Some time ago as I was pulling Mr Pieret’s leg about the contents of his excellent blog, Thoughts in a Haystack, he countered by politely telling me to go away and write about an obscure mathematician, so today’s post about an obscure mathematician is dedicated to Mr Pieret because he, like the subject, is multi-talented, a good writer and is called John.
Today is the baptism day (not birthday which is unknown) of the Scots physician John Arbuthnot (1667 – 1735). Arbuthnot was a good friend of and a loyal lieutenant to Isaac Newton. He served in the Royal Society commission to kidnap John Flamsteed’s Star Catalogue and it was in fact Arbuthnot who carried out the dirty deed, travelling to Greenwich to collect the manuscript. He also served in the Royal Society commission called into being to investigate Leibniz’ complaints concerning the origins of the calculus. A commission that directed by Newton from the shadows found against Leibniz and for Newton. The friendship between Newton and Arbuthnot was slightly strange as Arbuthnot was a politically active High Church Tory and Newton was a Unitarian and politically active Whig in a time when the boundaries between the political and religious parties in England were extreme.
Arbuthnot was a mathematician whose claim to fame was based on his translation into English of Christian Huygens’ book on probability theory (the first English text published on probability) and on his statistical analysis of the male and female birth rates in England. This is probably the first use of probability in a social statistical analysis and the earliest case of a statistical significance test. Arbuthnot also published a highly praised essay on the usefulness of mathematics, which was not a generally accepted concept in England at the time, for as Arbuthnot pointed out mathematics was not on the syllabus of a single English grammar school. A passionate numismatist he also contributed to the development of archaeology and history with his papers on Tables of Grecian, Roman, and Jewish measures, weights and coins; reduced to the English standard.
From profession Arbuthnot was a physician and was for many year personal physician to Queen Anne. However mathematics and medicine were by no means the limits of his intellectual activities. He was a close friend of the composer Handel and even wrote librettos for him. His musical interests led to his appointment as director of the Royal Academy of Music from its inception in 1719 until 1729. However within the history of English culture he is best known as a literary satirist. A friend and literary colleague of Swift, Pope and Gay he is the creator of the legendary caricature of the English man, John Bull. Together with the others he was a member of the Scriblerus Club a short-lived satirical collective. The title of this post is a famous quote from Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. For modern politicians his most useful piece of writing would be his Treatise of the art of political lying.
Arbuthnot is a fascinating polymath who today is only known to historians of English literature, even those who use the image of John Bull as the archetypal Englishman have no idea who created him, and historians of statistics. However he was a small but significant member of the scientific community at the beginning of the 18th century of the type without whom science cannot develop.