Searching for books to add to the ‘Treasures of the Royal Society Library’ exhibition, I stumbled across a particularly special copy of ‘A review of the Royal Society, containing animadversions on such of the papers as deserve particular observation’ (1751) by the actor, botanist and prolific writer in natural history, John Hill (bap. 1714, d. 1775). If the Society had made Hill a Fellow, he would have passed into history more insignificantly than he himself would have liked.  Because he was never elected, however, he devoted the year of 1750 to 1751 to annoying the members of the Royal Society by publishing harsh reviews of the Philosophical Transactions and long satires on their activities, pointing out inaccuracies and ridiculous claims by Fellows.

Title pages of Hill's book

Click image to open a larger version (PDF)

This copy of the ‘Review’ includes about 90 pages of individually numbered, handwritten annotations by one of Hill’s main targets, William Arderon of Norwich, including a handwritten alternative title page: ‘A lying and abusive Representation of the works of the Royal Society … by John Hill, Herb Gatherer, His’d off Player, Broken Apothecary’. Held at the Royal Society since the 1830s, it is one of four copies, yet none of the others have this kind of annotation, which offers an intimate history of Hill and Arderon’s dispute beyond the original text. An excise collector and amateur naturalist, Arderon was published in the Philosophical Transactions after his friend Henry Baker had passed on his letters (mostly on observing fish in jars and near dams) to the Society. He was then made a Fellow, which rankled with Hill.

The son of the canon of Peterborough Cathedral, Hill was an apprentice in an apothecary’s shop in the Strand during the 1730s, where he developed an interest in botany and collected specimens. Introduced into Royal Society circles by Dr. Alexander Stuart, he was invited to his first meeting by Martin Folkes in 1741. He was always interested in the theatre, although reputedly not a good actor, and became a resident at the Duke of Richmond’s house, Goodwood in 1741, where he developed an unrequited infatuation with the actress Peg Woffington.

Hill devoted the 1740s to pursuing his interest in natural science and cultivating his relationships at the Royal Society, attending meetings and conducting experiments at home. He published two papers in the Philosophical Transactions in 1746, and expected to be elected the following year. When this didn’t happen, his attitude towards the Society soured, and he was banned from a meeting in 1750.

Hill’s ‘Review’ demonstrates many bizarre and dubious experiments and conclusions he claimed to have found in the Philosophical Transactions and heard at Society meetings: 

‘A method to make Fish shine’ (“The Royal Society of London came to a determination that Stinking and Shining were, in those substances that would shine at all, one and the same thing … Cause a couple of mackerel to be kept in the Water they have been boiled in till they stink … this is an acknowledged fact”)

‘A way to poison a Bath’ (“let a woman wash her Hair with a mixture of beaten Eggs and Oatmeal, and go afterwards into a warm Bath, and she will poison the Water to such a Degree, that there will be a stinking noisome Smell communicated to it, and a great Quantity of a light and frothy Sea Green Matter will swim on it”)

‘An easy Way of taking a Vomit’ (“as Man and Wife are one Flesh, one of them may at any Time take the Medicine in order to do its operation on the other”);

The miraculous existence ‘Of Demons in Lead-Mines’ (“The world has been used to look upon all these Stories as whimsical and ridiculous … but surely it has not been observed in the Philosophical Transactions”).

In Arderon’s handwritten annotations, Hill’s criticisms were “all invented and had no being than in the malicious head of Mr. Hill, who takes such pleasure in scandal”. He was a “common dirt thrower”, a “Good Old Woman”, “a malicious creature” and “notorious defamer”.

Certainly, the notes confirm Hill’s view of Arderon, who once he “has got hold of a Subject, does not chuse to quit it … He raises Objections, as some of our Clergy are apt to do in their Sermons, for the sake of answering them: and by his Method of executing this great Part of a Projector’s Talk, seems worthy to be made Engineer-General to the Society he at present does the Honour of being a simple Member of.”

Hill became known as ‘The Inspector’ in London coffee-house circles, from his column in the London Daily Advertiser and Literary Gazette. He continued to publish botanical, scientific and literary works, and acquired an MD from the University of St Andrews and the patronage of Lord Bute. Particularly interested in taxonomy, he would correspond with Carl Linnaeus, write a foresighted tract linking tobacco with cancerous growth, work again as a director and actor in Covent Garden, and export herbal medicines to America.

So, was Hill attacking noble, gentlemanly natural philosophers without substance? According to Kevin J. Fraser in his 1993 article for Notes & Records of the Royal Society, ‘John Hill and the Royal Society in the eighteenth century’, many believe that the Society was in decline in this period, with too much emphasis on antiquarianism and natural history, and that some of Hill’s criticism was well-founded. It should also be noted that Hill was not the only writer in eighteenth-century London to publicly express his grievances with the Society through printed satire: under the pseudonym ‘Petrus Gualterus’, Henry Fielding (who later had a pamphlet war with Hill) was behind a 1743 work, “read before the Royal Society”, concerning an animal that could be cut into pieces to become a vegetable …

Hill’s ‘Review of the Royal Society’, annotated by Arderon, can be seen on display in the ‘Treasures of the Royal Society Library’ exhibition, which runs until 21 June. This post is by Nessa Malone, who recently completed a two-week placement in the Royal Society Centre for History of Science. Nessa is currently studying for a MA in Library and Information Studies at University College London.

Comments are closed.