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Dr Arbuthnot’s claims to fame

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John Arbuthnot (Callie Jones)“Nosopoetic” sounds like an important clinical term that should be in pharmacists’ vocabulary. But do not worry: I am not highlighting a gap in your knowledge; rather, a potentially useful word that never caught on.

From the Greek nosos, a disease, and a form of poietikos, meaning creative or productive, nosopoetic means causing disease. But despite appearing in a couple of glossaries of medical terms in the early 19th century, the word was supplanted by “pathogenic”.

“Nosopoetic” was invented by physician, mathematician and satirist John Arbuthnot, who introduced it in his 1733 “essay concerning the effects of air on human bodies”. In it, he argued that air affected personality and carried sickness, and advised readers to ventilate sickrooms and seek fresh air in cities.

Dr Arbuthnot’s many claims to fame include inventing the figure of John Bull and inspiring Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s travels’. He was a popular and respected figure in society, with friends and associates including Swift, Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, George Frideric Handel and members of the royal family. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1704, physician extraordinary to Queen Anne in 1705 and director of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719.

In 1692 Arbuthnot published the first work on probability written in English — ‘Of the laws of chance’, which applied probability to common games.

Combining medicine and mathematics in 1710, he analysed birth data and showed that male births were more frequent than female births. But because this was against probability, he deduced that divine providence accounted for the difference because males die young more often than females.

In 1723 Arbuthnot was appointed second censor of the Royal College of Physicians and campaigned to inspect the drugs sold by apothecaries in London. The apothecaries sued the RCP in the same year, and Arbuthnot wrote a pamphlet suggesting that London’s funeral directors might also wish to sue the RCP to ensure that drug safety remained poor. This was a last shot in the college’s doomed attempt to regulate apothecaries’ dispensing activities.

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