Lives of the fellows

Neil Arnott

b.15 May 1788 d.2 March 1874
MA Aberd(1805) MD LRCP(1817)

Neil Arnott, M.D., was born on the 15th May, 1788, at Arbroath, in Angusshire. His father died early. His mother was a Maclean, and it was from her that Neil Arnott inherited his remarkable gifts both of body and mind. His education began partly under his mother, and partly in the parochial school of Lunan, near Arbroath. After successive migrations to Montrose and to the Catholic college of Blairs, Neil Arnott was put to the grammar school of Aberdeen, in November, 1798, where he had lord Byron as a companion. He made rapid progress in Latin, and gained a bursary in Marischal college, which he entered in 1801. He went through the customary course of four years, and in the third year applied himself to the study of natural philosophy, a subject which had for him an absorbing interest, and which it was his good fortune to pursue under professor Copland, a proficient in the subject, which he made doubly fascinating by his clear style and beautiful experiments. It was these lectures that gave Arnott his first distinct impulse in physical science. He took full notes of professor Copland’s lectures, and turned them to good account in his after studies. He graduated master of arts in 1805.

He began the study of medicine at Aberdeen, and continued it in London, at St. George’s hospital. He was a pupil of Sir Everard Home, whose notice he attracted by his quickness of apprehension, and particularly by his rapid mastery of Sir Everard’s mode of treating stricture of the urethra. Through the influence of Sir Everard he obtained an appointment in the East India company’s medical service, and went out in a vessel the captain of which was suffering from stricture, and who desired to have on board a medical officer capable of treating him on Sir Everard’s plan. He left England on this his first voyage to China, in 1807, before he had completed his nineteenth year, and after a disastrous course, which took him across the Atlantic to Rio, he landed at the Cape of Good Hope. He there ascended the Table Mountain, and made those meteorological observations which are recorded in the "Physics." One day in the course of this voyage the captain, in the excitement of a storm, let all his chronometers run down, and on rewinding them found they remained dead still.

Arnott having learned from Copland the mechanism of clock work, soon set the chronometers agoing, to the delight of the captain and officers, who got him to deliver some lectures on physics to them. Another feat of Arnott’s at this youthful age was his performing on the captain the then novel operation of puncturing the bladder from the perineum. He returned to London in 1809, and made a second voyage to China, in 1810. It was in the course of these voyages, and when in charge of troops, that his attention was specially directed to sanitary subjects. Ventilation, temperature, clothing, food, air, and exercise, were before him in a practical form, and many ingenious contrivances were. resorted to by him to restore and maintain in a healthy ‘ condition the invalided men who had been placed under his care. So successful was he in these efforts, that during the voyage home he lost but one man, and his disease was hopeless when he embarked. On his reaching England he received the thanks of the military authorities.

In 1811 he commenced practice in London. While in a South American port he had learned Spanish, an acquisition which led to his appointment on his return to England as medical attendant to the Spanish embassy, a post to which at a somewhat later period were added those of physician to the French legation, and of medical adviser to the French refugees in Camden-town. In 1813 he became a member of the College of Surgeons; on the 15th September, 1814, was created doctor of medicine by the university of Aberdeen, and on the 31st March, 1817, was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians.

In 1813, although fully engaged in medical practice, he gave at the Burton rooms a course of lectures on natural philosophy as applied to medicine. The novelty and utility of this course rendered it highly attractive to medical men, and made him extensively known to the members of his own profession. In 1825 he gave at his own house in Bedford-square, two courses of lectures on the same subject, and chiefly to members of his profession. These lectures, which he declined to continue, though strongly urged to do so, were the basis of his "Elements of Physics," the first volume of which appeared in 1827, and took the world by storm. A review in "The Times" caused the first edition to be sold in a week, and within a few years the work had been translated into every language of civilised Europe. Popular as it was, Herschel and Whewell bore testimony to its accuracy and originality.

In 1832 Dr. Arnott gave to the world the first of a series of inventions which have immortalised his name, and made mankind for ages to come his debtor—his hydrostatic or water bed. It was originally devised for a lady, a patient of Mr. Henry Earle’s, of St. Bartholomew’s hospital, then suffering, and in peril of death, from bedsores. In 1836 the university of London was founded, and Dr. Arnott was nominated one of the senate; and in 1837 he was appointed physician extraordinary to the Queen. From this period to 1855 he was at the height of his professional career. He then withdrew from practice, and devoted his time almost exclusively to scientific subjects, including also those of a sanitary nature. In 1838 he published his well-known work "On Warming and Ventilating," in which he described with felicitous clearness the phenomena of fireplaces, and in particular the stove since identified with his name. In the same year he prepared along with Dr. Kay (afterwards Sir John Kay Shuttleworth) and Dr. Southwood Smith, a report on the fevers of London, in which the ventilation of dwellings was shown to be the chief preventive. In 1840 the Poor Law Commission deputed him to examine and report upon the fevers in Edinburgh and Glasgow, on which occasion he expounded very fully the principles of preventive medicine. He made known his ventilating chimney valve, one of the easiest and readiest means of ventilating ordinary rooms, while he planned a more elaborate system for public buildings. Next came his invention of the smokeless grate, in which the fire was fed, not from the top but from below, "the greatest improvement yet made in the open grate." Professional and other work prevented him for some years from revising and completing his "Physics," by that time long out of print. In 1856 he published a new edition of his "Warming and Ventilating," while five years later appeared his "Survey of Human Progress." In 1864 he issued his long awaited revision of the "Physics," treating for the first time of optics and astronomy, with the interesting supplement entitled "Arithmetic Simplified." In 1870 Dr. Arnott appeared for the last time as an author, the subject being "National Education."

Inventive resource, combined with rare expository power, was Arnott’s forte. The former produced the "water-bed " for the prevention of bed-sores, the latter the "Elements of Physics," one of the best treatises on a scientific subject ever addressed to the public. The improvement of mankind in all directions was his ambition. He befriended all sound reforms and actively promoted hygiene and education. Academical endowment was a passion with him. He founded a scholarship for experimental physics in the university of London: he gave a thousand pounds to the university of Aberdeen to provide a scholarship of natural philosophy, following it up by a similar gift to the other three Scottish universities, St. Andrew’s, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, and with a further gift of five hundred pounds to the Mechanics’ Institution, Aberdeen. In London, Mrs. Arnott had already given a thousand pounds to each of two colleges for young ladies to institute scholarships in natural philosophy. Two years before his death, Dr. Arnott intimated to a friend his intention of repeating his gift to the Scottish universities, but an accident which he met with at that time came in to impair his faculties and his power of decision. Dr. Arnott s hearing had become affected in 1858, but, till within two years of his death, he retained his constitutional robustness, intellectual activity, and genial flow of spirits. In 1872, he sustained a fall by which his head was injured and his faculties so impaired that his friends ceased to hope for his recovery. He died in London 2nd March, 1874, in the eighty-seventh year of his age. Dr. Arnott died, as he was born and had lived, in the communion of the church of Rome, and was buried beside his mother, his brother John, and his two sisters, in that portion of the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, which is reserved for Catholics.

"As the inventor of the Arnott stove, the Arnott ventilator, and the Water-bed, it is not likely that his name will soon be forgotten; but it deserves to be recorded to his honour that he refused to patent any of his inventions. His great object through life was to benefit others, and not to obtain pecuniary profit. Sir Arthur Helps, in one of his later works, says truly of Dr. Arnott, ‘his whole life was given to the service of his fellow-men. A truer reformer in the best sense of the word, never existed.’ One great secret of Dr. Arnott’s success as a writer on natural philosophy was, that from his earliest days he was an acute observer of all that went on around him. Nothing bearing upon physics escaped his notice. In addition to this faculty of observation, he possessed happy powers of description. The reader was not only instructed but made to feel a deep interest in the subject. Instruction was thus rendered a pleasing recreation. His earnest wish was to make the path of learning easy to all."(1)

William Munk

[(1) Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, No. 175, 1876. To this obituary notice and to the admirable memoir of Dr. Arnott in The Lancet, of March 14th, 1874, I am indebted for the greater part of the above sketch.]

(Volume III, page 161)

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