John Arbuthnot, mathematician, physicist, scholar, satirist and author, was baptised on the 29th of April, 1667.
John Arbuthnot was a bit of a scribbler and had a wicked eye for comic humour. He was the Scottish physician, mathematician and essayist who joined with Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and others in founding the famous ‘Scriblerus Club’. Notably, Swift said of Arbuthnot, “there does not exist a better man.” As a satirist, Arbuthnot was responsible for popularising the iconic character of ‘John Bull’ as the proto-typical Englishman, although he may not have invented the character. Arbuthnot was also the Scottish scholastic scribbler who translated Huygens’ tract on probability, introducing to British mathematicians the first work on probability published in English. In all probability, John Arbuthnot invented the word ‘probability’. Arbuthnot was a clever guy; he wisnae a chancer, that’s for sure.
John Arbuthnot was born in Kincardineshire. We don’t know when, but we do know that he was baptised on the 29th of April, 1667. John gained a good grounding in Latin and Greek, from his father, before John went to Marischal College in Aberdeen, in 1681. In Aberdeen, John studied the standard arts course taken by all students at that time, which contained a reasonable amount of mathematics and natural philosophy – what we used to call physics, up until at least the 1960s. Arbuthnot probably graduated from Marischal College in 1685, however, there is no record of what he did during the next six years.
What is known is that Arbuthnot did not take part in the Jacobite campaign of 1689, although his brother Robert, who later fled to France, certainly did. The lack of information about Arbuthnot’s early life is no doubt due, in part, to his own reluctance to leave records. He was noted for his humility and not wanting to take credit for his own work. Indeed, in relation to the popularity of life stories of recently deceased notable personages, he is on record as stating, “Biography is one of the new terrors of death”.
In 1691, after settling his father’s affairs, Arbuthnot went to London, where he earned his living giving lessons in mathematics. The following year, he translated Huygens’ tract on probability, ‘De ratiociniis in ludo aleae’, and extended it by adding to it information on a number of additional games of chance, such as backgammon, the Royal Oak lottery, raffling, whist, and games with dice. He published his paper anonymously, in 1692, entitling it, ‘Of the Laws of Chance’. It was the first work on probability published in the English language and refers to the ‘calculation of the quantity of probability’. This also appears to be the first time the word ‘probability’ appears in print.
Thereafter, Arbuthnot went to Oxford, where he studied medicine privately, between 1694 and 1696. He then took a medical degree at the University of St Andrews, defending his theses on the very day that he enrolled, the 11th of September, 1696. After Queen Anne came to the throne, Dr. Arbuthnot gained her favour, being employed as her physician between 1705 and 1714, when she died. Not being averse to royalty, Arbuthnot was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1704, and the following year, he became a member of the committee set up by the Society to oversee the publication of Flamsteed’s catalogue of the stars, ‘Historia coelestis’.
During the early part of the 18th Century, Arbuthnot began to take a prominent political role and was particularly involved with the arguments which went on concerning the Act of Union between England and Scotland. A detailed treaty was proposed in the summer of 1706 and Arbuthnot published a pamphlet in support of the union, entitled ‘A sermon preach’d to the people at the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh on the subject of the union’. Here was a Scot who believed in the economic benefits of a union, but that’s only part of the story. Subsequently, the majority of the economic benefits accrued to the part of the union south of the border. That is, except for the temporary benefit that “a handfu’ o’ sillar” gave to a parcel of infamous rogues.
Arbuthnot continued his scientific work, submitting a paper to the Royal Society, in 1710, discussing the slight excess of male births over female births in the years from 1629 to 1710. This paper, published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’, is probably the first application of probability to social statistics and includes the first formal test of significance. In it, Arbuthnot claims that divine providence, rather than mere chance – or the laws of natural and sexual selection – governs the sex ratio at birth, which statement unsurprisingly gave rise to some controversy at the time. Such assertion seems also to contradict his unfailing support for mathematics, which he saw as “a method of freeing the mind from superstition.” We can probably excuse him after all as his era was on the cusp of the ‘Enlightenment’.
Perhaps due to his reluctance to ‘blow his own trumpet’, Arbuthnot’s main fame arguably rests on his reputation as a wit, and on his satirical and political writings. Arbuthnot published five best selling pamphlets featuring the “ruddy and plump” character of John Bull, “with a pair of cheeks like a trumpeter,” who became the symbol of Englishness. The ultimate satire for a Scotsman, wouldn’t you say? Arbuthnot also published ‘A treatise of the art of political lying’, which asks a question which still worries politicians today, namely ‘whether a lie is best contradicted by truth or another lie’. Arbuthnot can also be quoted as stating, “All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.”
The members of the short lived Scriblerus Club, founded in 1713, were Lord Oxford, Lord Bolingbroke, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Thomas Parnell and John Arbuthnot. Its purpose was to satirise bad poetry and pedantry, of which there was plenty. Dr Johnson was a fan, writing of Arbuthnot that “[he] was a man of great comprehension, skilful in his profession, versed in the sciences, acquainted with ancient literature, and able to animate his mass of knowledge by a bright and active imagination; a scholar with great brilliancy of wit.” In addition to his satirical works, Arbuthnot also published some serious medical work in his last few years. The first of these, in 1731, was ‘An essay concerning the nature of aliments’, which was quite apt. Suffering from kidney stones and asthma, and being very overweight through good living, Arbuthnot’s health began to fail and he died on the 27th of February, 1735.