Biography of John Fothergill
John Fothergill was the son of John Fothergill (1676-1745), a Quaker preacher and farmer, and his first wife, Margaret Hough (1676-1745). The Fothergills had been members of the Society of Friends since the time of George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Society. John went to school at Frodsham and in 1724 entered the grammar school at Sedbergh (founded 1525) in the Yorkshire Dales. He studied Greek and Latin, becoming fluent in Latin.
In 1728 Fothergill was apprenticed to the Bradford apothecary, bookseller and Quaker minister Benjamin Bartlett, who encouraged his interest in natural history. A Dissident, Fothergill could not enter an English university. In 1734 he therefore enrolled at the University of Edinburgh as an apothecary, but was noticed by Alexander Monro (1698-1767) who influenced him to change to medicine. He graduated doctor of medicine in 1736 with a thesis on the use of emetics.
Serving the poor
He received further training at St. Thomas's Hospital, London, where he studied for two years under Sir Edward Wilmot (1693-1786). In the summer of 1740 he left for a scientific journey through Holland, Germany, and France, before settling in London to practise as an unlicensed physician. He had trouble establishing himself in London, and for some time served the suburban poor. He developed a reputation for kindness and help to the poor which led him to remark later "I climbed on the backs of the poor to the pockets of the rich". On October 1, 1744, Fothergill became the first English graduate of Edinburgh to be examined and licensed by the Royal College of Physicians, which controlled the right to practise physic in London.
During the severe epidemic of what is now thought to have been scarlet fever in London 1746-1748, he won a great reputation, abolishing bloodletting, purgatives, and other common treatments to that day. Instead, on the advice of Leatherland, he treated the disease with wine, attenuated mineral acids and emetics in moderate doses. This resulted in his important work An Account of the Sore Throat Attended with Ulcers. In it he provided a comprehensive clinical description of scarlet fever, but also included earlier reports of diphtheria epidemics, thinking they represented the same illness. He also distinguished himself in an influenza epidemic in 1775 and 1776 when he is said to have had sixty patients daily.
Fothergill's book on the scarlet fever epidemic was an immediate success and helped build Fothergill's medical practice. Fothergill, now the most sought for physician in London, worked unusually long hours and gained one of the most lucrative practices in the city. In fact, he was one of the richest physicians in England. He was also a great supporter of the natural sciences. This occasioned him to acquire a large estate in Upton in Essex, establishing a magnificent 5 acre botanical garden where he grew thousands of species of plants.
He also built a large collection of insects, shells and drawings. Fothergill purchased Sydney Parkinson's (1745-1771) shells. Upon his death, Fothergill's collection of shells, corals and insects was purchased by William Hunter (1718-1783) for £1100. This material was at first in the Hunterian Museum; it was later moved to the University's Zoology Museum.
His garden enabled Fothergill to delineate the natural history of many drugs. To his honour the young Carl von Linné (1707-1783) named a wild growing shrub from Carolina Fothergilla. John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815), a Quaker physician and a protégé of his, published a catalogue of the plants of Fothergill's garden under the title of Hortus Uptonensis, or a catalogue of the plants in the Dr. Fothergill’s garden at Upton, at the time of his decease anno 1780.
The American connection
He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), with whom he collaborated on a plan for a British reconciliation with the American colonies in 1774. They met when the Pennsylvania assembly in 1757 sent Franklin to London. On his arrival Franklin fell ill and became Fothergill's patient.
Fothergill had many Quaker relationships with Americans in Philadelphia and generously supported many young Americans who came to London to study medicine after the revolution. He also donated money and anatomical papers, models and skeletons to the Pennsylvania Hospital. His reputation was so high that patients travelled from America for consultations. Fothergill popularized coffee in England and promoted the cultivation of coffee in the West Indies.
The medical Society
Fothergill was instrumental in the formation of a society of physicians modelled on the Edinburgh Medical Society. This was a private conclave of a few hospital physicians that should not to be confused with the Medical Society of London, founded by John Coakley Lettsom in 1773. In this he collaborated with his friend William Hunter, who had settled in London about 1746. Between 1757 and 1784 this group published six volumes of transactions under the title Medical Observations and Inquiries by a Society of Physicians in London.
No royal physician
In 1754 Fothergill was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. In 1863 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Fothergill was a friend of the banker David Barclay, also a Quaker, who helped him in founding the Ackworth School in Yorkshire, "a school for a plain English education" for the sons and daughters of poor Friends.
Lord North (Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, 1732-1792) proposed that he become physician to the king but he declined. He was very active in prison reform and the abolition of slavery.
Fothergill was the first to record coronary arteriosclerosis (hardening of the walls of the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle) in association with a case of angina pectoris.
A complete compilation of his works, including his contributions to the Edinburgh Medical Essays, Philosophical Transactions, Medical Bbservations and Inquiries was published in 3 volumes by Lettsom in 1783-1784, in London.
- «The stomach is in general the best director; what ever it takes with pleasure, I mean with regard to quality, is always preferable to any other; but to regulate the quantity is not always easy; yet to leave off rather short is sometimes necessary, even though the appetite seems lively . . . this abstemious method has likewise another good effect; it allows a good glass of wine to be drunk without injury; nay it renders it necessary and beneficial. »
Letter to a young patient. 1749.
"I think a worthier man never lived"
Benjamon Franklin on learning of Fothergill's death.