A Chronological List of Comments about/References to contagion, microscopic “animalcula”, microscopic pathogens, or atmospheric “vermination” either as a cause or a feature of disease made by Fellows of the Royal Society between 1657 and 1723 prepared for the meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine, Atlanta, May, 2013.



FELLOW:  George Ent (1604-1707) M.D. Padua 1636, incorp. Oxford 1638, elected 1663


NATURE: alleged statement

STATEMENT: Plague was caused by a vermination of the air


SOURCE: Walter Charlton as reported in Thomas Birch, History of the Royal Society (London: 1756), vol 2, p. 69

COMMENT: Resigned from the Society about 1675-7.



FELLOW:  Robert Hooke (1) (1635-1703), M.D. Lambeth 1691 (MA Oxford, 1663), elected 1663


NATURE: microscopical demonstration followed by publication

STATEMENT: "Principles of vegetation arising from Putrefaction ... hairy mouldy spots ... upon divers kinds of putrify'd bodies ... are all of them ... small and variously figur'd Mushrooms ... Mould and Mushrooms require no seminal property ....

TITLE: Micrographia (London: 1665)

SOURCE: Howard Gest, "The Discovery of microorganisms by Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Fellows of the Royal Society", Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 58 no. 2 (2004) 187-201.

COMMENT: Hooke brought a microscope to the Royal Society and demonstrated it.  He believed the microscopic "mushrooms" he saw were spontaneously generated.



FELLOW:  Robert Hooke (2)


NATURE: Letter to Boyle

STATEMENT: [Plague] "seems to proceed only from infection or contagion, and that not catched, but by some near approach to some infected person or stuff; nor can I at all imagine it to be in the air".


SOURCE:  Thomas Birch, History of the Royal Society; Edward Nathaniel Bancroft, An Essay on the Disease Called Yallow Fever with observations concerning Febrile Contagion, Typhus Fever, Dysentery, and the Plague, partly delivered as the Gulstonian Lectures (London: 1811)  p. 607 citing Thomas Birch, ed., Works of Robert Boyle (London: 1772) 6: 501

COMMENT: Hooke was writing Boyle while sitting out the Plague with Wilkins and Petty at Durdans in Surrey.



FELLOW:  John Wilkins (1614-1672), D.D. Magdalene Hall Oxford 1649, elected 1660


NATURE: ms. followed by book

STATEMENT: Wilkins's classification of diseases included infectious diseases

TITLE: An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, (London: 1668)

SOURCE: Wilkins, Essay

COMMENT: Wilkins hired Ray to assist him with the classification of plants for the Essay



FELLOW: John Locke (1632-1704), M.B. Oxford 1675, elected 1668


NATURE: ms. commonplace book ("morbus")

STATEMENT: "Some things are produced by seminall principals & some other by [mixing of the parts".  Seminal principals were small and subtle parcells of matter that transmuted matter in the same way that seeds did causing contagious diseases including the itch, plague and ulcers.


SOURCE: Patrick Romanell, John Locke and Medicine (New York: 1984) pp.  58-64; Jonathan Walsmley, "'Morbus' --Locke's Early Essay on Disease", Early Science and Medicine (2000), 5 no. 4: 366-693 Jonathan Walmsley, "'Morbus' Locke and Boyle: A Response to Peter Anstey", Early Science and Medicine (2002) 7 no. 4: 378-397.   J. R. Milton, "Locke, Medicine and the Mechanical Philosophy" British Journal for the History of Philosophy (June: 2001) 9 no. 2, 221-243, on page  237. 

COMMENT: Locke had attended the Westminster School at the same time as Robert Hooke, and Christopher Wren.  Wilkins recruited first Wren and then Hooke to help him and to make microscopic observations. Walmsley dates "Morbus" between September 1666 and May 1667 because Locke was reading Boyle, Origine of Formes and Qualities at that time and comments on it. After writing this ms. Locke moved to London and began to work closely with Sydenham.



FELLOW:  Walter Charleton (1) (1620-1707), M.D. Magdalen Hall Oxford 1643, elected 1663


NATURE: discussion at a Society meeting

STATEMENT: His friend Ent had been the first to claim that the Plague was due to a "vermination of the air" referred to Kircher, said Kircher's English friend "Dr. Bacon" had said there was a kind of insect in the air that laid eggs that had caused plague in a dog.  Offered to produce Dr. Bacon.  Suggested interviewing managers of the London Pest House about their experiences of plague.


SOURCE: Thomas Birch, History of the Royal Society (London: 1756) vol. 2 p. 69.



FELLOW:  Walter Charleton (2)


NATURE: book

STATEMENT: [scorbutum] "contagiosum esse, idque pluribus modis." [Scurvy is contagious and takes many forms]

TITLE: De Scorbuto Liber Singularis (London: 1672)

SOURCE: Charleton, De Scorbuto. See also James Lind, A Treatise of the Scurvy in Three Parts (Edinburgh: 1753).



FELLOW: Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), elected 1680


NATURE: Letter to Henry Oldenburg, later published

STATEMENT: "In the year 1675 I discover'd living creaturs in Rain water ... animalcula or living Atoms .... long and very thin particles [in pepper water]."

TITLE: abridged letter in Philosophical Transactions (1677) vol. 12: no. 133 pp. 821-831.

SOURCE: Clifford Dobell: Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his 'Little Animals' (New York: 1958), pp. 25-6.

COMMENT: Leeuwenhoek corresponded with the Society until his death in 1723.  Dobell refers to some 200 letters and mss. at the Royal Society.  I have only counted these as one "reference" to avoid overwhelming the count. 



FELLOW:  William Petty (1) (1623-1687), M.D. Oxford, 1650, elected 1660


NATURE: ms. letter to Robert Southwell

STATEMENT: "there is no better Hypothesis whereby to make out the destructions of so many thousand men in a season by the disease called the plague, than by imagineing the same to be done by Millions of invisible Animalls that travell from Country to Country"


SOURCE: The Collected Works of Sir William Petty in 8 volumes (London: 1927, rpt. 1997) , 87b “The Scale of Animals” (a fragment) vol. 2: 29

COMMENT: Proposed William Simpson (see below) for Fellowship, but Simpson was blackballed


FELLOW:  Robert Hooke (3)


NATURE: letter/demonstrations, followed by publication

STATEMENT: confirmed Leeuwenhoek's observations of animalcula

TITLE: Lectures and Collections made by Robert Hooke (London: 1678)

SOURCE: Gest, “Discovery of Microorganisms"

COMMENT: Proposed Edward Tyson for Fellowship


FELLOW:  Christian Huygens (1639-1695), LLD., Angers, 1655, elected 1663


NATURE: Letters to family; notes

STATEMENT: confirmed Leeuwenhoek's observation of protozoa in pepper water and described a kind of bacteria, "I would much like to know what Leeuwenhoek would say about all this."

TITLE: fragments in Opuscula Posthuma (1703) first full publication in Oeuvres, vol 8 (1899).

SOURCE: Dobell, Leeuwenhoek, p. 164.

COMMENT: Visited London in 1663 and 1689.  Huygens's father, Constantijn, had sent a letter to Hooke introducing Leeuwenhoek in 1673.


FELLOW:  Edward Tyson (1651-1708), M.D. Cambridge, 1681, elected 1679


NATURE: comment reported in a visitor's diary

STATEMENT: "worms in the blood ... in hairs of the body, and ... in the intestines .... this was a cause of not a few diseases as ... the plague, the itch, the resulting pustules, bubonic swellings, ulcers, gonorrhea ... venereal diseases"


SOURCE: M.F. Ashley Montagu, Edward Tyson, M.D., F.R.S. (Philadelphia: 1943), pp. 65-6. Comment was reported in the diary of Frands Reenberg who was visiting England.  Tyson became anatomical curator for the Royal Society in 1683 and Vice President in 1704.


FELLOW:  Frederick Slare (ca. 1646-1727), M.D. Utrecht 1679, incorp. Oxford 1680, elected 1680


NATURE: postscript to a letter shared with the Royal Society

STATEMENT: cattle murrain might be carried by some volatile sort of insect that was only able to make short flights.  Wished Leeuwenhoek had observed the dissection of the cattle.

TITLE: Postscript to "An Abstract of a Letter from Dr. Wincler Chief Physitian of the Prince Palatine, Dat. Dec. 22. 1682. to Dr. Fred. Slare Fellow of the Royal Society, Containing an Accound of a Murren in Switzerland ... "

SOURCE: Philosophical Transactions (1683), 13: 94-95.  See also Richard Bradley, The Plague at Marseilles Considered (London: 1721) and Marie Boas Hall. "Frederick Slare, F.R.S. (1628-1727)", Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1992) 46: 23-41.  Slare was Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society and a close friend of Hans Sloane's.



FELLOW:  William Petty (2)


NATURE: draft of form for reporting mortality and notes for printer.

STATEMENT: form implied that spotted fever, measles, smallpox and plague were contagious diseases

TITLE: William Petty, Observations upon the Dublin-bills of mortality, 1681

SOURCE: William Petty, Observations upon the Dublin Bills of Mortality, and the State of that City” in Several Essays in Political Arithmetick... To which are prefix’d Memoirs of the Author’s Life (4th. ed., London: 1755) pp. 35-50.

COMMENT: See also the online exhibition of the Edward Worth Library in Dr. Steevens Hospital, Dublin: .


FELLOW: John Ray (1627-1705), M.D. Trinity College, Cambridge, elected 1667


NATURE: book

STATEMENT: All life comes from other living things.  Intestinal worms in man come from eggs swallowed with food.  Plant diseases and galls all come from insects, eggs or their venom.  Living species are fixed and share a unique vital force from God.

TITLE: The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (London: 1691)

SOURCE: John Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (London: 1691).


FELLOW:  Frederick Slare (2)


NATURE: published article

STATEMENT: "Contagious Diseases must needs be communicated to the Blood by Inspiration into the Lungs, rather than any other way."

TITLE: "An Experiment ... change of Colour .... by admission of Air only"

SOURCE: Philosophical Transactions (October, 1694), 17 no. 204: 898-908


FELLOW: Martin Lister (1639-1712), M.D. Oxford, elected 1671



STATEMENT: Smallpox originated in animal venom but then began to spread from person to person by contagion.  It was not (as Willis and others claimed) due to the putrefaction or fermentation of menstrual blood.  Syphilis probably resulted from eating poisonous snakes or lizards and was then transmitted by contagion through sexual intercourse.

TITLE Octo Exercitationes Medicinales [Eight Medical Exercises] (London: 1697)

Source: Anna Marie Roos, Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist (Leiden and Boston: 2011), pp. 340-354)

COMMENTS:  Lister first published this work as Sex Exercitationes Medicinales in 1694.  At that time it contained essays on dropsy, diabetes, rabies, syphilis, scurvy and arthritis.  The revised edn. added essays on smallpox and the stone.



FELLOW:  Clopton Havers (1657-1702) M.D. Utrecht, elected 1686


NATURE: Discussion at the Royal Society

STATEMENT: Journal-Book of the Society, February 14, 1700, states that Havers reported to the Fellows on the Chinese practice of smallpox immunization through the nostrils. [Immunization with a disease agent presupposes some sort of transmission through contagion].


SOURCE: Genevieve Miller, The Adoption of Inoculation for Smallpox in England and France (Philadelphia, 1957), p. 49.

COMMENT: Havers' report came after Joseph Lister, a trader for the East India Company, sent a letter to Dr. Martin Lister, F.R.S. about the Chinese method of inoculation through the nostrils.  There is no evidence that Lister shared this letter with the Society.  I did not count the Lister letter because it did not reflect any action or view expressed by Martin Lister.



FELLOW:  Richard Mead (1) (1673-1754) M.D./Ph.D. Padua 1695, Oxford M.D. by diploma 1707, elected 1703


NATURE: translation (from Italian) and publication of letter from Bonomo to Redi

STATEMENT: scabies is caused by minute living creatures that lay eggs; this explains why it is so contagious

TITLE: "an abstract of part of a Letter from Dr Bonomo to Signor Redi ... concerning the Worms of Humane Bodies"

SOURCE: Philosophical Transactions (1702-3) 23: 1296-1299

COMMENT: This letter was originally written in Italian.  It was also translated into Latin by Josepho Lanzoni and published as "Observationes circa humani corporis teredinem" in Johann Friedrich Gleditsch (Leipzig) and Wolfgang Moritz Endter (Nuremberg), eds., Miscellanea curiosa, sive Ephemeridum medico-physicarum Germanicarum Academiae Naturae Curiosorum, pp. 33-44 .



FELLOW:  William Oliver (bap. 1658-1715), M.D. Rheims 1699, elected 1703


NATURE: book

STATEMENT: Aethereal matter, as Cartesians call it, streams through pores ... This subtle matter may convey such malignant misamata as may cause the plague.  Malignant and pestilential fevers owe their origin to secret intemperatures or ill qualities in the air. The seed of Smallpox once sown has propagated its poison in all ages.  I call it a seed because I find that diseases keep regular types and have peculiar attributes that distinguish them one from the other as the seeds of plants do their particular species.

TITLE: A Practical Essay of Fevers (London: 1704)

SOURCE: Benjamin Marten, A New Theory of Consumptions (London: 1720)

COMMENT: Paraphrase of pages 151-192.


FELLOW:  Giovanni Maria Lancisi (1654-1720), M.D. Collegio Romano 1672, elected 1706


NATURE: comment, book

STATEMENT: recommended quarantine and a cordon sanitaire to prevent the spread of rinderpest in 1713; followed up with a more detailed book in 1715


SOURCE: Lancisi, Dissertatio Historica de Bovilla Peste (Rome, 1715),


FELLOW:  Emanuele Timone (Timoni or Timonius) (1665-1741), M.D. Padua, incorp. Oxford, elected 1703


NATURE: Letter to Dr. John Woodward

STATEMENT: Described the method of inoculating people with smallpox in Constantinople

TITLE: "An Account, or History, of the Procuring the Small Pox by Incision, or Inoculation ...." 1714

SOURCE: Philosophical Transactions, 29, no. 339 (April-June, 1714) 72-82, cited in Miller, The Adoption of Inoculation, pp. 58-59.

COMMENT: Followed by a discussion on June 3rd and June 10th., 1713 which resulted in a request to William Sherard, a future Fellow then in Smyrna, for more information. Sherard then sent a book on inoculation by Jacob Pylarini to his brother James Sherard in London.  James was also a future Fellow. Receptiveness to the idea of inoculation depended on and strengthened a presumption that smallpox was transmitted by a contagious entity.


FELLOW:  Antonio Valisneri (1661-1730), M.D. Bologna 1685, elected 1703


NATURE: book (published correspondence)

STATEMENT:  The blood of oxen is filled with tiny little worms that spread disease through a living contagion.  Their reproduction time explains the incubation period for diseases. 

TITLE: Nuova Idea del Male Contagioso de'Buoi (new theory of the Contagious disease of Oxen)

SOURCE: Carlo Francesco Cogrossi and Antonio Valisneri, Nuova Idea del Male Contagioso de'Buoi compiled and edited by Tomaso Piantanida (Milan, 1714) , rpt. in a facsimile edn. with English translation by Dorothy M. Schullian and an introduction by Luigi Belloni for the Sixth International Congress of Microbiology (Rome; 1953).  Cogrossi tendered this suggestion and Valisneri, his former professor, found it plausible.


FELLOW:  Giovanni Maria Lancisi (2)


NATURE: publication

STATEMENT: Rinderpest is caused by a pestiferous ferment that was contagious; Cogrossi's theory that plague spread through minuscule insects was "very probable but not certain"; disease could be caused by tenuous corpuscles of poison. 

TITLE: Dissertatio Historica de Bovilla Peste

SOURCE: Lise Wilkinson, , “Rinderpest and Mainstream Infectious Diseases concepts in the Eighteenth Century” Medical History (1984), 28: 129-150, on p. 137, quoting Lancisi,  Dissertatio Historica de Bovilla Peste (1715)


FELLOW:  Cotton Mather (1) (1663-1728), MA Harvard 1681, elected 1713, election confirmed 1723


NATURE: Letter to Dr. John Woodward

STATEMENT: "if I should live to see the Small-Pox ... enter into our City, I would immediately procure a Consult of our Physicians, to Introduce [the] Practice [of inoculation]


SOURCE: Otho T. Beall, Jr., and Richard H. Schryock, Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore: 1954), p. 99

COMMENT: Mather's plan was based in part on a reading of the Philosophical Transactions,  and in part on a conversation with the slave Onesimus ca. 1706.  Mather was proposed for Fellowship in 1713 and received a letter saying that he had been elected, but through an oversight he wasn't officially elected until 1723.  


FELLOW:  Thomas Bates (d. ca.1760), elected 1718


NATURE: published article

STATEMENT: Rinderpest was initially caused by drought, became contagious.  "Contagious diseases may be communicated to the same species by touching the wool, linen etc., to which the infectious effluvia has adhered; they are conveyed by herders and sick animals and controlled by quarantine.

TITLE: "A Brief Account of the Contagious Disease ... Cowes"

SOURCE: "A Brief Account of the Contagious Disease ... Cowes" Philosophical Transactions, 30 (1718), 872-885. See also Lise Wilkinson, "Glanders, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine in Pursuit of a Contagious diseases", Medical History (1981) 25: 363-384.

COMMENT: Bates expressed a similar view during another epidemic i the 1740s.


FELLOW: Hans Sloane (1) (1660-1753), M.D. University of Orange 1683; M.D. Oxford 1701, elected 1685


NATURE: unpublished report to government (with Arbuthnot and Mead), forms basis for Quarantine Act.

STATEMENT: Plague was contagious and the government should establish a quarantine and move patients to barracks in open ground


SOURCE: Paul Slack, Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England, (1985, rpt. Oxford: 2003),  p. 334.


FELLOW:  John Arbuthnot, M.D. St. Andrews, M.D. Cambridge, 1705, elected 1704


NATURE: Unpublished report to government (with Sloane and Mead)

STATEMENT: Plague was contagious and the government should establish a quarantine and move patients to barracks in open ground


SOURCE: Slack, Impact of Plague, p. 334.


FELLOW:  Mead, Richard (2)


NATURE: Book, extension of report to government with Sloane and Arbuthnot

STATEMENT: Plague is a contagious disease.  Contagion travels through the air, diseased persons, and goods transported from infected places.  Contagion travels through corrupted air and comes from active particles on the human body which might be salts.  Quarantines would prevent epidemics from spreading. Plague is not carried by insect eggs.

TITLE: A Short Discourse concerning Pestilential Contagion

SOURCE: A Short Discourse concerning Pestilential Contagion (London: 1720)See also Arnold Zuckerman, "Dr. Richard Mead (1673-1754): a biographical study" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana: 1965). 

COMMENT: Mead argued against the theory that plague was carried by the eggs of insects.


FELLOW:  Richard Bradley (d. 1732) elected 1712


NATURE: book

STATEMENT: Plague is carried by insects that are attracted by effluvia arising from the bodies of victims who then breathe the eggs of these insects out again, spreading the infection.

TITLE: The Plague at Marseilles Considered

SOURCE: The Plague at Marseilles Considered (London: 1721)

COMMENT: This is one of several publications by Bradley discussing the transmission of infection by insects. The link goes to the second edition.


FELLOW:  Cotton Mather (2)


NATURE: letter to Boston doctors

STATEMENT: persuaded Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate people for smallpox


SOURCE: Beall and Shryock, Cotton Mather, p. 103


FELLOW:  Hans Sloane (2)


NATURE: experimental inoculation of Newgate convicts with Smallpox, followed by inoculation of Royal Princesses



SOURCE: Genevieve Miller, The Adoption of Inoculation for Smallpox, p. 84.


FELLOW:  Hans Sloane (3)


NATURE: letter to Leeuwenhoek

STATEMENT: asked James Jurin to write Leeuwenhoek asking him to investigate the itch mite and look for insects in the pustules of smallpox patients


SOURCE: Andrea Rusnock, The Correspondence of James Jurin, (Amsterdam and Atlanta: 1996), pp. 99-101.

COMMENT: Leeuwenhoek died before carrying out this request.


FELLOW: Cotton Mather (3)


NATURE: comment in unpub. ms.

STATEMENT: microscopic animals infect people through food and drink, respiration and even the skin.  They multiply in their host and injure the blood.  One species may offend in one way and another species in another way.  They are carried long distances in the bodies or goods of travellers.  They cause measles, smallpox, plague and syphilis

TITLE: The Angel of Bethesda

SOURCE: Beall and Shryock, Cotton Mather,  pp.113 and 149-154.

COMMENT: The Angel was never published.  It includes passages copied from Marten's New Theory of Consumptions. In a pamphlet he published in 1722, Mather also wrote that many thought smallpox was "an animalculated Business".


FELLOW:  John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683-1744), DCL Oxford 1719, incorp. Cambridge, 1726, elected 1714


NATURE: Unpublished paper read to the Royal Society

STATEMENT: he has been unable to find animalcula  in smallpox.

TITLE: "Account of the Appearance of the Matter of the Small Pox seen thro' a Microscope"

SOURCE:  Royal Society, Sackler Archive;  Genevieve Miller, Inoculation for Smallpox, p. 253.


FELLOW: William Simpson (1636/7-1680), proposed in 1675 but not elected and so not counted


NATURE  book

STATEMENT: "The Pest ... and some other Diseases ... are real beings ... the pestiferous ferment lies dormant in rags, vestments ... etc., and comes to life in the human body ... and skips into another body to enact the same scene over again.... The virulent Contagion begins to boil in the blood...

TITLE: Zenexton Ante-Pestilentiale

SOURCE: F. N. L. Poynter, "A Seventeenth-Century Medical Controversy: Robert Witty versus William Simpson" in E. Ashworth Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine and History, vol 2 (1953), pp. 72-81

COMMENTS: Zenexton Ante-Pestilentiale was a Helmontian work written during a plague epidemic in York.  Petty proposed Simpson for Fellowship but he was blackballed.  He also commented favorably on Wilkins's language project in another work (Hydrologia chymica, 1669).



Everyone elected before June, 1663 was listed by the Record of the Society as an “Original Fellow”. See Michael Hunter, The Royal Society and its Fellows 1660-1700 (Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire: 1982), p. 53

Biographical information about Fellows, including the date of election and (sometimes) the names of their proposer can be found online through a search by name in the Sackler Archive of the Royal Society:

Biographical information has also been drawn from William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Vol. 1: 1518 to 1700, and Vol. 2: 1701 to 1800 (London: 1861) and from the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.



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