Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

John Fothergill

1712 - 1780

John Fothergill was a Quaker scientist who made significant advances, both as a medical doctor and as an amateur botanist. He was born into a Quaker family in Yorkshire, England and studied at Sedbergh Grammar School before being apprenticed to an apothecary in Bradford.

In 1736, he took his degree in medicine from Edinburgh University (English universities still being closed to those who were not of the Church of England) and went on to train at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. He worked for a time as an unlicensed physician, working with London’s suburban poor, before being licensed by the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh in 1744. This also gave him the right to practise in England.

During an epidemic of scarlet fever in London from 1746-1748, he eliminated then common but ineffectual treatments such as bloodletting and purgatives, and instead treated patients with wine, attenuated mineral acids and emetics in moderate doses. In 1748 he wrote up a detailed description of the symptoms and treatment of scarlet fever in An Account of the Sore Throat attended with Ulcers, which also gave an account of earlier outbreaks of diphtheria.

Among conditions he described in vivid medical detail were the symptoms of migraine:
A singular kind of glimmering in the sight, objects swiftly changing their apparent position, and surrounded with luminous angles, like those of a fortification.

Others he described included hydrophobia, epilepsy, tuberculosis, angina pectoris and influenza.

He had what was then a quite radical approach to disease control, whether among humans or animals. When cattle plague broke out in 1748-49, Fothergill instructed his brother to isolate all of his infected cattle and suggested that all markets and fairs should be suspended until the disease had been eradicated. Fothergill also strongly advocated the new practice of inoculation against smallpox. As a result, when Catherine the Great of Russia was concerned about smallpox, her ambassador in London consulted Fothergill. On his recommendation, Quaker doctor Thomas Dimsdale went to Russia and inoculated Catherine and her children and later many others.

In 1763, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In his leisure time, Fothergill studied botany and acted as sponsor for botanical expeditions. He was part of a network of Quaker botanists at the time. Botany was a popular field of study amongst Quakers –it was useful, and could be studied without going to university. In 1762, he purchased thirty acres in Upton in East London, now part of West Ham Park, where he cultivated many rare plants. He built hothouses that extended for over 250 feet and contained more than three thousand species, including a tea plant that he grew to a height of 7.5 feet. (Tea was then a rare and expensive drink.) Two species, Fothergill's Lily (Nerine Fothergilli), and Fothergill's Geranium (Pelargonium Fothergilli), were named after him.

Fothergill was the patron of Sydney Parkinson, the Quaker botanical illustrator, on his South Sea voyages, and also of father and son, John and William Bartram, American botanists. Others were paid to bring back plants from Canada, West Africa and the Alps.Fothergill also commissioned artists to draw the plants he cultivated. Over two thousand such painting were sold on his death and acquired by the Empress of Russia.

In 1764, he moved to Lea Hall in Cheshire, where he often treated the poor from the local town at no charge. During the flu epidemic of 1775-6, he treated as many as sixty patients a day.

He worked on prison reform with John Howard (founder of the Howard League). He also proposed the establishment of public baths, two hundred years ahead of his time.

He was well informed about colonial North America, and visited New Jersey and other colonies more than once. He was a friend of the Philadelphia abolitionist Anthony Benezet.  In 1774-5 5, he worked with David Barclay and Benjamin Franklin on proposals to avert a war between Britain and America. When this failed, he and other Quakers presented a petition to the King for a peaceful settlement. 

Other enterprises supported by Fothergill were a new translation of the Bible by Anthony Purver, a Quaker schoolmaster, in 1764, and the founding of a Quaker school at Ackworth in 1779.

Fothergill died in London in 1780, aged 68.

Print this article

Further Reading and Credits

external links