Shaw, Peter

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(b. Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, March or April 1694; d. London, England, 15 March 1964)


Show’s father was master of the Lichfield Grammar School, so it is probable that the boy received a good education, although nothing is recorded of his life between 1704, when his father died. and 1723, when his first publication appeared. Since he translated from Latin easily and well, he evidently had a good grounding in the classics. He also learned medicine and chemistry, and made his living by translating, writing, and editing books on these two subjects and by practicing medicine. His edition of Boyle’s works, and his translations of Boerhaave and Stahl, were popular and influential. The most important of his own early writings was A New Practice of Physic, based on the teachings of Sydenham and Boerhaave.

Shaw’s interest in chemistry evidently was deepened by his study of Boerhaave and Stahl. He welcomed Stahl’s search for a “universal chemistry” but rejected his mysticism and his doctrine of phlogiston; indeed, he never translated any part of Stahl’s writings on those subjects. His rational, experimental, and eclectic approach is revealed in the title he gave to his chemical lectures, the text of which he later published. From 1733 to 1737 he practiced at Scarborough and was active in promoting its spa. He became involved with the notorious Joanna Stephens’ remedies, which, as she claimed, dissolved urinary calculi in situ. They were a complex mixture that included calcined snail shells and soap, and shaw believed in their efficacy.

In 1740 Shaw was admitted licentiate of the College of Physicians and soon established an extensive and fashionable practice. He was made M.D. of Cambridge by mandamus in 1751, fellow of the Royal Society in 1752, candidate of the College of Physicians in 1753, and physician in ordinary to George III in 1753, and physician in ordinary to George III in 1760. Show was active in promoting the aims of the newly founded Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and was highly influential in chemical and medical circles.


I. Original Works. Shaw’s own writings are A Treatise of Incurable Diseases (London, 1723); The Juice of the Grape, or Wine Preferable to Water (London, 1724), published anonymously but traditionally ascribed to Shaw: A New Practice of Physic (London, 1726; 1728; 5th ed., 1753); Three Essays in Artificial Philosophy, or Universal Chemistry (London, 1731); Chemical Lectures Publicly Read in London in...1731 and 1732; and Since at Scarborough, in 1733, for the Improvement of Arts Trades, and Natural Philosophy (London, 1732; 1755; Paris, 1759); An Enquiry Into the Contents, Virtues and Uses of the Scarborough Spaw-Waters (London, 1734); Examination of the Reasons for and Against the Subscription for a Medicament for the Stone (London, 1732); Inquiries on the Nature of Miss Stephens’s Medicaments (London, 1738): and Essays for the Improvement of Arts. Manufactures and Commerce by Means of Chemistry (London. 1761).

With Francis Hauksbee the younger he wrote An Essay for Introducing a Portable Laboratory, by Means Whereof All the Chemical Operations Are Commodiously Performed for the Purposes of Philosophy, Medicine, Metallurgy, and family. With Sculptures (London, 1731) and Proposals for a Course of Chemical Experiments: With a View to Practical Philosophy, Arts, Trade and Business (London, 1731).

His translations include The Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (London, 1727), 5th ed. (London, 1753); A New Method of Chemistry, 2 vols. (London, 1727), trans. of Hermann Boerhaave’s Institutiones Chemise (Paris, 1724), incorporating student notes in collaboration with Ephraim Chambers: also new, rev. ed. (London, 1741, 1753); Philosophical Principles of Universal Chemistry (London, 1730), trans. of all but the last part of G. E. Stalh’s Collegium Jenense: The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon 3 vols. (London, 1733; French ed. Paris, 1765); and B. Varenius, A Compleat System of...Geography, rev. and corrected by Shaw (London, 1733: 1734: 1736: 1765).

Shaw edited John Quincy, Praelectiones pharmaceuticae; or a Course of Lectures in Pharmacy, Chymical and Galenical, Published From His Original Manuscript. With a Preface....(London, 1723); and Philosophical Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, Abridged, Methodised and Disposed Under the General Heads of Physics, Statics, Pneumatics, Natural History, Chemistry, and Medicine, 3 vols. (London, 1725).

II. Secondary Literature. The definitive account is F. W. Gibbs, “Peter Shaw and the Revival of Chemistry,” in Annals of Science, 7 (1951), 211–237, which corrects the accounts in Dictionary of National Biography and in W. Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London. 2nd ed. (London, 1878), upon which all earlier accounts were based.

Marie Boas Hall