), housed with Archibald Pitcairne, whose Newtonian version of iatro-mechanics would prove such an influence on Mead’s later works on physiology. Having made his name with his Newtonian-Pitcairne inspired A Mechanical Account of Poisons (1702) and been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1703, Mead steadily made his way up the medical and social ladder. Worth might not have had a copy of the book on poisons but he certainly had a copy of Mead’s De imperio solis ac lunæ in corpora humana, et morbis inde oriundis, published at London in 1704. This unusual work incorporated Newton’s gravitational theory and Hippocratic climatic theory, using many examples of cases histories from Pitcairne. Again, it proved to be a popular work and Mead continued his climb up the ladders of the Royal Society, being appointed vice-president in 1713. When plague broke out in Marseilles in 1720 the English Government asked Mead to present them with a position paper on how to prevent it infecting England. The subsequent work (of which Worth had the eighth edition of 1722) proved to be yet another best-seller. Worth collected not one but two copies of Mead’s Harveian oration of 18 October 1723 at the Royal College of Physicians, no doubt because it combined two interests Mead and Worth had in common: medical concerns and antiquarian researches.

Another follower of Newton (via Pitcairne) was James Keill (1673-1719), whose An Account of Animal Secretion not only explained the circulatory system as a mathematical model but also used Newtonian ideas of short range forces to explain animal secretion. The book contained three essays: on the quantity of blood in the body, on animal secretion and on muscular motion but it was the second part, animal secretion, which received most attention. Focusing on the issue of cohesion of blood particles, Keill explained this in terms of Newton’s short-range attraction and specifically referred to Newton’s 1706 edition of his Opticks. Guerrini (1985) suggests that Newton’s concept of short-range attraction ‘reached its apogee’ with the publication of this work, which was likewise collected by Worth.

By 1713 Newton was beginning to resurrect the idea of the aether, a concept which he had examined in his 1675 paper on ‘Hypothesis of Light’. At first physicians paid little heed to it but by the 1720s the role of the aether in physiology was becoming part of mainstream debate. The Worth Library contains one of the most famous explorations of the subject: Bryan Robinson’s A dissertation on the aether of Sir Isaac Newton (Dublin, 1743).


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Portrait of Bryan Robinson in the Edward Worth Library.

Bryan Robinson (1680-1754) had been educated at Trinity College Dublin by Richard Helsham. In 1712 he was elected a Fellow of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians and subsequently became President on three separate occasions. His appointment as Regius Professor of Physic at Trinity College, Dublin in 1745 followed his publication of a number of works, including his Treatise of the Animal Oeconomy (1732-3), and his aforementioned work on Newton’ aether. His Treatise of the Animal Oeconomy, of which there are two editions in the Worth Library, the Dublin 1732 edition and the Dublin 1734-7 edition, sought to apply Newtonian ideas to medicine. As Roos (2007) points out, the Treatise of the Animal Oeconomy was concerned with atmospheric acids and acidic salts and used experiments in Newton’s Opticks and his ‘De natura acidorum’ to support the theory that respiration was dependent on a chymical interaction of acidic parts of the air. Robinson drew attention to his intellectual debt to Newton in the preface of the work, emphasising that, following Harvey’s and Lower’s discoveries, ‘the Knowledge of the Animal Oeconomy received no very considerable Improvement, till Sir Isaac Newton discovered the Causes of Muscular Motion, and Secretion; and likewise furnished Materials for explaining Digestion, Nutrition, and Respiration.’

Attention was drawn to this intellectual debt in the very title of Robinson’s A dissertation on the aether of Sir Isaac Newton (Dublin, 1743) and it is clearly apparent in the General Scholium at the end of the work:

‘Having shewn how the Aether causes a great Part of the Phaenomena of Nature, it may be ask’d whence this general material Cause has its great Activity and Power. For since its Particles, do not touch, and yet repel one another with great Force, there must be some Cause interceding the Particles, which gives them this repulsive Power. This Cause must be either Matter or Spirit, there being nothing in the Universe, which we know of, besides these two. But this Cause cannot be Matter; for Matter is in its own Nature inert, and has not any Activity in itself; and consequently, cannot communicate any Power to the AEther. And therefore the Cause, which gives the AEther its Activity and Power, must be Spirit.

Spirit, which intercedes the Particles of AEther, and gives them a repulsive Power, and ordains and executes the Laws by which AEther and Bodies act mutually on one another, must be present in all Parts of Space where there is AEther. But, there is AEther in all Parts of Space, in which we can discover Attraction, Gravity, Light, or any other of the Phaenomena, which I have shewn to be caused by an AEther: There is an universal Attraction in all Bodies in the solar System; Comets gravitate towards the Sun; there is Light in all the fixed Stars; and if the fixed Stars be Centers of other Systems, as the Sun is the Center of our System, we may reasonably conclude that all the Phaenomena I have mentioned, will be found in the Systems of the fixed Stars, as well as in the solar System. And therefore, as there is every where AEther, there must be every where Spirit, in every Part of Infinite Space. And the AEther being one an the same in all Parts of Space, as we may conclude it to be from Light, being the same very where; the Spirit which gives it Activity, and executes its Laws, must be one of the same Spirit every where present in all Parts of Space.’

This book is one of at least three books which were given by Robinson to the Worth Library following Worth’s death in 1733 since it is likely that Robinson was the donor of the 1739 first edition of Richard Helsham’s A course of lectures in natural philosophy (Dublin, 1739), given that he had published it. Robinson gave these books because he was a friend of Worth and was, like him, a Trustee of Dr Steevens’ Hospital, which houses the Edward Worth Library. The inclusion of these works may, however, distort our picture of Worth’s reception of Newtonian medicine. When we examine the core of Worth’s collection of medical texts influenced by Newtonian ideas it is clear that the vast majority of his Newtonian medical library reflected the concerns of the earlier eighteenth century interpretation, most notably the circle of Scottish Newtonian physicians.


Brown, T. M. (1987), ‘Medicine in the Shadow of the Principia’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 48, no. 4, pp. 629-648.

Eagles, Christina M. (1977), ‘David Gregory and Newtonian Science’, The British Journal for the History of Science 10, no. 3., pp. 216-225.

Friesen, John (2003), ‘Archibald Pitcairne, David Gregory and the Scottish origins of English Tory Newtonianism’, History of Science xli, pp. 163-191.

Guerrini, Anita (1985), ‘James Keill, George Cheyne, and Newtonian Physiology, 1690-1740’, Journal of the History of Biology, 18, no. 2, pp. 247-266.

Guerrini, Anita (1986), ‘The Tory Newtonians: Gregory, Pitcairne, and Their Circle’, Journal of British Studies 25, no. 3, pp. 288-311.

Guerrini, Anita (2004), ‘Freind, John (1675–1728)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

Guerrini, Anita (2004), ‘Cheyne, George (1671/2–1743)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

Guerrini, Anita (2004), ‘Keill, James (1673–1719)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Guerrini, Anita (2004), ‘Mead, Richard (1673–1754)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

Guerrini, Anita (2004), ‘Pitcairne, Archibald (1652–1713)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

Kirkpatrick, T. P. C. (1912), History of the Medical Teaching in Trinity College Dublin and of the School of Physic in Ireland (Dublin).

Kirkpatrick, T. P. C. (1924), The History of Doctor Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin, 1720-1920 (Dublin, 1924).

Norgate, G. Le G. (2004), ‘Robinson, Bryan (1680–1754)’, rev. Jean Loudon, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

Roos, Anna Marie (2000), ‘Luminaries in Medicine: Richard Mead, James Gibbs, and Solar and Lunar Effects on the Human Body in Early Modern England’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74, no. 3, pp. 433-457.

Roos, Anna Marie (2007), The Salt of the Earth. Natural Philosopyy, Medicine, and Chymistry in England, 1650-1750 (Leiden).

Rowlinson, J. S. (2007), ‘John Freind: Physician, Chemist, Jacobite, and Freind of Voltaire’s’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 61, no.2, pp. 109-27.

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