John Fothergill (1712–1780), eminent physician, reformer, and botanist

John Fothergill. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1781. Via Wikimedia.

Living at a time when physicians had wide interests in science and in particular in botany, John Fothergill collected many species of plants and was particularly interested in their medicinal properties. In 1762 he purchased thirty acres in the East End of London and built a large botanic garden with many rare species in hothouses. He even had a geranium and a lily species named after him, as well as a genus of witch hazel that he brought from America and that Carl Linnaeus named Fothergilla.

Born in 1712 into a Quaker family in Yorkshire, Fothergill was apprenticed in 1728 for six years to an apothecary in Bradford. Not being allowed as a Quaker to attend universities in England, he went to study in Edinburgh, worked as clerical assistant for the famous professor Alexander Monro primus, received a medical degree in 1736, then trained for four years at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. After a brief tour of northern Europe, he set up in London a practice in which he worked 16 to 18 hours a day, developed a large following, and was elected to several prestigious societies.

In his 1748 paper on “An Account of the Sore Throat Attended with Ulcers” he presented careful observations on diphtheria and scarlatina but failed to distinguish between the two. He wrote on rabies, migraine, epilepsy, tuberculosis, angina pectoris, and influenza. His 1776 paper “Of a Painful Affection of the Face” was the first description of trigeminal neuralgia. During the cattle plague outbreak of 1748–49, he instructed his brother to isolate his infected cattle and close all markets and fairs until the disease was eradicated. He advocated inoculation against smallpox, and, on his recommendation, the Quaker doctor Thomas Dimsdale went to Russia and inoculated the Empress Catherine and her children.

Fothergill was a supporter of reform. He opposed the slave trade, campaigned for prison reform, proposed having public baths, and advocated better city planning to avoid the hazard of fires. To help the poor, he planned and financed schemes of food distribution and invented a cheap bread made of potatoes and flour. Working with Benjamin Franklin to reconcile Great Britain with its colonies, he wrote a pamphlet advocating the repeal of the Stamp Act. He supported the first hospital in America, the Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Franklin in 1751, by donating books and anatomical teaching materials, thus helping William Shippen Jr. to become the first successful anatomy demonstrator in America.

In 1764 he moved to Cheshire, where he often treated as many as sixty poor patients a day at no charge. He remained a bachelor and had his sister keep house for him. He died of prostate cancer in 1780.


Further reading

  1. M Jefferson. Dr. John Fothergill, Physician and Humanist. BMJ September 10, 1966: 637.
  2. JMS Pearce. John Fothergill: a biographical sketch and his contributions to neurology. J Hist Neurosci 2013;22(3):261.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


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