On This Day | Physic without Physician by John Toland (1670-1722)

On This Day | Physic without Physician by John Toland (1670-1722)

Physic without Physicians by John Toland

– new edition, faithfully reproduced from the original, first published in 1726 –

John Toland, the Irish-born rationalist philosopher died on this day in 1722. His last words (according to the Dictionary of Irish Biography) are said to have been, “I am poisoned by a physician.”

Though these words are not confirmed, it is documented that shortly before his death, having suffered a bout of illness from which he never fully recovered, Toland wrote a short dissertation in the form of a letter to a friend, Barnham Goode, entitled Physic without Physicians. It was subsequently published in 1726, as part of A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. Toland (volume ii).

In Physic without Physicians, Toland invokes the ancient writings of Pliny the Elder and Hippocrates of Kos, in addition to contemporaries, such as Herman Boerhaave (frequently hailed as ‘the Dutch Hippocrates’ and the ‘father of physiology’) and Richard Mead, whose work, at the time, was considered to be ground breaking in terms of its understanding of transmissible diseases. Of Hippocrates, Toland says, “We may as successfully batter Quackery by his authority, as we do superstition by that of the Bible.”

While it exists today as a relatively obscure tract, by a largely forgotten author, it has not gone unnoticed over the years and continues to be studied for the arguments that are presented and the lucidness of its tone.

Following the teachings of the ancients, Toland maintains that the task of pharmacists has historically been to discredit natural and traditional methods and cures in the name of their ‘mysterious’ chemical compositions.

Dr Jordi Morillas, from a review of Physic without Physicians, translated by the author from the original Spanish – John Toland, Medicina sin médicos, 1722

Taken as a whole, the target of Toland’s polemic is not so much medical knowledge itself (which he asserts to be “the gift of God and Nature”), but rather upon the limitations of its practitioners and “the danger of trusting our life to those who practise it: while by our own care and experience we might easily provide such medicines as are proper and necessary for us.”

Physic without Physicians has now been re-issued in a new, modern and standalone edition but faithfully reproduced from the original, as part of the John Toland centenaries project. It is available to buy online, in print and e-book editions, along with other books by or relating to John Toland (1670-1722).

John Toland: Man of Ardagh

John Toland’s story starts on the Inishowen peninsula of County Donegal in 1670. He died in Putney, then a parish outside London, England on 11 March 1722.

The tercentenary of John Toland’s death was marked, in 2022, with a special commemoration in his home place of Ardagh, on the Inishowen peninsula in Co. Donegal.

“If you would know him, study his writings.”

– John Toland (1670-1722), from his self-penned epitaph

Books by or Pertaining to John Toland

Physic without Physicians by John Toland

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Front cover of Physic without Physicians by John Toland (1670-1722)

For the last four years of his life, John Toland lived in Putney, then a parish outside London, where he took lodgings with a carpenter, Edward Hinton. It is here that he wrote a number of his important works, including Pantheisticon. When he died, on 11 March 1722, he left a legacy said to consist of not much more than "150 manuscripts piled high upon two stools."

Following his death, A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Toland, in two volumes, appeared in 1726. The collection is described as "first published from his original manuscripts with some memoirs of his life and writings."

These memoirs were written by Pierre des Maizeaux, an exiled French Huguenot living in London, who describes the last years of Toland’s life in the following terms:

Mr Toland had for above four years past liv’d at Putney, from whence he cou’d conveniently go to London and come back the same day; but he used to spend most part of the winter in London. Being in town about the middle of December, he found himself very ill; having been lingering for some time before. His appetite and strength fail’d him: and a certain Doctor, who was call’d to him made him a great deal worse, by bringing a continual vomiting and looseness upon him. However, he made a shift to return to Putney, where he grew better, and had some hopes of recovery. In this interval, he writ a Dissertation* to shew the uncertainty of Physic, and the danger of trusting our life to those who practise it: while by our own care and experience we might easily provide such medicines as are proper and necessary for us.

*That Dissertation, intitled Physic without Physicians is printed in this Collection, Vol. II. pag. 273

The arguments presented in Physic without Physicians invoke the ancient writings of Pliny the Elder and Hippocrates (of the latter, he says, “we may as successfully batter Quackery by his authority, as we do superstition by that of the Bible.”) as well as some contemporaries, such as Herman Boerhaave and Richard Mead. Taken as a whole, it could be considered, not so much as a reflection upon medical knowledge in itself (“which is the gift of God and Nature”) but rather, the limitation of its practitioners and counsels that ultimately, people should take responsibility for their own health.

Physic without Physicians by John Toland (1670-1722)
Non-fiction, essay, 18th century, medical history
48 printed pages with black & white facsimile illustrations, paperback
First published in London, England in 1726. This edition published in Ireland, in 2020, by The Manuscript Publisher.
ISBN: 978-1-911442-23-3

Also Available in e-Book Editions

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Kindle devices are available to purchase online from Amazon and Amazon UK, along with other Amazon domains.

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A print-on-demand edition of this book is available from Amazon, Amazon UK and other Amazon domains

Reviews for this Book

A review of Physic without Physicians by Dr Jordi Morillas, in Spanish, appears on the website of AGON. Grupo de Estudios Filosóficos with an English translation available from the website of the John Toland centenaries project.

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