Derham, William

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Derham, William

(b. Stoughton, Worcestershire, England, 26 November 1657; d. Upminster, Essex, England, 5 April 1735)

natural history, natural theology.

Derham attended Blockley Grammar School and, on 14 May 1675, entered Trinity College, Oxford. He graduated B.A. on 28 January 1679. Ralph Bathurst, the president of the college, recommended him to Bishop Seth Ward, who obtained a chaplaincy for him. He was ordained a deacon of the Church of England in 1681 and priest in 1682, when he was appointed vicar of Wargrave. In 1689 he became vicar of Upminster, not far from London, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1702 Derham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1711–1712 he delivered the course of Boyle Lectures. On the accession of George I in 1714, he was made chaplain to the Prince of Wales, later George II. In 1716 he became a canon of Windsor, and in 1730 was awarded the degree of doctor of divinity by the University of Oxford. Tall, healthy, and strong, he acted as physician as well as parson in Upminster. His eldest son, William, became president of St. John’s College, Oxford.

Derham published a number of papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on meteorology, on astronomy, and on natural history—his paper of 1724 on the sexes of wasps was admired. But it is for his editing of works by Robert Hooke and John Ray, and for his books on natural theology, that he is remembered. Ray’s Synopsis methodica avium et piscium had been sent to a bookseller in 1694; but the latter was in no hurry to publish it, and it remained in manuscript on his shelves until the firm went out of business. On its rediscovery, Derham saw it through the press in 1713. Also in 1713 he supervised a new edition of Ray’s Physico-Theological Discourses and in 1714, a new edition of his Wisdom of God. In 1718 Derham edited Ray’s Philosophical Letters and wrote a short biography of Ray, which did not appear in print until 1760. After Hooke’s death Richard Waller edited some of his papers, publishing them in 1705 as The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke. On Waller’s death, Hooke’s papers passed to Derham, who in 1726 published them as Philosophical Experiments... of... Dr. Robert Hooke. Also in 1726 he prepared a new edition of Miscellanea curiosa, a collection of important scientific papers from various sources.

Of Derham’s own works, those of greatest interest are The Artificial Clockmaker, Physico-Theology (Boyle Lectures), and Astro-Theology, all of which were very successful and went through many editions. Physico-Theology was translated into French, Swedish, and German, and Astro-Theology into German. None of them shows great originality. The Artificial Clockmaker is a useful manual containing some of Hooke’s ideas on clockwork, notably on the spiral spring balance, which Hooke claimed to have invented before Christiaan Huygens.

Physico-Theology owes much to Ray’s Wisdom of God, but it became better known in the eighteenth century than Ray’s book and was heavily used by William Paley. Derham’s tone was bland; he sought only to show that this is the best of all possible worlds. Venomous reptiles were difficult to account for, but he reflected that they were mostly to be found in heathen countries. Taken seriously, however, the book abounds in arguments from design to God; and anybody who read it would have acquired a respectable amount of natural history—as one would expect from an author who was himself a naturalist and a friend of John Ray.

Astro-Theology was a similar attempt to argue from astronomy to God, and here again Derham was as well qualified as anybody to do it. He made observations with some of Huygens’ telescopes and knew Halley and Newton. The main interest of the book is the distinction between the Copernican system and the new system, in which the universe was infinite and every star a sun, presumably surrounded by populated planets. Although works of natural theology such as these seem tedious in style, they do give a useful glimpse of the background of eighteenth-century science in England.


I. Original Works. Derham’s writings include The Artificial Clockmaker (London, 1696); Physico-Theology (London, 1713); and Astro-Theology (London, 1714). He edited Philosophical Experiments and Observations of the Late Eminent Dr. Robert Hooke, and Other Eminent Virtuoso’s in His Time (London, 1726).

II. Secondary Literature On Derham or his work, see A. D. Atkinson, “William Derham, F.R.S. (1657–1735),”in Annals of Science, 8 (1952), 368–392; the article in Biographia britannica, III; and C. E. Raven, John Ray, Naturalist (Cambridge, 1950), pp. xiii–xv.

D. M. Knight