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Dr Neil Arnott (1788-1874)

This article was written by George Farrer Rodwell and was published in 1885

Dr Neil Arnott (1788-1874), physician and natural philosopher, was born at Arbroath, in Scotland, where his father held a valuable farm. His father had become a catholic in early life; and his mother, Ann, daughter of Maclean of Boteray, was of the same faith. Misfortunes compelled the father to give up his farm and settle first at Blair and afterwards in Aberdeen. Neil was taught by his mother and at the parish school of Lunan, and in November 1798 entered Aberdeen grammar school. In 1801 he was entered as a student in the Marischal College, with a small bursary, where he remained during four sessions, and was especially interested by the lectures of Patrick Copland on natural philosophy. He graduated M.A. in 1805, and at once commenced the study of medicine in Aberdeen. He supported himself partly by acting as shop-assistant to a chemist.

In September 1806, he went to London, and became a student at St. George's Hospital, under Sir Everard Home. A year later Home's favour obtained him an appointment as surgeon in the East India Company's service, and he sailed for China in April 1807. During the long and stormy voyage he appears to have made a number of physical and meteorological observations regarding ocean currents, tides, winds, and other atmospheric phenomena, waves, &c., many of which are recorded in his ‘Elements of Physics.’ He learned languages and gave lectures to the captain and officers. He also turned his attention to sanitary matters, clothing, and ventilation. In 1809, he returned to England, and in the following year made a second voyage to China. He performed a novel operation for stricture, which saved the life of the captain, and devised new modes of ventilating the ship.

On his return to London, in 1811, he commenced practice in Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, in partnership with a friend named Darling, and he soon afterwards began a course of lectures on Natural Science applied to Medicine at the Philomathic Institution, which, in 1827, were published under the title of ‘Elements of Physics.’ In 1813 he obtained the diploma of the College of Surgeons, and in 1814 the university of Aberdeen conferred upon him the degree of M.D. He continued to practise as a physician till the year 1855, and enjoyed a large and lucrative practice.

Arnott's catholic connections and knowledge of languages helped him in his profession. Many foreigners consulted him. In 1816 he became physician to the French, and some time afterwards to the Spanish embassy. In the same year he dissolved his partnership with Darling, who had married, and took up his residence in a large house, No. 38 Bedford Square, where he remained to the end of his professional life — more than forty succeeding years. During the next seven or eight years but few changes appear to have taken place in his career.

About 1823 he began to prepare his ‘Physics.’ Sir David Barry was at this time propagating his views concerning the circulation of blood through the capillary tubes and the veins; and he attributed this to atmospheric pressure. The view was opposed by Dr. Armstrong, who begged Arnott to take up his cause. This led to the delivery of lectures on medical physics in 1825 in Arnott's house. Professor Bain says: ‘The lectures made a great impression, and there was a strong desire expressed that he should repeat them.’

The first volume of Arnott's ‘Physics’ appeared in 1827, and it was received with enthusiasm. A second edition was printed in the same year, a third in 1828, and a fourth, together with Part I. of the second volume, in 1829. In 1833 appeared a fifth edition of the first volume, with a second of vol. ii. Part I. It was speedily translated into Spanish, French, Dutch, and German. The book went out of print, and Arnott spent much time upon a sixth edition, half of which appeared in 1864, and a second half, with new chapters, in 1865; a seventh edition has appeared since his death.

About the year 1855, he gave up his practice, and turned his attention more especially to scientific and sanitary matters. His name had become well known many years earlier in connection with the invention of a smokeless grate, known as ‘Arnott's Stove,’ which combined economy of fuel and consumption of the smoke with uniformity of combustion. For this he was awarded the Rumford medal of the Royal Society in 1854. He devised the water-bed in 1832, and in 1838 he published an important essay on ‘Warming and Ventilation,’ in which both his stove and ventilator are fully described. He declined to patent any of his inventions, and was never more happy than when he could devise or apply any means of lessening human suffering, or extending man's dominion over nature. For his various inventions he was awarded a gold medal by the jurors of the Paris Exhibition of 1855, and Napoleon III. gave him the cross of the Legion of Honour. He was one of the founders of the university of London in 1836, and an original member of the senate. In the following year he was appointed one of the physicians extraordinary to the queen; in 1838 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1854 a member of the Medical Council. In 1861, he published a ‘Survey of Human Progress,’ which reached a second edition in 1862. It was well received, though criticised as representing a ‘narrow utilitarianism.’ In 1867 he wrote a small tract on arithmetic, and in 1870 a pamphlet on national education.

To a great age Dr. Arnott retained clear faculties, and his old spirit of inventiveness never forsook him. Among his last devices was a chair-bed for preventing sea-sickness. Having a large circle of scientific friends, and being a prominent member of the Royal Institution, he lived much in the society of the most progressive men of science in London. His benefactions were widely spread. In 1869 he gave £2,000 to the university of London, and £1,000 to the universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and St. Andrews. In 1865 Mrs. Arnott gave £1,000 to each of two ladies' colleges in London, and after her husband's death carried out his wishes by giving £1,000 to each of the four Scotch universities.

In 1859 he caught cold, which brought on a deafness, gradually increasing, and ultimately limiting greatly his sociable habits. A fall in 1871 produced a concussion of the brain and weakened his mind. He died 22 March 1874, and was buried in Edinburgh. His wife, whom he married in 1856, survived him two years. She was the widow of one of his oldest friends, Mr. Knight, and the daughter of Mr. G. H. Holley, of Blickling, in Norfolk.

Dr. Arnott was physically a very strong man. He was perfectly sound in health, and for more than sixty years he lived in the heart of London, and rarely sought or required a holiday. In many manual exercises, such as handicraft and games, drawing, and playing upon musical instruments, he excelled. He possessed a great aptitude for languages. As an inventor he possessed many resources. He was a very sociable man, was extremely amiable, and always full of philanthropic aims and objects. There is a crayon drawing of Arnott by Mrs. W. Carpenter in the Royal Society, and a portrait by Partridge in Marischal College, Aberdeen.

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