Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cheyne, George
CHEYNE, GEORGE, M.D. (1671–1743), physician, was born in 1671 at Methlick, Aberdeenshire (Irving, Book of Scotsmen) He received a classical education, being at first intended for the ministry. Nothing certain is known of his family, except that he was related to Bishop Burnet, and that his half-brother was a clergyman of the church of England, who died vicar of Weston, near Bath. Cheyne became tutor in a gentleman's family (perhaps that of the Earl of Roxburghe), but was induced by the advice of Dr. Archibald Pitcairn to embrace the profession of medicine. He became a student under Pitcairn, who was at that time professor of medicine at Edinburgh, and the chief representative of the so-called iatromathematical school of medical science. Cheyne, who was a good mathematician, eagerly embraced the doctrines of his master, and soon had the opportunity of taking part in a controversy which arose between the adherents and the opponents of Pitcairn's system respecting some points in the treatment of fevers. The dispute was being carried on by the Scotch physicians with a fervour characteristic of their age and nation, when Cheyne was moved by his 'great master and generous friend' to write a statement of the latter's views, under the title of 'A New Theory of Fevers,' which, though composed in haste and without much aid from books, was at once ordered for the press. In after years Cheyne spoke of this work (which was anonymous) as a raw and inexperienced performance. The first edition was probably printed at Edinburgh in 1702, but a second edition appeared at London in the same year. The originator of the controversy. Dr. Charles Oliphant, appears to have replied, and Cheyne published an anonymous rejoinder, entitled 'Remarks on two late Pamphlets written by Dr. Oliphant against Dr. Pitcairn's Dissertations and the New Theory of Fevers' (Edin. 1702). Long afterwards, in the preface to his 'Essay on Health,' Cheyne regretted and honourably apologised for the personalities which he introduced into this pamphlet. At this time, or immediately after, he came to London, and was elected fellow of the Royal Society 18 March 1701-2. Having obtained the degree of M.D. (from what university cannot discovered), he commenced practice in London, though without belonging to the College of Physicians. Some years afterwards (5 May 1724?) he received an honorary diploma from the Edinburgh College (History of Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, p. 16, Min. 1882). Cheyne's mathematical bias was shown in his next work, 'Fluxionum Methodus Inversa' (Lond. 1703, 4to), a treatise on the mathematical method then called fluxions, known in its modern improved form as the integral calculus; a method set forth as applicable to medical as well as to mechanical science. This work called forth in 1704 some criticisms from the celebrated mathematician, Abraham De Moivre [q. v.], to which Cheyne replied under the title 'Rudimentorum methodi Fluxionum Inversræ specimina, ad versus Abr. de Moivre' (Lond. 1705). The bitter tone of this pamphlet was, as in the former case, deeply regretted by Cheyne in after life, and it was his last essay in what he calls 'these barren and airy studies.' Still occupied with scientific rather than medical subjects, he published in 1705 'Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion,' a treatise on natural theology, the physical part of which is taken from Newton and other standard authorities. It was composed originally for the use of his pupil John, earl (afterwards duke) of Roxburghe, and is said by the author to have been used as a textbook in both universities. There is little or nothing original in it. The barren speculations on an obsolete school of medical thought possess now only an historical interest, but Cheyne was to produce in after years works of more permanent value, the history of which is strangely interwoven with that of his own life, graphically told by himself in 'The English Malady.' Having been from his youth accustomed to sedentary and temperate habits, he, on coming up to London, suddenly changed his manner of life. He frequented the society of 'the younger gentry and free livers,’ with whom he became extremely popular, not only for his learning and accomplishments, but for his genial temper and ready wit. He found this gay life not only pleasant in itself, but of use in bringing him professional business; and blessed wit a sound constitution and strong head, he bore without harm for some years a course of tavern dinners and other social festivities. But after a time his health gave way, and the aggravation of a natural tendency to corpulence, with other troubles, cause him great distress. Complete abandonment of his free habits of living (actual vice or intemperance, as then understood, he had not to reproach himself with) and rigorous moderation of diet brought some alleviation, but cost him also the loss of all his ‘holiday companions,’ who ‘dropped off like autumnal leaves,’ and his prosperous career suffered a severe check. Under these circumstances of moral and physical distress Cheyne passed through a crisis which coloured the whole of his subsequent life. He acquired more serious views of things and a deeper sense of religion. His health was finally re-established only by of course of the Bath waters; and he was thus led to pass his winters at Bath and his summers in London, diligently occupied in the practice of his profession. After some years he permanently resided at Bath, and the history of his life henceforth is chiefly the history of his writings.
His next work was the sequel to a previous one. The title ‘Philosophical Principles of Religion, pt. ii., containing the nature and kinds of Infinites, their Arithmetic and Uses, and the Philosophical Principles of Revealed Religion’ (Lond. 1715), shows its character. The intention is excellent, but the mathematical will-o’-the-wisp once more misled Cheyne (not for the last time) into mingling theology and mathematics in a manner too fantastic to bear exposition. To this was added a second edition of the work on natural religion, and the two were afterwards published to ether. In a more strictly professional work, the ‘Observations on Gout and on the Bath Waters,’ which, was extremely popular, passing through seven editions in six years, he pursued his favourite theme——the evils of luxury and the benefits a of moderate, and especially of vegetable, diet—in this instance, doubtless, with complete justification. Cheyne’s own case was again destined to point the same moral. Having gradually relinquished an abstemious for a moderate diet (though moderation in those days did not mean exactly what it does now), he found his old enemy, corpulence, gain upon him, so that he weighed thirty-two stone and was hardly able to walk. From this condition he recovered chiefly through the use of ‘a milk and vegetable diet,’ to which he confined himself for the rest of his life. His later works are hence mainly designed to preach the merits of temperance and to recommend vegetarianism. The ‘Essay of Health and Long Life’ was the most popular. ‘The English Malady’ (so called, says Cheyne, in derision by our continental neighbours) is a treatise on nervous diseases, spleen, vapours, lowness of spirits, &c., i.e. what we now call hypochondria. This, like the last, is addressed essentially ad populum, not ad clerum. It was, with the former, highly eulogised by Samuel Johnson, who had much reason to be a good judge of such a work (Croker’s Boswell, ed. 1853, vi. 145); but it received more modified approval from the medical profession. Cheyne’s next work, ‘An Essay on Regimen, together with five Discourses, Medical, Moral, and Philosophical’ (London, 1740), was much less successful, so that the author had to indemnify his publisher for a large stock of unsold copies. Cheyne thought it the best book he ever wrote, and in disgust vowed he would publish no more (Letter to Richardson, 18 Dec. 1740). But he was easily induced to break this resolution, and in the next year brought out ‘The Natural Method of Cureing the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind depending on the Body,’ &c. (London, 1742). It was dedicated to Lord Chesterfield, whose letter to the author, apparently referring to this work, is published in his miscellaneous works. It was much more popular than the last, running to five editions, and was translated into French.
Cheyne’s popular medical works are open to the common reproach of addressing scientific arguments to a public little able to criticise them. But they are among the best books of their class, and they had the great merit of preaching temperance to an intemperate generation. He carried his vegetarian views to great extremes, as when he maintains that God permitted the use of animal food to man only to shorten human life by permitting the multiplication of diseases and sufferings, which should conduce to moral improvement. His scientific and philosophical works, on which he chiefly prided himself, have now no value; but his literary and argumentative powers are generally admitted. All contemporary testimony gives a very favourable idea of his personal character. His reputation with the public was immense, and he was intimate wit the most eminent physicians and other persons of note in his time. His letters to Richardson, the novelist, were published in 'Original Letters edited by Rebecca Warner' (London, 1817). His portrait, painted by Van Diest, was fiinely copied in mezzotint by J. Faber, 1732, also engraved in smaller form by Tookey.
Cheyne died at Bath on 13 April 1743. He married Miss Margaret Middleton, sister of Dr. Middleton of Bristol, and had by her several children. His only son, John, died vicar of Brigstock, Northamptonshire, 11 Aug. 1768 (Gent. Mag. xxxviii. 398).
The dates of his principal works are as follows: 1. 'New Theory of Fevers,' 1st edition, Edinburgh (?), 1702; 2nd edition, London, 1702; 4th edition (with author's name), London, 1724, 8vo (Latin by Vater, Wittemberg, 1711, 4to). 2. 'Philosophical Principles of Religion,' part i., London, 1705, 8vo; both parts, London. 1715, 1726; 4th edition, London, 1734; 6th edition, 1753 (?). 3. 'Observations on the Gout,' London, 1720; 8th edition, London, 1737. 4. 'Essay of Health and Long Life,' London, 1724; 7th edition, 1726; 9th edition, 1754, 8vo; also London, 1823, 1827, 12mo. In Latin, 'Tractatus de Infirmorum sanitate tuendâ,' &c., London, 1726 (translated by John Robertson, M.A.) In French, Brussels, 1726, 8vo. In German, Frankfort, 1744, 8vo (Haller). 5. 'De Natura Fibræ, ejusque laxæ sive resolutæ morbis tractatus, nunc primum editus' (Latin by J. Robertson). London, 1725, 8vo; Paris, 1742, 8vo (Haller). 6. 'The English Malady,' London, 1733, 8vo, Dublin, 1733; 6th edition, London, 1739. 7. 'Essay on Regimen,' London, 1740, 8vo; 3rd edition, London, 1753. In Italian, Padua, 1765, 8vo (Haller). 8. 'The Natural Method of Cureing Diseases,' &c., in three parts, London, 1742, 8vo; 5th edition, London, 1753. In French, Paris, 1749, 2 vols. 12mo. 9. 'Historical Character of the Hon. George Baillie, Esq.,' by G. C., M.D., F.R.S., in 'Gent. Mag.' viii. 467 (1738).
[Biog. Brit. (Kippis), iii. 494; Haller's Bibliotheca Med. Pract. 1778, iv. 436; Cheyne's Account of himself and his writings, extracted from his various works, London, 1743; Life of Dr. George Cheyne (by Dr. W. A. Greenhill), Oxford and London, 1846.]