Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aikin, John (1747-1822)

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AIKIN, JOHN (1747–1822), physician and author, son of the preceding, was born at Kibworth in 1747, and removed thence with his father to Warrington, where he received the earlier part of his education. He studied medicine at Edinburgh, and surgery in London, and, in the course of a flying visit to Holland, received the degree of M.D. at the university of Leyden. After residing for a few years at Chester and at Warrington, he settled in medical practice at Great Yarmouth in the year 1784. The society of Yarmouth was at this time exceedingly hostile to dissenters, and the agitation in 1790 for the repeal of the Corporation and Tests Acts embittered differences that would otherwise have been unimportant. On this subject, Aikin, whose political and religious opinions were those of the dissenters, published two warmly written pamphlets, and thereby lost the support of most of his more orthodox friends and patients. The pamphlets were published anonymously, but Aikin was soon known to be their author, and his professional prospects in Yarmouth were virtually ruined. In a letter to a friend he says that he has no idea of becoming ‘the hero of a cause,’ but ‘at his age it would be trifling not to have a character, and cowardly not to avow and stick to it.’ His position at Yarmouth becoming more and more intolerable, in 1792 he moved to Broad Street Buildings in London, and found within easy reach of Hackney, then the stronghold of the dissenters, a more agreeable field for his medical and literary work. Lucy Aikin, his daughter, describes this migration as ‘a blessed change from Yarmouth.’ In London the warm welcome of his friends, and his own high character, brought him a fair measure of success. He practised as a physician only, and devoted his whole leisure to literature. His career, however, as a physician was cut short a few years later by a stroke of paralysis, in consequence of which he gave up his house and practice to his son, and retired to Stoke Newington. There he spent the last twenty-four years of his life in his favourite studies and occupations. He died in 1822, and left several children. Aikin is better known as a man of letters than as a physician. His elegant scholarship gave a natural polish to all that he wrote, and his varied attainments, as well as his moral uprightness, earned him many friends, among whom were Dr. Priestley; Pennant, the naturalist; Dr. Darwin; James Montgomery; John Howard, the philanthropist; and, for a time, the poet, Southey. He was John Howard's literary executor, and was often employed by him to write reports on prisons, and other documents. His life of Howard has been adopted without acknowledgment by a modern writer. Hardly a year of his life passed without some contribution to literature, but his best known works are ‘Essays on Song Writing;’ ‘Translation of the Germania and the Agricola of Tacitus;’ ‘Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain;’ ‘England delineated;’ ‘General Biography’ (10 vols. 4to; the articles marked ‘A’ are more than half of the work); ‘The Arts of Life;’ ‘The Woodland Companion;’ ‘Lives of John Selden and Archbishop Usher;’ critical and biographical prefaces to an edition of the British Poets; and ‘Evenings at Home,’ which last work was written in conjunction with his sister, Mrs. Barbauld, but Aikin contributed far the greater number of the pieces. He also began a translation of Pliny's ‘Natural History,’ but was so ‘disgusted by his errors and old women's fables’ that he abandoned the project. It may be added that Aikin was greatly interested in chemistry and natural philosophy, branches of science in which, however, his sons, Arthur and Charles Rochemont, were subsequently more distinguished than himself.

[Unpublished Letters and Memoirs; Lucy Aikin's Memoir of John Aikin.]

A. A. B.