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(b. Oxford, England, 1492; d. London, England, 5 October 1555)

medicine, natural history

Wotton was the son of Richard Wotton, beadle of the University of Oxford. He was educated at “the Grammar School joining to Magdalen College” and, from 1506, at Magdalen College, graduating 9 February 1514 adn becoming a fellow in 1516.In January 1521 he followed Claymond to Corpus Christi College, becoming socio compar then (or, more probably, in 1523.) He was later permitted to travel in Italy for from three to five years to “improve his learning, and chiefly to learn Greek.” He also studied at the medical school of Padua, graduating M.D. in 1526. He was awarded the same degree at Oxford on his return later that year. Wotton subsequently moved to London, He was admitted fellow of the Royal College of Physicians on 8 February 1528 and was active in its administration, becoming president (1541–1543) and censor (1552–1553, 1555), As befitted his standing at the College of Physicians, he numbered among his patients the duke of Norfolk and Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury; and he is said to have also been physician to Henry VIII.

Wotton’s scientific reputation rests on De differentiis animalium libri decem (Paris, 1552.) Each of the ten books in his work deals with a major topic. Books 1–3 are devoted to generalities–the parts of, functions of, and differences between animals; book 4 deals with man; book 5, with quadrupeds that bear live young; book 6, with quadrupeds that lay eggs; book 7, with birds; book 8, with fishes; book 9 with insetcs; and book 10, with crustaceans, squids, and mollusks. The entries in the index refer to page numbers and a letter. Each text page is lettered every eleven lines (A–D on recto; E–H on verso,) a practical and advanced method of indexing, considering the data at which it was printed.

Wotton dedicated his book to King Edward VI, then in the last year of his six-year regin. In this dedication he explains his purpose in compiling the book and briefly decribes its preparation, mentioning his practice of studying books of writers whose work could contribute to his knowledge of medicine and telling how he compiled commentaries on them. His discovery of the writings of the French botanist Jean Ruel (De natura stirpium libri tres. 1536) and of Agricola (De natura fossilium,1546) came during his study of earlier authors; but feeling that he could not surpass their work in these fields. Wotton concentrated on zoology.

It is as a compilation that Wotton’s De differentiis animalium must be viewed. C. E. Raven called it an “astonishing mosaic of extracts from every sort of Graeco-Roman writer . . .,” but this should not necessarily be seen as criticism. The book is the production of a man whose education had been that of a classical scholar and whose professional ethos was firmly rooted in ancient writers. Nothing was more natural than for Wotton to produce virtually a pandect of the classical writers on zoology. In this work, as in his sources, he was reflecting the development of Renaissance science. The invention of printing had made well-produced, indexed, and often illustrated editions of the writings of the classical authorities widely available. This rendered the Knowledge of classicists of wotton’s generation more precise and paved the way for the great Renaissance encyclopedists in the natural sciences. Wotton was the first of these writers (although Adam Lonicerus’ Naturalis historiae opus novum . . . was published a year earlier, Wotton’s work had been long in preparation), who include Konrad Gesner and Ulisse Aldrovandi. Modern naturalists may view Wotto’s book, like Aldrovandi’s and much of Gesner’s, as over-weighted with information from the literature and short on original observation. But the encyclopedist’s purpose was to bring together the literature; and it was on their foundation that the earliest field naturalists, such as William Turner (ca. 1508–1568) and Pierre Belon, built.

De differentiis animalium had a considerable influence on later naturalists. Gesner praised it as a complete and clearly written digest of zoological knowledge. but its reputation was greatest in entromological circles. In book 9 Wotton discussed at some lengh the complexities of insect metamorphoses but was unable to reconcile them with his implicit belief in spontaneous generation (lice formed from human sweat, and caterpillars from plants.) This book, in which he gave evidence for some original observation, was quoted–and in places relied upon–in Thomas Moffett’s Theatrum insetorum, an elaborate and creditable work based parly on the manuscript of his friend and fellow physician Thomas Penny. Moffett’s book published posthumously in 1634 by Theodore Mayerne, was the first entomological book to appear in England. It was later translated into English by John Rowland and appeared in 1658 as the third volume of Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents . . ., a book that, because of its use of English and despite its inclusion of fabulous beasts, strongly influenced popular interest in natural history in England.


See A. F. P[ollard], “Wotton, Edward,” in Dictionary of National Biography, LXIII, 48–49; C. E. Raven, English Naturalists From Neckam to Ray (London, 1947); and G. Sarton, The Appreciation of Ancient and Medieval Science During the Renaissance (1450–1600) (Philadelphia, 1955).

Alwyne Wheeler