Moffett (Moufet, Muffet), Thomas

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(b. London, England, 1553; d. Bulbridge, Wiltshire, England, 5 June 1604)

medicine, entomology.

Moffett was the second son of a London haberdasher, Thomas Moffett, and Alice Ashley. He was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School and at Cambridge, where he studied medicine under John Caius, with Thomas Penny as a fellow student. After graduating in 1573 he read medicine in Basel, where he received the M.D. in 1578 and published several of his medical theses. He accepted the Paracelsian system of treating disease with drugs and advocated it on his return to England. In 1579 he visited Italy and Spain; he there studied the silkworm, which he later described in his entomology. A poem on the silkworm by

“T.M.” is usually attributed to him. In 1580 Moffett married his first wife, Jane Wheeler, who died in 1600, and traveled again in Germany before returning to Cambridge in 1582. On a visit to Denmark in 1582 he met Severinus, to whom he dedicated his book De jure et praestantia chemicorum medicamentorum dialogus apologeticus, published in Frankfurt in 1584 and widely read on the Continent.

Settling in England, Moffett practiced as a physician in Ipswich for a time, then established himself in London. He became a fellow of the College of Physicians in 1588. His professional attendance on the nobility brought him to the court of Elizabeth I, but the Earl of Pembroke persuaded him to move to Wiltshire, and secured for him a seat as Member of Parliament for Wilton in 1597, which he held until his death in 1604. His second wife, the widow Catherine Brown, survived him with their daughter.

Moffett is remembered today mainly for two works, both published posthumously. The Theatrum insectorum which bears his name has a complex history. When Konrad Gesner died in 1565 he left an unfinished book on entomology: this was eventually sold to his friend Thomas Penny, who had already done some work of his own on Gesner’s collection of insects. Penny also acquired the notes on insects made by Edward Wotton of Oxford, and made some progress in amalgamating the information before his death in 1589. The work was then rescued from Penny’s heir by his Cambridge friend Moffett, who added a number of descriptions and drawings from his own observations in England and on the Continent—including a number of “lesser living creatures,” spiders, crustacea, and worms. Moffett prepared a manuscript with a fine title page engraved by William Rogers, with portraits of Moffett himself, Gesner, Wotton, and Penny. The title page was dated 1589; by 1590 Moffett was negotiating for publication in The Hague. That fell through, however, and he was unable to find a printer in England, probably because there was little demand in England for a book on natural history. After Moffett’s death his apothecary Darnell sold the manuscript to Sir Theodore Mayerne, who, after having found a printer only with great difficulty, eventually published it in 1634. Since illustrations for the mass market had to be done cheaply, the book appeared with woodcuts and without the original title page. It was translated into English and issued as part of Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents in 1658.

The Theatrum insectorum itself is a systematic treatise dealing with the habits, habitat, breeding, and economic importance of insects, beginning with bees, which are accorded the most detailed treatment. The observations and illustrations, although usually thought inferior to those published by Aldrovandi in 1602, are of considerable interest. Moffett usually described the larval and adult forms separately, and was aware that “There are so many kindes of Butterflies as there are of the Cankerwormes.” He further discussed the emergence of either normal butterflies or “ordinaries Flyes” (now known to be parasitic wasps) from similar pupae and described both the depredations wrought by locusts in Europe and their use as food. He also recorded observations of the movement of the tongue of the chameleon in feeding.

Moffett’s other work was Health’s Improvement, which was edited by Christopher Bennet and published in 1655. Designed for the layman to a greater degree than were the medical works published in Frankfurt and Nuremberg, the book is concerned mainly with food and diet, but includes descriptions of animals and fishes used for food, and is of particular interest for two chapters of observations about wild birds. While few of these observations were original, together they constitute the first printed list of British birds. Moffett was one of the first to recognize migration in birds and referred to woodcock and snipe “when they have rested themselves after their long flight from beyond the Seas, and are fat” he also mentioned crane breeding in the fens, a practice that ceased shortly after Moffett’s own time. In his Panzoologia (1661), Robert Lovell used Moffett’s descriptions of both birds and insects extensively.


I. Original Works. Of Moffett’s two scientific works, the manuscript of Theatrum insectorum is in the British Museum, Sloane MS 4014. It was first published as Insectorum, sive minimorum animalium (London, 1634); the English trans. by John Rowland was issued as the third vol. of Edward Topsell, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. Whereunto is now added The Theater of Insects; or, lesser Living Creatures: as Bees, Flies, Caterpillars, to Spiders, Worms &c. by T. Muffet (London, 1658); facs. repr. has a new intro. by Willy Ley (London, 1967). For Health’s Improvement: or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method and Manner of Preparing all Sorts of Foods Used in this Nation (London, 1655), a second ed. was “corrected and enlarged by Christopher Bennet … to which is now prefix’d, a short view of the author’s life and writings by Mr. Oldys, and an introduction by R. James” (London, 1746). Other of Moffett’s works are listed in the Athenae Cantabrigiensis (below).

II. Secondary Literature. The first biography of Moffett is by W. Oldys in the 1746 edition of Health’s Improvement, pp. vii-xxxii, and includes the text of his will. There is an early evaluation of Moffett’s medical ability by John Aikin in Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain (London, 1780), 168–175. The article by Sidney Lee in Dictionary of National Biography includes a comprehensive survey of the manuscript sources for Moffett’s life, and gives a short bibliography of early sources. C. H. Cooper and T. Cooper, Athenae Cantabrigiensis, II, 1568–1609 (Cambridge, 1861), 400–402, 554, is a good account of Moffett’s life with the most comprehensive bibliography of his works and sources of biographical material, mainly nineteenth century. The chapter on Moffett in C. E. Raven, English Naturalists from Neckham to Ray (Cambridge, 1947), ch. 10, 172–191, is critical of Moffett’s originality and accuracy, and collates his information with that given by other naturalists.

The history of the Theatrum insectorum is in M. Burr, “Unpublished for Over Three Hundred Years: the Original Title-Page for the First Book on Natural History Printed in England,” in Field, 27 August (1938), 495; H. M. Fraser, “Moufet’s Theatrum Insectorum,” in Gesnerus, 3 (1946), 131; and B. Milt, “Some Explanatory Notes to Mr. H. M. Fraser’s Article about Moufet’s Theatrum Insectorum,” ibid., 132–134. The text of Moffett’s notes on ornithology is included in W. H. Mullens, Thomas Muffett, Hastings and St. Leonards Natural History Society, Occasional Publication no. 5 (1911).

Diana M. Simpkins

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Moffett (Moufet, Muffet), Thomas

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