John Arbuthnot

Scottish mathematician, physician and satirist John Arbuthnot is known for his satirical writings, which include a political allegory, ‘The History of John Bull.’


Scholar John Arbuthnot was born in April, 1667 in Inverbervie, Scotland. Mathematician and physician to Queen Anne, his political writing included The History of John Bull, an 18th-century satirical personification of England. He was also a founding member of the Scriblerus Club, which aimed to ridicule bad literature and false learning. Arbuthnot died on February 27, 1735 in London, England.

Early Life

John Arbuthnot was born in Inverbervie, Scotland in April 1667 and baptized on the 29th of that month. The eldest of his parents’ seven surviving children, John followed his sire's lead, attending Marischal College, Aberdeen and graduating in 1685. His father, an Episcopalian minister, refused to conform to the Presbyterian system leaders William and Mary insisted upon, so he lost his position and living in 1689. John tended to his father's papers at his death in 1691, then left for London. 

Math, Medicine and Writing Career

The next year, after finding employment as a math tutor, Arbuthnot translated and published Of the Laws of Chance from a Dutch book on probability, adding many more games of chance such as backgammon and whist to the treatise.

He moved to Oxford with a student he was tutoring, where he met luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Samuel Pepys. Arbuthnot took to private study in medicine and eventually returned to Scotland, enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews, and defended his thesis and earned his degree all on the very same day.

Friend of Jonathan Swift

Arbuthnot continued to publish treatises on mathematics and other subjects, and was accepted as a fellow of the Royal Society. He was later called in to treat Prince George, the Danish husband of Queen Anne, and his success landed him the position as her physician. He remained so until her death in 1714, and became involved in politics.

Jonathan Swift become a lifelong friend and the two published satirical fare, often contributing to each other's material. Although he continued to write about mathematical subjects, Arbuthnot become best known for his collected work The History of John Bull, a humorous personification of England.

Death and Legacy

Overweight, with asthma and kidney stones, John Arbuthnot died on February 27, 1735 in London.

Along with Swift, Alexander Pope and other famous friends, Arbuthnot had formed the Scriblerus Club, dedicated to satirizing the abuses of learning. Because he didn't care about fame, much of his work is not attributed to him, but the group credited him as chief contributor, especially for The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. Samuel Johnson called him "a scholar with great brilliancy of wit…"

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