Hill, John

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Hill, John

(b. Peterborough [?], England, 1707 [?]; d. London, England, 21 November 1775)


A wide range of interests characterized Hill’s activities. Among his contemporaries he was well known for his various literary entanglements and voluminous publications in science. Although these include works on medicine, zoology, and mineralogy, the majority are concerned with botany.

An apothecary, Hill developed an interest in plants as a means of supplementing his income, both by collecting for others and by concocting assorted herb remedies which he offered for sale. The latter activity earned him the epithet of “quack.” His first major publication in botany appeared as a part of the three-volume General Natural History (1748–1752). In the second volume (1751), devoted to the plant kingdom, Hill introduced the classification system of Linnaeus to England. Several popular or semipopular works on plants followed. Many were essentially handbooks for gardeners or, like the Useful Family Herbal, guides to the collecting and use of herbs as medicaments. Others, like the British Herbal (1756) and his twenty-six-volume compendium Vegetable System (1759–1775), are works in taxonomic and descriptive botany intended, at least in part, for the scholarly botanist. Hill’s classification, although basically Linnaean, shows the influence of Rivinus (Augustus Quirinus Bachman) in the use of the corolla as a basis for some classes.

Hill showed some interest in plant histology and physiology. For his Construction of Timber (1770) he prepared sections of plant stems and stained them for microscopic study. In Sleep of Plants (1757) he noted the effects of light on the movement of plants.

Less numerous than his botanical publications but of considerable interest are the works on mineralogy. Hill’s first scientific publication was an English translation of Theophrastus’ De lapidibus, in which he intended to clarify, expand, and correct the work of Theophrastus as well as to translate it. His method was to study both classic and contemporary works in order to clarify Theophrastus’ comments. The information that he gathered and presented largely in the form of footnotes gives an interesting and far-ranging picture of eighteenth-century thought on mineralogy. His interests in mineralogy continued in the first volume of General Natural History (1748), which is devoted to a classification and description of the mineral kingdom. Minerals are well described, with descriptions often based on microscopic examination; and they are divided into series, classes, orders, genera, and the equivalent of species. The criteria for these categories are hazy and overlapping, but Hill does recognize the importance of crystal shape. Other works on mineralogy appeared sporadically, and in 1771 he published a manual of mineralogy.

Hill’s principal achievement in zoology is the third volume of the General Natural History, on animals. A large section is devoted to microscopic animals, and some of the names Hill coined for these animals still stand, such as “paramecium.” He also included a brief section devoted to fossil animals and demonstrated familiarity with current views on fossils. In keeping with his interest in microscopy, he revised an English edition of Swammerdam’s Book of Nature in 1758.

Hill acquired a medical degree from St. Andrews in 1750 (probably by purchase) and published many works on medicine. Most of these reflect his apothecary and botanical interests and deal with vegetable remedies.

Hill’s scientific labors were colored by his frequent satirical attacks on his contemporaries. Having failed as an actor and playwright, he engaged in penned warfare with Henry Fielding and other writers; denied membership in the Royal Society of London, he attacked that body in volumes such as his biting Review of the Works of the Royal Society (1751).

In addition to his other activities Hill was a contributor to the supplement of Chambers Cyclopaedia (1753) and editor of the British Magazine (1740–1750). He was married twice, first to a Miss Travers and then to the Honorable Henrietta Jones. He was a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Bordeaux and of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. In recognition of his Vegetable System King Gustavus III of Sweden awarded Hill the Order of Vasa in 1774, after which Hill styled himself Sir John.


I. Original Works. A more complete listing of some 80 works by Hill is given in Barker’s article in Dictionary of National Biography (see below). The following works are cited in the text: Theophrastus’ History of Stones. With an English Version, and Critical and Philosophical Notes, Including the Modern History of the Gems (London, 1746); A General Natural History: Or New and Accurate Descriptions of the Animals, Vegetables, and Minerals of the Different Parts of the World, 3 vols. (London, 1748–1752); A Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London Containing Animadversions on such of the Papers as Deserve Particular Observation (London, 1751); The Useful Family Herbal: Or an Account of All Those English Plants, Which Are Remarkable for Their Virtues, and of the Drugs, Which Are Produced by Vegetables of Other Countries; With Their Descriptions and Their Uses as Proved by Experience (London, 1755); The British Herbal: An History of Plants and Trees, Natives of Britain, Cultivated for Use, or Raised for Beauty (London, 1756); The Sleep of Plants and Cause of Motion in the Sensitive Plant (London, 1757); The Book of Nature; or the History of Insects. By John Swammerdam. Trans. by Thomas Flloyd, Revised and Improved With Notes From Reaumur and Others by John Hill (London, 1758); The Vegetable System, or a Series of Experiments and Observations Tending to Explain the Internal Structure, and the Life of Plants, 26 vols. (London, 1759–1775); The Construction of Timber, From Its Early Growth, Explained by the Microscope, and Proved by Experiments (London, 1770); and Fossils Arranged According to Their Obvious Characters, With Their History and Description (London, 1771).

II. Secondary Literature. See George F. R. Barker, “John Hill,” in Dictionary of National Biography; Lorande Loss Woodruff, “The Versatile Sir John Hill, M.D.,” in American Naturalist, 60 (1926), 417–442; andt G. S. Rousseau, “The Much-Maligned Doctor, ‘Sir’ John Hill (1707–1775),” in Journal of the American Medical Association, 212 (1970), 103–108. A new biography that will contain Hill’s correspondence is being prepared by Rousseau, A Literary Quack of London: A Life of Sir John Hill (in press).

Patsy A. Gerstner