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'The new Terrors of Death': Dr John Arbuthnot, Queen Anne’s favourite physician

Date: 11 March 2024

Author: Emma Shepley

In July 1714, Queen Anne endured a series of convulsions at Kensington Palace. The Queen was 49 years old, and her chambers were filled with London’s most eminent physicians. They prescribed the standard treatments of their day - cutting, blistering, dosing, and purging — causing the dying Queen great pain. Afterwards, Anne's personal physician Dr John Arbuthnot wrote: 'I believe sleep, was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her'.

Dr John Arbuthnot was among the army of medical specialists who were summonsed to serve the Royal family in the 18th century; his colleagues included physicians, surgeons, dentists, midwives, opticians, and apothecaries. Arbuthnot is little remembered today, but he was 'the Queen’s favourite physician' — a gentle-mannered confidante to courtiers, politicians, poets, writers and ladies-in-waiting alike.

A mural on a wall depicting a man wearing a black hat and holding a cane

Image: Dr John Arbuthnot depicted in the King's Staircase mural at Kensington Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

A man of great comprehension, skilful in his profession, versed in the sciences, acquainted with ancient literature, and able to animate his mass of knowledge by a bright and active imagination; a scholar with great brilliancy of wit.

Samuel Johnson, describing Dr John Arbuthnot

Dr John Arbuthnot, The Mild-Mannered Mathematician

Born in Scotland in 1667, Arbuthnot arrived in London as an ambitious young mathematics tutor. In 1692, he published his book, Of the Laws of Chance as a gambling manual – but it was also the first English book on probability.

Energetic and sociable, Arbuthnot took his medical qualifications whilst establishing himself as an integral part of London’s flourishing literary world. A close friend and collaborator of John Gay, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift, he created the satirical character of ‘John Bull’ - the personification of an Englishman. ‘Biography is one of the new terrors of death’ is an Arbuthnot one-liner that still amuses today.

On 30 October 1705, Arbuthnot was appointed as a physician extraordinary to Queen Anne 'by her Majesty's special command in consideration of his good and successful services performed as Physician to His Royal Highness'. He was apparently in the right place at the right time when Anne’s husband, George fell ill at the Epsom races and swooped in with care.

This leech Arbuthnot was yclept [named]; Who many a night not once had slept; But watch’d our gracious Sovereign still: For who could rest while she was ill?

John Gay’s 1714 poem, celebrating his friend’s early medical triumphs

A woman in a 17th century silver and burgundy dress embraces a small boy

Image: Queen Anne with her son, William, Duke of Gloucester, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, based on a work of c.1694. © National Portrait Gallery, London

'Who Could Rest While She Was Ill?'

Queen Anne's ill health dominated her life and reign. Her doctors’ records include references to eye problems, childhood smallpox, a skin disorder, arthritis, 'the gout', oedema and obesity. Prescribed treatments including 'laudanum on toast floating in brandy' and 'Spirit of Millipedes' read comically today but may have offered the Queen some small relief.

Critically, Anne endured 11 miscarriages and three stillbirths, which would have devastated her physical health. Her beloved son William died aged just 11.

Anne’s condition worsened in 1713, when she became seriously ill at Windsor Castle. Arbuthnot diagnosed ‘the ague’ (fevers and shivering) and prescribed 'Jesuit bark' – Cinchona bark from the Americas which contained quinine, an early malaria treatment.

We are all in the dark as well as the doctors… they gave the Jesuit's bark. She took but three doses… Then it was conjectured to be the gout in her stomach; and now it is thought to be the gout all over excepting the joints.

Arbuthnot's fellow Royal physician John Radcliffe

A black and white caricature illustration of 15 men in wigs holding canes

Image: A Consultation of Physicians, or The Company of Undertakers by William Hogarth, 1736. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Source: Wellcome Collection.

By the summer of 1714, Arbuthnot was just one in a crowd of medics anxiously demonstrating they were doing everything in their power to save the Queen. Several men of note including Sir Thomas Laurence, Sir Hans Sloane, Sir David Hamilton, Dr Richard Mead, Daniel Malthus, the Royal Apothecary, and Sir William Read, Anne’s 'Oculist-in-Ordinary' were consulted.

On 27 July, Anne was noted to have, 'trembling in her hands... heat in the head with sleepiness and a little bleeding at the nose'. She managed to attend a council meeting but the next day, her 'appetite was quite lost, and her spirits sunk'. Within days, she suffered two violent convulsions with nose bleeding. It was time for more serious interventions.

Treating a Queen

Anne’s physicians followed the ancient theory that illness and disease was a result of an imbalance in the body’s four ‘humours’ – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. They believed that 'balancing’ these humours with painful treatments such as bleeding would lead to recovery.

Anne was subjected to several painful and ineffective treatments such as cupping (a heated glass vessel placed on the skin to stimulate blood flow), bleeding, applying hot irons to blister her skin, enforced vomiting (possibly using extract of the thistle Carduus Benedictus), covering her feet with garlic, and shaving her head. , Anne became 'speechless, motionless and miserable'.

The next day, Anne 'ate an inordinate quantity of black heart cherries'. She died at Kensington Palace at 7.30am on 1 August 1714.

My dear Mistress's days were numbered even in my imagination.

Dr John Arbuthnot, to his friend Jonathan Swift after the death of Queen Anne

Life After Queen Anne

In the aftermath of Anne’s death, Arbuthnot was swiftly ejected from his rooms at court. But his later career flourished, and his portrait may still grace of the walls of Kensington Palace today, in William Kent’s expansive mural of courtiers and servants around the King’s Staircase.

Arbuthnot is probably the grey-haired man in plain coat and a black broad-brimmed hat, known as a 'quaker hat'. He holds a distinctive gold-headed cane – the symbol of high-status physicians, but perhaps also a practical measure for Arbuthnot as contemporaries noted he always walked with 'a sort of slouch'.

The servants on the staircase have watched the comings and goings of Kensington Palace for over 200 years so Arbuthnot’s likely presence here is a fitting memorial to a medical and literary figure at the heart of an extraordinary story of Royal life and death.

Emma Shepley
Curator, Historic Royal Palaces

Sources and Further Reading

Details of the Queen’s treatments compiled from:

  • Sakula, A. Dr John Radcliffe, Court physician and the death of Queen Anne Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London, No19, no 2, 4 October 1985
  • Ross J. Queen Anne and her health, Journal of Medical Biography. 2015;23(1):54-59.

Additional sources:

  • Arbuthnot, J. Letters to Jonathan Swift, 1716, British Library, Add. MSS 4804–4806
  • Munk, W. Arbuthnot, John, Lives of the Fellows of Royal College of Physicians, Vol 2.
  • Furdell, E. L. Medical Personnel at the Court of Queen Anne. The Historian, 48(3), 412–429. 1986
  • Ross, A. Arbuthnot, John, physician and satirist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 23 September 2004
  • Worsley, L. Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court, 2010

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