Berkenhout, John (DNB00)

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BERKENHOUT, JOHN (1730?–1791), physician, naturalist, and miscellaneous writer, was born about 1730 at Leeds, and received the rudiments of his education at the grammar school of that town. His father, a merchant and native of Holland, in order to train him for a commercial career, sent him at an early age to Germany, that he might acquire a knowledge of foreign languages. After spending some years in Germany he accompanied some English noblemen on a tour through Europe. On returning to Germany he stayed at Berlin in the house of his father's relative. Baron de Bielfeld, a man distinguished in politics and literature. Finding the prospect of a commercial life distasteful, Berkenhout became a cadet in a Prussian infantry regiment, where he was speedily promoted to the rank of ensign, and afterwards of captain. In 1756, war being declared between England and France, he quitted the Prussian service, and received a commission in an English regiment. At the close of the war in 1760 he entered Edinburgh University, and applied himself to the study of medicine. While a student at Edinburgh he published in 1762 his 'Clavis Anglica Linguæ Botanicæ Linnæi;' a second edition of this useful lexicon appeared in 1764, and a third edition in 1766. From Edinburgh he proceeded to the university of Leyden, where he took his degree of doctor of physic on 13 May 1765 (Peacock, Index of Leyden Students), composing for the occasion a 'Dissertatio Medica inauguralis de Podagra,' which was dedicated on publication to Baron de Bielfeld. On his return to England he settled at Isleworth in Middlesex, and in 1766 published his 'Pharmacopoeia Medici.' It is stated in Davy's 'Suffolk Collections' (xc. 403) that he practised for some time as a physician at Bury St. Edmunds; but no date is mentioned. In 1769 appeared the first volume of 'Outlines of the Natural History of Great Britain;' the second volume following in 1770, and the third in 1771. The complete work was republished in 1773 in three volumes, and a revised edition in two volumes appeared in 1788 under the title of 'A Synopsis of the Natural History of Great Britain.' His next publication was Dr. Cadogan's 'Dissertation on the Gout, examined and refuted,' 1771. The work in which his fame chiefly rests is his 'Biographia Literaria, or a Biographical History of Literature, containing the lives of English, Scotch, and Irish authors, from the dawn of letters in these kingdoms to the present time, chronologically and classically arranged,' vol. i., 1777, 4to. This is a book which may still be consulted with advantage; the information, if somewhat scanty, is fairly accurate, the style is pleasant, and the criticism shrewd. In the preface Berkenhout acknowledges his indebtedness to George Steevens, the Shakespearean commentator, who supplied him with information concerning the lives of the poets. Throughout the work the author loses no opportunity of displaying his hostility to all systems of dogmatic theology, and is loud in his praises of Voltaire. The first volume goes down to the end of the sixteenth century; the work was never continued. In 1778 Berkenhout was sent by government with some commissioners to America. Congress would not allow them to proceed beyond New York, but Berkenhout contrived to reach Philadelphia. Here he stayed for some time without interference on the part of the authorities; but at length, suspicion arising that he was tampering with some of the leading citizens, he was thrown into prison. After effecting his escape or release he rejoined the commissioners at New York, came back to England, and was rewarded with a pension for his services. In 1780 he published 'Lucubrations on Ways' and Means, inscribed to Lord North,' a proposal for the imposition of certain taxes. Some of the suggestions contained in this pamphlet were adopted by Lord North, others subsequently by Pitt. His 'Essay on the Bite of a Mad Dog' appeared in 1783; 'Symptomatology' in 1784. Berkenhout's last work was 'Letters on Education to his Son at the University,' 1790. Written in an easy style and free from affectation or pedantry, these letters are agreeable reading. The author comments severely on the 'Gothic system' of fagging in public schools, and complains, but in no unkindly spirit, of the obstinate adherence of our universities to ancient customs.

Berkenhout died on 3 April 1791 at Besselsleigh near Oxford, whither he had gone for change of air. He was a man of singularly versatile abilities. To his deep knowledge of natural history, botany, and chemistry was joined an extensive acquaintance with classical and modem literature. He translated from the Swedish language Count Tessin's letters to Gustavus III (Letters from an Old Man to a Young Prince, translated from the Swedish, 1756). He was familiar with the French, German, Dutch, and Italian languages, was a good mathematician, and is said to have been skilled in music and painting. In addition to the works already mentioned he published 'Treatise on Hysterical and Hypochondriacal Diseases, from the French of Dr. Pomme,' 1777. In 1779 he edited a revised edition of Campbell's Lives of the Admirals.' He also issued proposals for a history of Middlesex, including London, but he did not carry out his project.

[European Magazine. 1788, p. 166; Gent. Mag. lxi. 388, 485; Davy's Suffolk Collections, xc. 403-5; Watt's Bibl. Angl.; Works.]

A. H. B.