2013 July John Freind

The History of Physick


Dr. John Freind (1675–1728), a renowned Newtonian physician, wrote The History of Physick as a response to Daniel LeClerc’s Histoire de la Medicine (Amsterdam, 1723.) Freind loathed the manner in which LeClerc explained the history of medicine, especially how much emphasis the latter put on Greek gods and physicians. He decided after reading LeClerc’s Histoire that he would write a medical history of his own, criticizing Le Clerc’s approach as well as attempting to spread the practice and knowledge of Newtonian medicine. In Friend’s eyes, Newtonian medicine was the only correct form of medicine and all others were flawed. Newtonian Medicine revolutionized the practice of medicine in the early eighteenth century. From Freind’s point of view Newtonian medicine would grow empirically and rationally, creating a medical system with the same simplicity as the Newtonian laws of gravity. Many early eighteenth-century  physicians came to believe solely in the practice of Newtonian medicine, rejecting other practices as flawed. John Freind was one of these physicians.


Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Freind learned of Newtonian medical practice while studying at Christ Church, Oxford. His teachers all were Jacobites, with a deep love for the simplicity of Newton’s mathematical philosophy  (Jacobites supported the deposed James II and the inalienable hereditary right to the throne). Freind believed that Jacobites and Newtonians shared many similar ideals about the nature of human society. At twenty-one years of age, he published two books that displayed his commitment to his political views, all reflecting the same interests of his teachers. He went on to publish many other books throughout his career; eventually publishing the two-volume History of Physick. Worth collected many of his works.

Freind’s deep affiliation with the Jacobites led to his eventual arrest for treason. During his time in the Tower of London his close friend Dr. Richard Mead often visited him. On one of Mead’s visits, he brought Freind a newly revised edition of Daniel LeClerc’s Histoire de la Medicine. Friend became enraged with LeClerc and his opinions about the progression of medical practices and knowledge. In Friend’s opinion, LeClerc had almost completely disregarded medical progression during the Dark Ages before moving onto the sixteenth-century reform of Paracelsus. LeClerc’s minute acknowledgement of the Dark Ages was an indication of his belief that little medical progress had occurred between ancient Greek physicians and the radical medical reform of Paracelsus. Freind hated Paracelsus, calling him “an illiterate Enthusiast”, and he did not believe in the Paracelsian ‘chymical philosophy’. For Freind, anyone who followed the teachings of Paracelsus was an absolute threat to the social order of medicine.

Freind devoted the remainder of his time in the Tower to writing his own ‘History of Medicine.’ He put most of his emphasis on the practices of medicine, rather than the theories of other physicians. In his opinion, both Hippocrates and Galen, the most notable Greek physicians, had been explained poorly in LeClerc’s Histoire for LeClerc put more emphasis on theory rather than practice. Freind also criticized LeClerc for the gratuitous length of the section of the book in which he discussed Greek gods, particularly Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. As we can see from this illustration in LeClerc’s Histoire, Asclepius is always shown with a snake around his staff. This became the insignia for physicians worldwide and is still used today.


The dispute did not end with Friend’s criticism of LeClerc:  another physician, named John Baillie, published a pamphlet in response to criticism of Friend’s approach. John Baillie did not agree with the unsympathetic remarks that an unnamed doctor made in response to Freind, and so he wrote a letter explaining his grievances. Baillie boldly stated that the reviewer of Friend’s book was only being so audacious to gain the attention of other readers. He began his letter by stating, “It might be of some service, to take a more publick notice of the unfairness of this writer; who has spent a world of words, in his pretended defence of Mr. le Clerc.” Baillie goes on to discuss many other criticisms that he had against the writer who had critiqued The History of Physick. It is unknown how widely circulated Baillie’s pamphlet would have been, given that he was not a well known physician. The fact that Worth collected both Freind’s History and Baillie’s defence of it is likely due to his fascination with Newtonian medicine. Both the first and second volumes of The History of Physick are located in the Edward Worth Library.



Guerrini, Anita (2008). “Freind, John (1675-1728)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn.

Martin, R. J. J. (1988), “Explaining John Freind’s History Of Physick” Elsevier, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A. V 19, No. 4. (Cambridge, United Kingdom: December 1988) 399-418.

Text: Ms Jordan Sparks, Third-Year Student from Grand Valley State University, Michigan.

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