John Hill (c. 1714 – 21 November 1775), called because of his Swedish honours, "Sir" John Hill, was an English author and botanist. He contributed to contemporary periodicals and was awarded the title of Sir in recognition of his illustrated botanical compendium The Vegetable System.
He was the son of the Rev. Theophilus Hill and is said to have been born in Peterborough. He was apprenticed to an apothecary and on the completion of his apprenticeship he set up in a small shop in St Martin's Lane, Westminster. He also travelled over the country in search of rare herbs, with a view to publishing a hortus siccus, but the plan failed.
He had a medical degree from Edinburgh, and he practised as a "quack doctor", making considerable sums by the preparation of vegetable medicines.
His first publication was a translation of Theophrastus's History of Stones (1746). From this time forward he was an indefatigable writer. He edited the British Magazine (1746–1750), and for two years (1751–1753) he wrote a daily letter, "The Inspector," for the London Advertiser and Literary Gazette. He also produced novels, plays and scientific works; and was a major contributor to the supplement of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia.
From 1759 to 1775 he was engaged on a huge botanical work--The Vegetable System (26 vols fol.)--adorned by 1600 copper-plate engravings. Hill's botanical labours were undertaken at the request of his patron, Lord Bute, and he was rewarded by the Order of Vasa from the King of Sweden in 1774.
Of the seventy-six separate works with which he is credited in the Dictionary of National Biography, the most valuable are those that deal with botany. He is reputed to have been the author of the second part of The Oeconomy of Human Life (1751), the first part of which is by Lord Chesterfield, and Hannah Glasse's famous manual of cookery was generally ascribed to him (see Boswell, ed. Hill, iii. 285). Samuel Johnson said of him that he was "an ingenious man, but had no veracity." See a Short Account of the Life, Writings and Character of the late Sir John Hill (1779), which is chiefly occupied with a descriptive catalogue of his works; also Temple Bar (1872, xxxv. 261–266).
John Hill's often provocative and scurrilous writings involved him in many quarrels, both in the field of science and that of literature.
Quarrel with the Royal Society, 1750–1751
During the 1740s, and especially in 1746–1747, Hill attended many meetings of the Royal Society, and there presented the results of several of his studies, both in the field of botany (on the propagation of moss), medicine (a surgical operation to remove a needle from the abdominal wall of a man), and geology-chemistry (on the origin of the sapphire's colour, on chrysocolla, on an alternative to Windsor loam for the making of fire-resistant bricks). His works On the manner of seeding mosses and On Windsor loam appeared in the Royal Society's journal, the Philosophical Transactions.
On the basis of these contributions, Hill apparently hoped to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society. Furthermore, he had the backing of several members of the Royal Society: the botanist Peter Collinson, the physician and scientist William Watson, and the antiquarian William Stukeley. Moreover, Hill had links with important nobles: John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu and Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond, also Fellows of the Royal Society; and Sir Thomas Robinson, Governor of Barbados and antiquarian. Despite Hill's merits as a scientist (at a time when many Fellows had no scientific background) and his relations, his election to the title of Fellow failed to materialise.
Disappointed by the Royal Society's lack, in his opinion, of scientific standards, Hill started to criticise the Society. In December 1749, he started writing anonymous, critical reviews of some articles published in the Philosophical Transactions. Moreover, in January 1750, Hill began a campaign of criticism and derision against the Royal Society by publishing, under an alias, a treatise entitled Lucina sine concubitu. A letter humbly address'd to the Royal Society; In which is proved, by most Incontestable Evidence, drawn from Reason and Practice, that a Woman may conceive and be brought to bed, without any commerce with Man. Under the false name of Abraham Johnson, a physician and man-midwife, Hill pretended to have observed cases where women had become pregnant without having had any kind of sexual relations with a man.
The "paper war" of 1752–1753
Henry Fielding attacked him in The Covent Garden Journal, Christopher Smart wrote a mock-epic, The Hilliad, against him, and David Garrick replied to his strictures against him by two epigrams, one of which runs: "For physics and farces, his equal there scarce is; His farces are physic, his physic a farce is."
He had other literary passages-at-arms with John Rich, who accused him of plagiarising his Orpheus, also with Samuel Foote and Henry Woodward.
Recent biography and scholarship
In 2012 George Rousseau, the noted cultural critic of the eighteenth century, published a full-length biography of Hill entitled The Notorious Sir John Hill: The Man Destroyed by Ambition in the Era of Celebrity. (abstract) Rousseau’s main point is that Hill has been a sadly neglected figure whose life and works ought to have been consulted to illuminate the best – and worst – features of early Georgian London, especially during the 1750s.
Rousseau’s biography also demonstrates Hill’s polymathic endeavors as apothecary, botanist, conchologist, doctor, entrepreneur, geologist, herbalist, journalist, novelist, satirist, and all-around Wit and ‘Man about Town’ in an era when ‘Wits’ ruled the civilized world and when metropolitan culture was beginning to assume the power it has wielded over the last two centuries. In Rousseau’s words:
- ‘Sir John Hill (1714–1775) was one of Georgian England’s most vilified men despite having contributed prolifically to its medicine, science and literature. Born into a humble Northamptonshire family, the son of an impecunious God-faring Anglican minister, he started out as an apothecary, went on to collect natural objects for the great Whig lords and became a botanist of distinction. But his scandalous behavior prevented his election to the Royal Society and entry to all other professions for which he was qualified. Today, we can understand his actions as the result of a personality disorder; then he was understood entirely in moral terms. When he saw the die cast he turned to journalism and publication, and strove maniacally to succeed without patronage. As a writer he was also cut down in ferocious ‘paper wars’. Yet by the time he died, he had been knighted by the Swedish monarch and become a household name among scientists and writers throughout Britain and Europe. His life was a series of paradoxes without coherence, perhaps because he was above all a provocateur. In time he would also become a filter for the century in which he lived: its personalities — great and small — as well as the broad canvas of its culture, and for this reason any biography necessarily stretches beyond the man himself to those whose profiles he also illuminates.’ (p. ix)
Reviews of The Notorious Sir John Hill have so far applauded Rousseau’s aim to demonstrate that Hill was driven by the ambition to possess a ‘celebrated life’ and become a ‘celebrated figure’ during a generation when celebrity culture was on the ascendancy. Reviewers have also commended Rousseau’s sleuthing while resuscitating this neglected figure whose life so robustly intersected with, and commented on, George Baker, the third Earl of Bute (his patron John Stuart), Emanuel Mendes da Costa, Henry Fielding, Martin Folkes (President of the Royal Society during Hill’s years of interaction), Samuel Foote, David Garrick, William Hogarth, William Hunter, Samuel Johnson, Carl Linnaeus, James Parsons, Christopher Smart, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne, William Stukeley, Peg Woffington, and the Dukes of Richmond, Newcastle and Northumberland.
- Hill, John (1750), Lucine sine concubitu: a letter addressed to the Royal Society.
- Hill, John (1750), A Dissertation on Royal Societies.
- Hill, John (1751), Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London.
- Hill, John [attributed] (1751), The Oeconomy of Human Life 2.
- Hill, John (1751–1753), "The Inspector" [daily column], London Advertiser and Literary Gazette: Much of Hill's part in the Paper War of 1752–1753 was carried out in this column.
- Hill, John (1752), The Impertinent
- Hill, John (1752), Letters from the Inspector to a Lady with the genuine Answers.
- Hill, John in: Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Supplement. 1753 various articles
- Hill, John (1755), The useful family herbal. Reprinted as Hill, John (1812), The family herbal.
- Hill, John (1755), Thoughts concerning God and Nature.
- Hill, John (1756–1757), The British Herbal.
- Hill, John (1757), Thomas Hale: Eden, or, A compleat body of gardening (editor)
- Hill, John (1758), Outlines of a System of vegetable generation.
- Hill, John (1759), The virtues of honey in preventing many of the worst disorders.
- Hill, John (1759–1775), The Vegetable System (26 volumes).
- Hill, John (1770), The construction of timber from its early growth.
- Hill, John (1771), Virtues of British herbs.
- Hill, John (1773), A decade of curious insects.
- Hill, John (1776), Hypochondriasis A Practical Treatise
About John Hill
- Allen, D. E. (2013). "A review article of "The Notorious Sir John Hill". Archives of Natural History. 40 (2): 363–364. doi:10.3366/anh.2013.0187.
- George Rousseau (1981). The Letters and Private Papers of Sir John Hill (New York: AMS Press, 1981).
- George Rousseau 2012. The Notorious Sir John Hill: The Man Destroyed by Ambition in the Era of Celebrity (Lehigh University Press, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: 2012). Pp. xxxi, 389; illustrated. ISBN 9781611461206