Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

John Moore M.D.: Physician, travel writer, and social commentator

Einar Perman
Stockholm, Sweden

Many years ago I read a book entitled A View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland and Germany. It was published anonymously “by a gentleman” and printed in London in 1779. The title promised impressions from major European countries during a turbulent period. I was not disappointed. It was a superb book. As it turned out, it was written by John Moore M.D. (1729 – 1802)—a remarkable man.

The 18th century brings to mind many famous English doctors, such as Cullen, Hunter, Jenner, and Lind. Although Moore did not make any major contribution to medicine, he deserves to be remembered as an astute, sometimes ironic, social observer of his times and of human nature. He traveled widely in Europe; visiting Voltaire in Ferney, France and Frederick the Great in Potsdam, Germany. He knew Samuel Johnson and met Mrs. Piozzi. He was in Paris when the French Revolution started. Towards the end of his life, he developed a friendship with Robert Burns. To our great fortune, he captured many of these relationships and travel experiences in several novels and books.

His life

Moore was born in Scotland in 1729. He originally studied the humanities at the University of Glasgow, but eventually changed the focus of his study to medicine. Upon completion of his program, he spent three years as a surgeon-apothecary apprentice in Glasgow. When he was 17, he decided to broaden his education and became a surgeon´s assistant to the Duke of Argyle´s regiment. He worked for a year in military hospitals in Flanders during the last year of the Seven Years War. In 1748, peace brought him back to London where he attended lectures by William Hunter (the older brother of John Hunter).

Moore’s good fortune then took him to Paris, where he worked as a surgeon to the household of the British Ambassador. After a year in Paris, in 1750, he returned to Britain to be admitted to the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow as a licensed surgeon and pharmacist – at the age of 21. In his youth, Moore had already acquired a broad medical education, as well as aristocratic connections that later proved invaluable. He then settled in Glasgow, and worked in an influential practice. He married and had several children. Despite an uneasy relationship with Glasgow University, Moore eventually received his M.D. in 1770.

At this time the Scottish author and physician Smollett described Moore and his wife as follows: ” . . . We had the good fortune to be received into the house of Mr. Moore, an eminent surgeon . . . Mr. Moore is a merry facetious companion, sensible and shrewd, with a considerable fund of humor; his wife is an agreeable woman, well bred, kind and obliging”1

Moore continued his practice with few interruptions for more than 20 years, but became bored with the limited opportunities Glasgow offered. He had literary ambitions, but was unable to obtain membership in the Glasgow Literary Society, dominated by the university. He was an enlightened liberal, and his views did not conform with the prevailing Calvinism.

When in 1772, the Duchess of Argyle planned to send her son, the eighth Duke of Hamilton, on ”The Grand Tour of Europe,” she looked for a man who was suitable as a travel companion, tutor, and responsible adult. She had formed a favorable opinion of Moore during previous contacts; so she offered him the job. Moore accepted, probably with enthusiasm. When they set out, Moore was 43 years old, the Duke only 14. They traveled through Europe for five years.

After his return in 1778, Moore took up practice in London. He also began writing and published A View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland and Germany. He wrote several other travel books and three novels. The most famous of his work was Zeluco (1789), a novel about an evil Sicilian that was eventually cited by Byron as inspiration for Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage. Zeluco is still in print today!2 His only medical work, Medical Sketches, which was published in 1785, dealt mainly with fevers and their causes, as fevers were considered to be diseases in themselves at the time.

In 1792, Moore again left Great Britain and traveled to France with the Earl of Lauderdale. Both were enthusiastic about the revolution. In Paris, however, they witnessed the attack on the Tuilleries in August, and the carnage of the September massacres. He returned home regarding the new France as a tyranny.

Moore lived his later years in London, and died in 1802. He left a substantial fortune to his many children who all went on to successful careers.

The Grand Tour

Moore´s famous travel book, whose full title is A view of society and manners in France, Switzerland and Germany with anecdotes relating to some eminent characters was signed anonymously by a “gentleman” who resided several years in those countries. It is dedicated to Moore’s young companion, the Duke of Hamilton.

Moore chose to hide under anonymity, although it cannot have been difficult to find out who the author was, since the book was dedicated to The Duke of Hamilton, Moore’s young ward. The book is a shrewd mixture of facts and fiction. It is written in the form of 96 letters from a fictive gentleman who left England because of gambling debts to another gentleman in England whom he entrusted with the handling of his affairs. Moore warned his friend not to expect “minute account of churches and palaces” because they “afford but a slender entertainment when served up in description.” Instead he will concentrate on ” the manners, customs, and characters of the people.”3
When Moore and the young Duke embarked on the Grand Tour in 1772, Moore brought his nine-year old son John along. Their Grand Tour was expensive. In 1775 their party included two carriages, ten horses, four servants, four footmen in livery, a valet and two servants.

The 8th Duke of Hamilton with Dr. JoHamilton and Moorehn Moore and Ensign John Moore, Gavin Hamilton (1723–98).

Oil on canvas.

Dr. Moore is in the center.  The Duke is on his left and his son on his right. In the background can be seen the Campo Vaccino, the Alban Hills and the Temple of Concord in Rome.

Reproduced by permission of the National Gallery of Scotland.

The first stop was in Paris. Moore wrote about the society women, their beauty, wit, power, and how they disliked aging. He described how “contrary to their English counterparts they participated readily in all conversations . . . and delivered their sentiments with great precision and more grace than the men . . . “4 Moore wrote with indignation that ” . . . every thing in this kingdom is arranged for the accommodation of the rich and powerful, and that little regard is paid to the comfort of citizens of an inferior station . . . “5 He was perceptive when giving this background of a revolution that came 13 years later.

Following France, the Grand Tour took him to Switzerland. He noted that children in some alpine villages were severely mentally retarded and had swollen necks. He asked his guide why people still lived in those villages despite the deplorable condition and lack of health. The answer was: ” . . .the government has decided that they do not have to pay taxes. . . “6 A hundred years later it became clear that this condition was caused by severe iodine deficiency.

Moore encountered several individuals of historical importance during these travels, including Voltaire and Frederick the Great. In Geneva, he met Voltaire who was 80 at the time. He wrote, ” . . .The most piercing eyes I have ever beheld are those of Voltaire. . .”7 He was also very impressed by Voltaire’s intellect and humor, especially with regards to British society: ” . . . He compared the British nation to a hoghead of their own strong beer; the top which is froth, the bottom dregs, and middle excellent . . .”8
Moore, upon meeting the sixty-year old Frederick the Great in Potsdam, described the famous man in glowing terms. Frederick was ” . . . below the middle size, well made, and remarkably active for his time of life. He has become hardy by exercise and a laborious life . . . His look announces spirit and penetration. He has fine blue eyes; and in my opinion, his countenance upon the whole is agreeable . . . “9 Moore also wrote: ” . . . His observations are always lively, very often just. And few men possess the talent of repartee in greater perfection . . . “10

They also spent time in Austria, visiting His Imperial Majesty Joseph II, who ruled his large empire with enlightened despotism. Moore gave this favorable description, mentioning the Emperor’s unfortunate sister the Queen of France (Marie Antoinette, no less): “. . .The Emperor is of a middle size, well made, and of a fair complexion. He has considerable resemblance to his sister, the Queen of France which in my opinion, is saying a great deal in favor of his looks. – Till I saw something of his usual behavior, I did not think it possible for a person in such an elevated situation, to put everybody with whom he converses upon so easy a footing. . .”11

Moore was a keen observer of many things as we can see from his moving comments below on human nature:

. . . There are men in the world (and very useful and respectable no doubt they are), who examine the pro´s and the con´s before they decide upon the most indifferent occasion . . . who are directed in all their actions by propriety, and by the general received notions of duty . . . and their passions, and their affairs are always in excellent order, and they walk through life undisturbed by the misfortunes of others. And when they come to the end of their journey, they are decently interred in a church – yard . . . There is another set of men, who never calculate; for they are generally guided by the heart, which never was taught arithmetic, and knows nothing of accounts. . . . They perform acts of benevolence, without recollecting that this is a duty, merely for the pleasure they afford. . . That the first of these two classes of men is the most useful in society . . . that they will keep out of many scrapes and difficulties that the others may fall into, and that they are (if you insist upon it very violently) the most virtuous of the two, I shall not dispute: Yet for the soul of me I cannot help preferring the other; for almost all my friends I have ever had in my life, are of the second class . . . 12


  1. Tobias Smollett. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. (1771).
  2. John Moore. Zeluco:Various Views of Human Nature. (Charleston, SC: Biblio Bazaar, 2008).
  3. 3-12. John Moore. A view of society and manners in France, Switzerland and Germany with anecdotes relating to some
    eminent characters.

EINAR PERMAN, MD, PhD is Medical Director at Alecta Insurance in Stockholm, Sweden. He is also a member of our international editorial board.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2009- Volume 1, Issue 3
Spring 2009  |  Sections  |  Travel

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