Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Frost, John (1803-1840)

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FROST, JOHN (1803–1840), founder of the Medico-Botanical Society of London, was born in 1803 near Charing Cross, London, where his parents were in business. Intending to enter the medical profession, he became the pupil of Dr. Wright, the apothecary of Bethlehem Hospital, but quarrelled with him, and gave up medicine for botany. Although only eighteen, he conceived a project which he carried into effect with remarkable success. In 1821 (16 Jan.) he founded the Medico-Botanical Society of London, having for its objects the investigation of the medicinal properties of plants, the study of the materia medica of all countries, with many other allied subjects, and the adjudging of rewards to original investigators. In this project he was first aided by Drs. Bree and Maton, and afterwards obtained an introduction to George IV, who not only appointed him botanical tutor to the two youthful Princes George (afterwards respectively king of Hanover and Duke of Cambridge), but (in 1828) became patron of the new society. Sir James McGregor, director-general of the army medical board, was the first president, and it soon gained wide support. Frost was appointed director of the society and also lecturer on botany, both of which appointments are said to have been honorary. As the society grew, so did Frost's ambition, and he incessantly sought the support of royal personages and distinguished men all over Europe. He succeeded in obtaining the adhesion of eleven sovereigns, and by incredible perseverance procured their autographs, with those of many other celebrities, in a well-known book which he was always carrying about; each signature occupied a page, surrounded by a wreath of artistically painted flowers. The book disappeared when the society collapsed, and is not now known to exist (Clarke, infra). It is recounted by Barham (Life, 1 vol. ed. pp. 119–21) that Frost, after many futile attempts, had an interview with the Duke of Wellington, dressed in a lieutenant-general's uniform, and succeeded in obtaining the duke's signature. The meetings of the society were not without interest. Frost directed everything and everybody, from the president downwards, and obtained some effective displays. Without any genuine qualification he made himself so generally known that within a few years he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and of the Linnean Society, a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, lecturer on botany at the Royal Institution and at St. Thomas's Hospital; he also entered himself at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, intending to graduate in medicine, but his career of triumph was checked when the Royal Society blackballed him almost unanimously (Barham). Frost sent a hostile message to the secretary of the society (Gent. Mag. new ser. 1840, xiv. 664).

In 1824 Frost, at the age of twenty-one, was appointed paid secretary to the Royal Humane Society, with a residence in Bridge Street, Blackfriars. At the annual meetings of the Medico-Botanical Society he always delivered an oration, in which he related the progress of the society. His arrogance disgusted many of his friends. He presented himself at the annual meeting in 1829 to deliver his oration, decorated with a dazzling display of foreign orders and other distinctions, but was received with much hostility. A private meeting of the council under the presidency of Earl Stanhope subsequently declared the office of director abolished, and called a general meeting to confirm the decree. Frost replied to Earl Stanhope's accusations with spirit, but at an adjourned meeting on 8 Jan. 1830 he was not only deposed, but expelled from the society.

Not daunted by this rebuff, Frost sought success in new fields. He obtained about this time, according to an engraved card of his own, the appointment of surgeon to the Duke of Cumberland. He resigned the secretaryship of the Humane Society only to have his appointment as surgeon to the duke cancelled. Frost sought to regain his secretaryship to the Humane Society, but failed. Yet he succeeded in 1831 in establishing St. John's Hospital, Clerkenwell, and also did much to promote the Royal Sailing Society. In 1832 he obtained a grant from the admiralty of H.M.S. Chanticleer for a hospital ship off Millbank, for watermen above London Bridge, and enlisted a large body of distinguished patrons. Having, however, made himself responsible for a considerable sum of money on account of this scheme, and being disappointed of the pecuniary support on which he had relied, he fled to Paris to avoid the importunities of creditors, and lived there for some time under an assumed name. He finally settled in Berlin as a physician, taking the title of Sir John Frost, and is said to have gained considerable practice. He died after a long and painful illness on 17 March 1840. He married Harriet, only daughter of Mrs. Yosy, author of a work on Switzerland, but had no children. Frost showed little scientific talent. His one object was self-aggrandisement. He wrote, besides his ‘Orations,’ nothing of note. A preface to Bingley's ‘Introduction to Botany,’ identical with an introductory lecture of his at the Royal Institution; a translation of the statutes of the Hanoverian Guelphic order, 1831; a paper ‘On the Mustard Tree mentioned in the New Testament,’ 1827; and some small papers on the oil of Croton Tiglium, published in pamphlet form in 1827, complete the list.

[Gent. Mag. new ser. 1840, xiv. 664–6; J. F. Clarke's Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession, 1874, pp. 240–1, 267–72; Barham's Life (1 vol. ed. 1880), pp. 119–21.]

G. T. B.