Floyer and Erasmus Darwin

Image: Joseph Wright (1734-1797), Portrait of Erasmus Darwin (1792). Oil on Canvas.

Image from: Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Erasmus Darwin, who started his medical practice in Lichfield in 1756, must have found vivid memories of Sir John Floyer and met his son John II (1681-1762) and granddaughter Susannah (1717-1800). Later he would purchase a piece of land a mile west of his house, at Maple Hayes, to develop a botanic garden there. In words of Anna Seward, it was: ‘a little, wild, umbrageous valley, one mile from Lichfield, amongst the only rocks which neighbour that city so nearly. It was irriguous from various springs, and swampy from their plenitude. A mossy fountain, of the purest and coldest water imaginable, had, near a century back, induced the inhabitants of Lichfield to build a cold bath in the bosom of the vale. That, till the doctor took it his possession, was the only mark of human industry, which could be found in the tangled and sequestered scene.’
This was the same spot where seventy years earlier Floyer’s cold baths had been built. Darwin incorporated them into his garden.

Their restoration at the end of the 19th century was commemorated by an inscription: ‘This stone marks the site of the Ancient Bathhouse purchased by Dr Erasmus Darwin of Lichfield and his son Erasmus Darwin the Younger from Thomas Weld of Lulworth Castle, Dorset, Esq. in the 20th year of the reign of King George III…the Bath was restored (with the original materials) by Albert Octavius Worthington at Maple Hayes, in the 53d year of the reign of Queen Victoria.’

Darwin’s botanic garden with the remains of Floyer’s bath house is not the only link between these two generations of physicians. Drawings of a machine for weighing people in Erasmus Darwin’s Commonplace Book may correspond to Floyer’s experiments. Darwin’s usual advice on temperance and physical exercise also reminds us of Floyer’s recommendations.

Floyer hoped that his only grandson would follow him into the medical profession, and wrote for him Advice to a Young Student of Physic. He prepared for the child a wide programme of medical education; after studying the classics he should secure training in chemistry, anatomy, botany and natural philosophy and then go to Holland to gain practical experience in hospitals.

Unfortunately the child died at the age of four, and so did not fulfil his grandfather’s ambitions. But in many ways it was Erasmus Darwin who kept alive the strong Lichfield tradition of scientific observation and research, and also of careful medical treatment by a learned physician, which had started here as early as the middle of the 17th century.

Floyer and Samuel Johnson

Image: Print of Samuel Johnson from John Jackson, History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield (London, 1805).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Living and practising in Lichfield for over 50 years, and holding important public duties there, Floyer must have been well acquainted with very many of the 3,000 or so inhabitants of the town.

Four of Floyer’s books were published by the Lichfield printer and bookseller Michael Johnson, the father of the future compiler of A Dictionary of the English Language. It was Sir John Floyer who advised the parents of the baby Samuel Johnson to take him to Westminster Abbey to receive the Royal Touch of Queen Anne in order to cure him of scrofula. Although it was not a therapeutic success, the memory of Dr Floyer was obviously preserved in Johnson’s family. Samuel Johnson was 25 years old when Floyer died, and he remembered the physician as ‘a man of civility and elegance’. Johnson used some of Floyer’s writings to illustrate the meanings of individual words in his ‘Dictionary’, and felt that Floyer’s ‘learning and piety deserve recording’.

Three of Floyer’s essays have been preserved at Lichfield Cathedral Library. One of them, the Treatise of Asthma, was borrowed by Samuel Johnson on 17th July 1784, a few months before his death: ‘I am now looking into Floyer who lived with asthma to almost his ninetieth year. His book by want of order is obscure; and his asthma, I think, not the same kind with mine. Something however I may perhaps learn.’

Floyer and the Medical Importance of Bathing

Image: Stowe Pool, Lichfield from John Jackson, History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield (London, 1805). In front of St Chad’s Church was St Chad’s well. In 1695, Floyer recommended the medicinal quality of the water which flowed into the well from a chalybeate spring. He caused the spring to be enclosed and people went to Stowe to take the waters.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.
Another of Floyer’s deep interests was in hydrotherapy. His library had a copy of De medicatis aquis atque de fossilibus (Venice, 1564) by the Italian physician and anatomist Gabriello Falloppio (1523-1562) which deals with the origin of springs and fossils, thermal baths and geology. His library also had a copy of The Register of Bath or, Two hundred observations (London, 1694) by T.Guidott.

Floyer travelled around the country visiting springs and wells, and documented how the local Staffordshire peasantry used certain springs. They ‘go into the water in their shirts, and when they come out, they dress themselves in their wet linen, which they wear all day, and much commend that for closing the pores and keeping themselves cool; and that they do not commonly receive any injury or catch any cold thereby, I am fully convinced from the experiments I have seen made of it.’

Floyer’s An Enquiry into the Right Use and Abuses of the Hot, Cold and Temperate Baths in England (1697) is one of his most important treatises. Although not the first English book on the subject, it can be considered the pioneer work on hydrotherapy in modern times. The book was dedicated to the Duke of Devonshire on whose land the highly praised waters of Buxton and Matlock were situated. Investigating the history of cold baths, Floyer appealed to the famous physicians of antiquity, as well as to contemporary scholars. He stated that ‘practice of cold bathing was certainly brought by the Romans into England; but it was known and practised also by the Germans, and from them it might come to their neighbours.’ He attributed the neglect of many famous waters to the Civil War, and linked the occurrence of many diseases to their disuse. Floyer prescribed cold baths as a corrective treatment for both bodily and mental diseases, and combined them with various forms of vigorous exercise such as riding, or walking in the cold air.

He also advocated cold bathing in paediatrics. He considered cold bathing particularly good for infants and young children, and insisted on a ‘natural upbringing’. Such an idea anticipated the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, although it was placed in a very unusual context. Floyer believed that cold bathing should start as early in life as baptism, and supervised immersion baptism at Lichfield Cathedral. In 1722 he published An Essay to Restore the Dipping of Infants in Baptism, where he demonstrated that dipping is to be preferred to sprinkling. Floyer’s medical and theological views were inextricably linked.

As a trustee of the Conduit Lands, Floyer promoted a chalybeate spring at Stowe (near the Cathedral). In 1717 it was mentioned that people come to Stowe ‘to drink the waters and other diversion there to take’. He managed to persuade ‘worthy and obliging gentlemen’ to contribute towards erecting a St Chad’s cold bath at Unett’s Well at Abnalls, near Lichfield. In 1700-1703 two baths were built, one for women and one for men. They were separated by a wall, and each had a changing room. Floyer insisted that the poor and the inhabitants of the Close should be admitted free; but others had to pay.

In 1702, along with the physician and poet Edward Baynard (1641-1719) he published The Ancient Psychrolusia Revived, or, an Essay to Prove Cold Bathing Both Safe and Useful. A graduate of Leyden University, Baynard practised medicine in Bath, and also in London where he operated a cold bath. Floyer and Baynard had probably known each other for a long time, as Floyer mentioned Baynard’s assistance in his botanical work. Although many contemporaries ridiculed Floyer’s and Baynard’s book, it went through several editions and was translated into German. It might have influenced medical practice of Vincenz Priessnitz (1799-1851) who is acknowledged the father of modern hydrotherapy and the health spa movement in Europe.

Cold bathing along with sea swimming were enthusiastically supported by the future generation of Romantics, particularly by Lord Byron. He made them fashionable not only in England but all around Europe. In 1820s, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin described his hero Eugene Onegin in a following way:

Childe-Harold-like, Eugene’s devoting
His hours to dreaming them away;
He wakes; a bath where ice is floating…

In his later years Floyer wrote a book on geriatrics Medicina Geronomica, or The Galenic Art of Preserving Old Men’s Health, published in 1724. Floyer directs the attention of his readers to the importance of fresh air, physical exercise, regular diet, and temperance in all things especially alcohol and tobacco. He relaxed some of his standards and recommended warm instead of cold baths: ‘If they are luxuries, why not for the health and cleanliness. If the English knew the use of warm baths like the Romans they would have them made in their houses.’

Floyer obviously followed his own recommendations, and their effectiveness was confirmed by Bishop Hough of Worcester (1651-1743) who wrote: ‘Sir John Floyer has been with me some weeks, and all my neighbours are surprised to see a man of eighty-five who has all his memory, understanding and all his senses good, and seems to labour under no infirmity.’

Floyer’s last medical book A Comment on Forty two Histories described by Hippocrates in the First and Third Books of his Epidemics, was published in 1726. ‘Our notions change with our philosophy, and at last we return to our old ones again; and better explain them… I will… describe the 42 stories, and in what way we may cure such Fevers by a rational Method.’

Floyer’s Pioneering Medical Publications

Image: St John’s Hospital, Lichfield. Floyer based much of his evidence in his book, The Physician’s Pulse-Watch, from evidence he obtained from the pulses of elderly men who lived in the almshouse. The building is still a home for retired men in contemporary Lichfield.

Photograph from: Malcolm Dick (1983)

The Touchstone of Medicines

In his first book The Touchstone of Medicines (2 Vols. 1687), Floyer tried to classify medicines for their use in different disorders, according to their tastes and smell. The book was written in English: ‘I thought it absurd to write a Latin discourse about English plants; which is design for use of English Men, who are further to try and examine the tastes and Virtues that I have mentioned.’ He mentioned many curious plants he had found at Chelsea Physic Garden, and he discussed their classifications with the ‘ingenious and obliging Mr Watts’ who had been appointed gardener there in 1679. (In this pre-Linnean time, his classification was mainly based on the works by John Ray (1627-1707), whose book Catalogus plantarum, London, 1660, was in Floyer’s library). He also collected recipes of remedies from members of his family, friends and patients. Floyer’s ‘Country Receipts’ has been preserved at Lichfield Cathedral Library. It is a sort of Commonplace Book, which was probably started by Mary (Marion) Fleetwood, née Archbold, who would be his wife, and continued by Floyer himself.

Treatise of Asthma

In his Treatise of Asthma which was first published in 1698, Floyer distinguished asthma from other forms of breathlessness, and gave a detailed account of the disease. He himself was an asthma sufferer, and he carefully observed his own symptoms, and how they were influenced by the seasons, environment, and treatment.

Floyer was a great admirer of the Paduan Professor Sanctorius (1561-1636), and owned at least three books by him. Sanctorius had pioneered the study of metabolism. He monitored his own body functions for some thirty years, documenting changing in body-weight after dining, evacuating and exercising, and correlated these variables against his state of health. For his observations he used a special weighing-chair.

Floyer describes weighing an asthmatic patient (probably himself), and also a boy of fourteen, ‘after Sanctorius’ manner’. So he must have copied Sanctorius’ weighing machine and used it in Lichfield.

He also gave the first detailed description of the change in the lungs caused by emphysema. Dissections of human bodies were still very rare and extraordinary events, so his account was taken not from a human being but from a broken-winded mare.

Floyer’s treatise went through four English editions, and in 1761 it was translated into French. It can be regarded as a classic work on the subject.

The Physician’s Pulse-Watch

In 1707-1710, Floyer published The Physician’s Pulse Watch. His study probably was originally inspired by both Galen and Sanctorius. Galen was the first physician to feel the pulse for diagnosing diseases and symptoms such as fevers. In 1620 Sanctorius designed a special instrument, the pulsilogium, based on Galileo’s pendulum clock, to measure the pulse.

In his book Floyer included references to his predecessors. But he also added a great quantity of his own observations, comments and charts relating to the pulse, and he tried to establish relations between pulse rates and several other measurements. The subjects of his observations were mainly the almsmen resident in the ancient Hospital of St.John the Baptist in Lichfield; ‘I have many years try’d pulses by Minute in Common Watches, and Pendulum Clocks, when I was among my Patients; after some time I met with the common Sea-Minute-Glass, which I used for my cold bathing, and by that I made the most of my experiments.’

To obtain an exact measurement of the speed of the pulse, rather than to describe it as ‘weak’, ‘fast’, or ‘galloping,’ Floyer needed a special timepiece. Handheld watches of which the manufacture was just beginning in Europe, seemed convenient. A clock-maker Samuel Watson (fl. c.1687-1710), adapted such a watch for Floyer’s medical purposes. Watson was patronised by Sir Isaac Newton, and also was appointed Mathematician in Ordinary to King Charles II. One of his astronomical clocks can be seen now in the Library of Windsor Castle. Watson constructed for Floyer the first known stop watch, and also the first watch with a second hand. Floyer wrote: ‘I caused a Pulse-Watch to be made which runs 60 seconds, and I placed it in a Box to be more easily carried, and by this I now feel pulses.’

Floyer became the first physician to time the pulse accurately, which is now a universal and routine medical practice.

Sir John Floyer and Lichfield

Image: South-west view of Lichfield, an eighteenth century print engraved by J Ryland and published in John Jackson, History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield (London, 1805. Floyer probably lived in a house in the Close, near the West Front of the Cathedral which is depicted on the left of picture.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

Daniel Defoe described Lichfield in 1725 as a ‘place of good Conversation and good Company’. His opinion was probably based on meetings with the inhabitants of ‘a great many very well-built houses’ in the Close. Defoe must have met Sir John Floyer (1649-1734), who lived there. Floyer’s reputation and personality contributed to this flattering description of the town.

A native of Staffordshire, John Floyer was the third child of Elizabeth Babington and Richard Floyer of Hints Hall. At the age of 15 he started reading medicine at Queen’s College, Oxford. He graduated in 1668, and became a Doctor of Medicine in 1680. After Oxford he returned to Lichfield where he practised for more that half a century and here he wrote most of his medical and theological books.

John Floyer became an influential member of the community of Lichfield. He was knighted by Charles II in 1684, although the circumstances are not known. By marriage Floyer was related to Lord Dartmouth, one of the leading favourites at court. According to one of Dartmouth’s rivals, Floyer worked at Lichfield on Dartmouth’s behalf, ‘endeavouring to frame that corporation anew by leaving out some of the best men in it, that it may solely depend on that family.’ When in 1686 James II visited Lichfield, Sir John Floyer was a member of the party that met him on the outskirts of the city. In 1686 he was elected a Justice of the Peace; later he was elected bailiff. During 1690s, he served as a trustee of the city’s Conduit Lands; in the 1720s he regularly took part in the grand jury, and in 1729 became a trustee of the Lichfield turnpike trust.

Although knighted for his political services, Floyer also was obviously successful and respected as a physician, and his relatives even claimed that he had been physician to Charles II.

Floyer had a great respect for traditional Galenic medicine with its theory of the four humours or bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy). Sickness is caused by imbalance of the humours, or by an insufficiency of one of them. To restore the patient’s health, doctors needed to bleed their patients, or to prescribe laxative or emetic medication. Herbal medicines were also used.

Floyer’s library which he donated to the Queen’s College, Oxford reflects the wide medical knowledge of a learned physician. It contained about 190 volumes. Most of them are medical treatises by German, Dutch and English physicians and scholars. He acquired many important works by Italian physicians of the Renaissance from his predecessor in Lichfield, Dr Anthony Hewett (c.1603-1684) who had read medicine at Padua.

Floyer’s lifespan coincided with the so-called Scientific Revolution. A contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), Floyer was conscious of the new experimental approach to science and medicine.

Floyer wrote a number of books on medical and theological matters which reflect contradictions in his points of view. He was sceptical about the use and utility of the microscope, and considered smallpox inoculation impious and sinful. He argued that the new natural science had added little to the achievements of Hippocrates and Galen. He constantly emphasised that he wanted to revive ancient practice, and not to innovate. In his later years he wrote an anti-Newtonian essay.

However, in some fields of medicine he was a pioneer. Floyer’s works reflect not only the strong influence of the great physicians of the past, but also his own inquisive mind, careful observation, and enthusiasm for experimental research. He often experimented on himself and criticised his fellow physicians ‘who caused their patients to swallow what they dared not taste themselves’.

Sir John Floyer (1649-1734), Physician of Lichfield

Image: Lichfield, c. 1686. This is the earliest print of Lichfield and was produced from a copper engraving by the Dutch engraver, M Burghers for Robert Plot’s, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford, 1686). By this time, when Sir John Floyer was practising medicine in the city, Lichfield was already known for the quality of its water supply. Not surprisingly, water treatments featured in Floyer medical practice.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Text: Olga Baird


The Midlands was notable for its medical pioneers. Erasmus Darwin extended knowledge of the workings of the human body, developed new ways of caring for patients and became the best-known doctor in England at the end of the eighteenth century. William Withering, his colleague in the Lunar Society, pioneered the application of the scientific method in medicine when he experimented with the use of the drug, digitalis, to treat heart disease. Sir John Floyer is a less well-known figure, but he anticipated the work of both Darwin and Withering. Like Darwin he developed new ways of understanding the body and methods of patient care. Like Withering, he drew his conclusions and recommendations from a careful observation of his patients. Floyer was based in Lichfield, a location which provided a large number of wealthy patients, but his medical observations included the local Staffordshire peasantry and elderly gentlemen in a Lichfield almshouse. Floyer produced several publications and was particular important for his observations on the pulse, his advocacy of cold baths and his recommendations on the care of the elderly.