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Charleton, Walter

Charleton, Walter

(b. Shepton Mallet, Somerset, England, 13 February 1620; d. London, England, 6 May 1707),

natural philosophy, medicine.

Charleton’s father, Reverend Walter Charleton, was rector of the church at Shepton Mallet. It was he who assumed the responsibility for the future physician’s early education and prepared him carefully for the university. In 1635 the young man was sent to Oxford, where he enrolled at Magdalen Hall (later Hertford College). At Oxford, Charleton made the acquaintance of the famous John Wilkins, later bishop of Chester, who was well versed in the new philosophy. Under Wilkins’ tutelage, Charleton demonstrated a talent for philosophy and logic, although it is said he distinguished himself rather more by his diligence than by his originality.

For a career Charleton chose medicine and was awarded the degree of doctor of physick in January 1643. Shortly afterward he was made physician-in-oridinary to the king. At the time Charleton was considered an extraordinary genius by many and, owing to his precocity, became the object of envy and resentment, which (Anthony à Wood reports) prevented his election to the College of Physicians until 1676.

In the 1650’s Charleton turned his talents to writing, mostly on medicine, natural philosophy, and related topics, although he became famous for his works on Stonehenge and on Epicurean ethics. His first efforts included translation and amplification (a genre he found particularly congenial) of works by the chemist J.B. van Helmont. An early effort was A Ternary of Paradoxes (1650), which discussed magnetic cures; in the same year he produced his own Spiritus gorgonicus, in which he ascribed the formation of stones in the human body to a stone-forming spirit.

Soon after the appearance of these works Charleton, perhaps under the influence of his friend Hobbes, turned from, Helmont to Gassendi, Descartes, and other “new philosophers.” The most important of these was the atomist Gassendi, and Charleton became intrigued with atomic explanation in natural philosophy and its theological implications. The products of these interests include The Darknes of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature: A Physicotheolgically Treatise (1652) and the Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana (1654), a translation and amplification of the physical part of Gassendi’s previously published Animadversions on the Tenth Book of Diogenes Laertius (1649). The Physiologia became a book of minor reputation but was read by such important natural philosophers as Boyle and Newton. It was an important part of Gassendi’s program to purify and render acceptable to Christians the atomic philosophy.

The period following his “conversion” to Epicureanism was, in terms of writings, a most prolific one for Charleton, although his medical career sagged. In addition to the two works cited above, Charleton published The Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons (1668), Epicurus’s Morals (1656), and The Immortality of the Human Soul Demonstrated by the Light of Nature (1657), the last of which contains a long section lauding the College of Physicians as a worthy example of Solomon’s House. In 1659 he published a major work on physiology, Natural History of Nutrition, Life and Voluntary Motion one of the first English textbooks on physiology.

During the interregnum Charleton privately and publicly remained faithful to the Crown. For his steadfastness he was rewarded in 1660 by a marked upturn in his fortunes. He remained physician to Charles II, about whom he wrote his Imperfect Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majesty Charles the II (1661) In this eulogy Charleton portrayed the flamboyant Charles as possessing the qualities of piety, courage, and justice “in an excellent, harmonious perfect mixture”

The Chorea gigantum (1663) was Charleton’s most famous work. It concerns the origins of Stonehenge, about which there was a great deal of discussion in the seventeenth century. Charleton wrote against the theory of Inigo Jones, who claimed that the rocks were the remains of a Roman temple. Charleton argued to the effect that Stonehenge was not a Roman temple but, rather, the ruined meeting place of ancient Danish chieftains.

In the Restoration period Charleton enjoyed his greatest reputation and prosperity. He continued his prolific publishing, became an active original member of the Royal Society, was elected to the Royal College of Physicians, and eventually served as president of the Royal College (1689–1691). His fame reached Europe, and he was reported to have received from the university of Padua and offer of a professorship which he declined.

After his tenure as president of the Royal College of Physicians, Charleton’s fortunes declined markedly. His practice dwindled and he was forced, owing to his straitened circumstances, to retire to Jersey, from which he returned to London only in his last years. He died destitute in May 1707.

Charleton’s importance as a natural philosopher (his medical works aside) rests primarily on his role as expositor of the atomic philosophy in a period during which its reception as a viable doctrine was in doubt. Charleton’s Physiologia was widely read in the early 1650’s as a convenient substitute for Gassendi’s scarce works. Charleton enabled atomism to reach a wider audience and helped prepare that audience for the reception of the atomic doctrine into Christian natural philosophy.

In his early, Precocious years Charleton very well displayed the spirit of the new intellectual age, how-ever little he added to it. In his works—most of them derivative—he mirrored all the controversy, enthusiasm, and ferment of the turbulent 1650’s. With respect to atomism, Charleton was a disseminator rather than a creator. His forte was the exposition and elucidation of the ideas of others, and he did not pretend otherwise.


I. Original Works. Among Charleton’s most important nonmedical works are The Darknes of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature: A physico-theologicall Treatise (London, 1652); Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana (London, 1654); The Immortality of the Human Soul (London, 1657); and Chorea gigantum (London, 1663). For a fuller list see Rolleston (below).

His medical works include Oeconomia animalis (London, 1659); Exercitationes pathologicae (London, 1661); and Enquiries Into Human Nature (London, 1680).

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest biographical account is still in the Biographia Britannica (London, 1747–1766), II, 1286–1292. Anthony à Wood’s short piece on Charleton, in P. Bliss, ed., Athenae Oxonienses 4 vols (London, 1812–1820), IV, 152, was thought to be detrimental to him. John Aubrey, Brief Lives Andrew Cleark, ed., 2 vols. (Oxford, 1898), I, 16; and Thomas Hearne, Remarks and Collections, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1884–1918), contain biographical fragments, See also H. Rooleston, “Walter Charleton, D.M., F. R. C.P., F. R. S.,” in Bulletin of the History, of Medicine8 (1940), 403–416. Charleton as a physicotheologian is discussed by R. Westfall, in Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England (New Haven, 1958), pp. 118–120. Charleton’s atomism is treated in R. Kargon, “Walter Charleton, Robert Boyle and the Acceptance of Epicurean Atomism in England,” in Isis55 (1964) 184–192; and Atomism in England: From Harlot to Newton (Oxford, 1966), pp. 77–92. C. Webster, “The College of Physicians: Solomon’s House’ in Commonwealth England,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 41 (1967) 393–412, discusses Charleton and his account of the College of Physicians. For Charleton’s physiology, see T. M. Brown’s as yet unpubhlished dissertation, “The Mechanical philosophy and the ‘Animal Oeconomy’” (Princeton, 1968).

Robert Kargon

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Charleton, Walter (1620–1707)


CHARLETON, WALTER (16201707), English physician and natural philosopher. Charleton was born in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, England, in 1619/20 and died in London in 1707. His tutor at Oxford, where Charleton earned a "doctor of physick" in 1643, was John Wilkins. His close relationship with the circle around William Harvey (15781657) influenced his thinking. He was appointed physician-in-ordinary to King Charles I, who was then at Oxford. He settled in London in 1650, remaining a loyal Royalist during the Interregnum, and was appointed physician to Charles II in 1660. During 1651 and 1652, he became acquainted with the new French natural philosophy of Pierre Gassendi (15921655) and René Descartes (15961650). Charleton was one of the original members of the Royal Society. Because of professional jealousy, he was not admitted to the College of Physicians until 1676, although he served as its president from 1689 to 1691. He served as senior censor in the College of Physicians from 1698 to 1706 and delivered Harveian orations in 1702 and 1706. His medical practice eventually declined as his Royalist patients died off. Charleton died impoverished in London in 1707. His extensive writings included translations and paraphrases of some of J. B. van Helmont's (15791644) medical books and of Gassendi's Christianized Epicureanism, some original medical treatises, an explanation of Stonehenge, a biography of William Cavendish, duke of Newcastle, and an oration on the restoration of Charles II.

Charleton's first published work, the Spiritus Gorgonicus (1650), is an account of the formation of stones in the body, based on Paracelsian and Helmontian sources. The Ternary of Paradoxes (1650) includes a translation of van Helmont's Magnetic Cure of Wounds, a work describing the action of the weapon salve by which Paracelsian physicians claimed to be able to cure wounds across considerable distances, by treating the sword that inflicted the wound or other materials containing blood from the wound. The influence of Helmontian ideas remains evident in many of his later medical writings. During the 1650s, Charleton wrote several works, paraphrasing Gassendi's attempt to Christianize Epicureanism. Like Gassendi, Charleton tried to incorporate it into providential Christianity so that it could serve as a theologically acceptable replacement for Aristotelianism. Charleton's books were among the first and most important vehicles by which Epicurean thought came to Britain in the mid-seventeenth century.

The Darknes of Atheism, Dispelled by the Light of Nature (1652) is a self-proclaimed work on natural theology, closely following Gassendi's arguments. Charleton gave an account of the natural world in Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana: or A Fabrick of Science Natural, Upon the Hypothesis of Atoms, Founded by Epicurus, Repaired by Petrus Gassendus, Augmented by Walter Charleton (1654), a paraphrase of Gassendi's Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri (1649). Like Gassendi, Charleton rejected the materialism of Epicurean atomism. The mechanization of the world was limited by the existence of noncorporeal entities: God, angels, and the human soul. Accordingly, Charleton published a dialogue entitled The Immortality of the Human Soul, Demonstrated by the Light of Nature (1657). Charleton presented a modified version of Epicurean ethics in his Introduction to Epicurus' Morals (1656). Although he accepted the basic tenets of a hedonistic ethics, Charleton objected to three of Epicurus' assertions: the mortality of the soul; the denial of providence and consequently the lack of obligation "to honour, revere, and worship God"; and the endorsement of suicide as "an Act of Heroick Fortitude in case of intollerable or otherwise inevitable Calamity." Charleton's Epicurean works were well known in the seventeenth century and were one source by which Robert Boyle, John Locke, and Isaac Newton became acquainted with Epicurean philosophy.

See also Boyle, Robert ; Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism ; Descartes, René ; Gassendi, Pierre ; Harvey, William ; Helmont, Jean Baptiste van ; Locke, John ; Medicine ; Newton, Isaac ; Wilkins, John .


Kargon, Robert. "Walter Charleton, Robert Boyle, and the Acceptance of Epicurean Atomism in England." Isis 55 (1964): 184192.

Osler, Margaret J. "Descartes and Charleton on Nature and God." Journal of the History of Ideas 40 (1979): 445456.

Webster, Charles. "The College of Physicians: 'Solomon's House' in Commonwealth England." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 41 (1967): 393412.

Margaret J. Osler

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