Pemberton, Henry

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(b. London, England, 1694; d. London, 9 March, 1771)

physics, mathematics, physiology, medicine.

Little is known of Pemberton’s family or youth beyond the significant fact that he was introduced to mathematics at grammar school. He read, independently, Halley’s editions of Apollonius and then traveled to Leiden to study medicine with Boerhaave. In Leiden he was further introduced to the work of Newton, the decisive event of his intellectual life. Pemberton interrupted his stay in Leiden to study anatomy in Paris and then returned to London about 1715 to attend Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Although he took his degree at Leiden in 1719, he never practiced medicine extensively because of his delicate health. He did, however, serve for several years as professor of physics at Gresham College.

Pemberton’s thesis, on the mechanism by which the eye accommodates to objects at different distances (1719), was his most important independent work. Treating the crystalline lens as a muscle, he argued that it accommodates to vision at varying distances by changes in shape. Students of physiological optics in the eighteenth century knew the work, and Pemberton ranks as one of the precursors of Thomas Young.

Pemberton’s work on the mechanism of accommodation was nearly his last independent work, for he was determined to join the circle of Newton’s epigones. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to approach the master through John Keill. But Richard Mead, Newton’s friend and physician, showed Newton a paper in which Pemberton refuted Leibniz’ measure of the force of moving bodies–an obsequious essay larded with references to “the great Sir Isaac Newton.” Although the measure of the force of moving bodies was not an issue germane to Newtonian mechanics, Newton was apparently pleased with the attack on Leibniz. He made Pemberton’s acquaintance; and Pemberton sought to cement the relation by contributing another obsequious essay on muscular motion, which converted itself into a panegyric on Newtonian method, to Mead’s edition of Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, completed in 1723 and published in 1724. When work on the third edition of Newton’s Principia began late in 1723, Pemberton was the editor.

Pemberton devoted the major portion of his attention to the edition during the following two and a half years. He was a conscientious editor who carefully attended to the details of style and consistency, but nothing more substantive in the edition bears his stamp. The third edition of the Principia (1726) is the primary vehicle by which Pemberton’s name has survived. The meagerness of his contribution, in comparison with the promise of his thesis at Leiden, suggests how deadening the role of sycophant can be.

Pemberton had labored assiduously to earn Newton’s favor; apparently he intended to make his position near Newton the foundation of a career. Already he was at work on a popularization of Newtonianism for those without mathematics—A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philsophy, which finally appeared in 1728 with prefatory assurances that Newton had read and approved it. He had also announced an English translation of the Principia and a commentary on it. In 1728 he received the Gresham position. Other aspiring young men had also courted Newton, however, and they chose to dispute the inheritance. John Machin, secretary of the Royal Society, sponsored and aided Andrew Motte’s rival translation, which beat Pemberton’s work to the press. Discouraged, he abandoned the commentary and virtually ended his career as a scientist.

Pemberton was thirty-five years old when Motte’s translation appeared in 1729. Although he lived more than forty years more, he did almost nothing further to fulfill his earlier promise. During the 1730’s, he was drawn into the fringes of the Analyst controversy on the foundations of the calculus. In 1739 the College of Physicians engaged him to reedit and translate their pharmacopoeia—The Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians (1746). He spent the following seven years on the project, attempting, he said, to purge it of the trifles that disgraced it. From the point of view of medical science, the job was undertaken too soon, and it had to be repeated again before the end of the century. At Gresham College he delivered courses of lectures on chemistry and physiology, which his friend James Wilson later published; both were minor works. Toward the end of his life he returned to his early love of mathematics and published four papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Pemberton was a man of deep friendships and broad learning. His first publication was a mathematical letter addressed to James Wilson, to whom, fifty years later, he left his papers. In his View of Newton’s Philosophy he published a poem on Newton by a young friend, Richard Glover, whose continuing poetic efforts evoked pamphlets written by Pemberton praising Glover’s work with a show of literary erudition. Glover’s political connections led Pemberton to write an essay on political philosophy, which remained unpublished. He also wrote on weights and measures. He was known as a lover of music who never missed a performance of a Handel oratorio.


I. Original Works. Pemberton’s major works include Dissertatio physica-medica inauguralis de facultate oculiqua ad diversas rerum conspectarum distantias se accommodat (Leiden, 1791); Epistola ad amicum de Cotesii inventis, curvarum ratione, quae cum circulo & hyperbola comparationem admittunt (London, 1722); “Introduction. Concerning the Muscles and Their Action,” in William Cowper, Myotomia reformata, Richard Mead, ed. (London, 1724); “A Letter to Dr. Mead. . .Concerning an Experiment, Whereby It Has Been Attempted to Shew the Falsity of the Common Opinion, in Relation to the Force of Bodies in Motion,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 32 (1722), 57; A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (London, 1728); Observations on Poetry, Especially the Epic (London, 1738); The Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians (London, 1746); Some Few Reflections on the Tragedy of Boadicia (London, 1753); A Course of Chemistry (London, 1771); and A Course of Physiology (London, 1773).

II. Secondary Literature. See I. Bernard Cohen, “Pemberton’s Translation of Newton’s Principia, With Notes on Motte’s Translation,” Isis, 54 (1963), 319–351; and Introduction to Newton’s ‘Principia’ (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 265–286; and the biographical sketch published by James Wilson as the preface to Pemberton’s Course of Chemistry.

Richard S. Westfall