Arbuthnot | John | 1667-1735 | Scottish physician and satirist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), physician to Queen Anne (1665-1714), was educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen and took his degree in Medicine at the University of St Andrews. Better known for his political satire and statistical analysis, he taught mathematics in London for a while, until he had the good fortune to be present when Prince George of Denmark (1653-1708) fell ill. Arbuthnot's treatment cured the prince, and he was taken on in 1705 as physician extraordinary to Queen Anne. In 1709, he became physician in ordinary to the monarch. Arbuthnot's first paper to the Royal Society was a statistical study of demographics. He also translated a work by Huygens (1629-1695) about probability.

Arbuthnot was at Queen Anne's bedside when she died, and under the new regime, Arbuthnot fell out of favour and ceased to be a courtier.

Arbuthnot's paper, presented at the Royal Society in 1710, is worth a closer look, for though it is crude, and far from conclusive; it is the first known example of statistical inference. In this paper, An Argument for Divine Providence, Taken From the Constant Regularity Observ'd in the Births of Both Sexes, he looks at births in London in the years 1629-1710 inclusive, a total of 82 years. What Arbuthnot noticed, is that in every single one of these years, male births outstripped female births. He argued that if sex was determined by chance - he used the image of a "two-sided die" being thrown - then only in about half of these years would male births have outstripped female births. The probability of all these years giving a male surplus, he said, was 1/(2^82) - astronomical odds against. He suggested that this was the effect of divine intervention, to make up for the increased risks of premature death men experienced at the time.

Whatever the merits of the paper and its dogmatic assumptions, it was the first of many statistical analyses of science, and laid the foundations for the modern science of statistics.



Other Significant Information

Notable publications

An Essay of the Usefulness of Scientific Nature (1701)

Law is a Bottomless Pit; or: History of John Bull (1712)

Tables of Ancient Coins, Weights and Measures (1727)

Mr John Gingligutt's Treatise Concerning the Altercation or Scolding of the Ancients (1731)

Know Yourself (1734)

The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus (1741)

The Art of Political Lying

The Miscellaneous Works of the later Dr Arbuthnot (1751)

Interests and activities:

Arbuthnot was primarily a satirist, being a prominent member of the Scriblerus Club. The Scriblerus Club existed in order to " ridicule false tastes in learning" and bad literature. They wrote the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus as a group effort, though the vast majority of the work was Arbuthnot's. He also created the patriotic character John Bull in his series The History of John Bull, a satire on the intrigue in European diplomacy disguised as a courtroom drama.

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1696: Awarded Doctor of Medicine degree (MD), University of St Andrews

1704: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1705: Appointed Physician extraordinary to the Queen

1709: Appointed Physician in ordinary to the Queen

1710: Elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol II(New York,Scribner's,1970)

Lee, Sidney, Dictionary of National Biography, vol I, (London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1908)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol 2, (Chicago, William Benton, 1964)