July 22, 2012

JOHN ARBUTHNOT (1704-14-41)

Scottish mathematician, physician, and occasional writer, remembered as the close friend of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Gay and a founding member of their famous Scriblerus Club, which aimed to ridicule bad literature and false learning.

After taking a medical degree in 1696 at St. Andrews, Arbuthnot became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1704, and was one of Queen Anne´s physicians from 1705 until her death.

Though he published mathematical and other scientific works, his fame rests on his reputation as a wit and on his satirical writings. The most important of these fall into two groups. The first consists of a political allegory dealing with the events that led up to the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). It was published in five pamphlets, the earliest appearing in 1712. Collected in 1727 under the composite title The History of John Bull, it established and popularized for the first time the character who was to become the permanent symbol of England in cartoon and literature. The other chief actors are caricatured as Lord Strutt (Charles II of Spain), Lewis Baboon (Louis XIV), and Nicholas Frog (the Dutch). JOhn Bull is described as "in the main... and honest plain-dealing Fellow, Choleric, Bold, and of a very unconstant Temper". In the simple but effective action he is very nearly tricked by the duplicities of the other national "heroes" and by the self-centredness of the attorney Humphrey Hocus (the Duke of Marlborough).

The other satire in which Arbuthnot had an important share was the Memoirs of... Martinus Scriblerus, a mocking exposure of pedantry, first published in the 1741 editions of Pope´s works, but largely written as early as 1713-14 by the members of the Scriblerus Club. The other members of the club acknowledged Arbuthnot as the chief contributor and guiding spirit of the works.

Arbuthnot was indiferent to literary fame, and many of his witticisms and ideas for satires were later developed by and credited to his more famous literary friends.

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