Dr. John Armstrong (1709-1779). Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), circa 1767. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Armstrong
Born 1709
Died 1779
Nationality Scottish
Occupation poet, physician
Notable works The Art of Preserving Health (1744)

Dr. John Armstrong (1709–1779) was a Scottish poet, physician, and satirist.



Armstrong, the son of the minister of Castleton, Roxburghshire, studied medicine, which he practised in London. He is remembered as the friend of Thomson, Mallet, and other literary celebrities of the time, and as the author of a poem on The Art of Preserving Health, which appeared in 1744, and in which a somewhat unpromising subject for poetic treatment is gracefully and ingeniously handled. His other works, consisting of some poems and prose essays, and a drama, The Forced Marriage, are forgotten, with the exception of the 4 stanzas at the end of the first part of Thomson's Castle of Indolence, describing the diseases incident to sloth, which he contributed.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

Armstrong was born in the parish of Castleton, Roxburghshire, about the year 1709. His father was a clergyman.[2]

At an early age Armstrong began to cultivate poetry. He tells us that the verses entitled 'Winter' (an 'imitation of Shakespeare'), first published in 1770, were written in 1725. Thomson, Mallet, Aaron Hill, and Young received manuscript copies of the verses from the youthful writer, and expressed to him their congratulations. Mallet promised to print the piece, but afterwards changed his mind.[2]

Armstrong studied at Edinburgh University, and took his degree of M.D. on 4 February 1732, composing for the occasion a Dissertatio de Tabe Purulenta, which he published at Edinburgh in the same year, with a dedication to Sir Hans Sloane. A Latin letter which the author sent to Sloane with a copy of the thesis is preserved in the British Museum (MS. Sloane, 4036).[2]


Before 1735 Armstrong was practising medicine in London.[2]

In 1734 Armstrong published, in vol. ii. of the Edinburgh Medical Essays, an essay on "Penetrating Topic Medicines," and in the same year he wrote a paper (read before the Royal Society on 30 Jan. 1735, and preserved among the Sloane MSS., No. 4433) on the "Alcalescent Disposition of Animal Fluids." His next production was a satirical pamphlet entitled Essay for abridging the Study of Physick, 1735, 8vo.[2]

In the following year he made his first appearance as a poet, with the Œconomy of Love It was followed by a "Synopsis of the History and Cure of Venereal Diseases." In 1741 Armstrong solicited Dr. Birch's recommendation to Dr. Mead for the appointment of physician to the troops going to the West Indies (Sloane MS. 4300).[2]

In 1744 appeared the Art of Preserving Health, a didactic poem in four books, which sprang at once into popularity, and has passed through several editions down to our own day.[3]

He was appointed, in February 1746, a physician to the Hospital for Lame, Maimed, and Sick Soldiers in London. Five years later (1751) he published Benevolence, an Epistle, which added little to his fame; and in 1753 Taste: An epistle to a young critic, readable but acrimonious. At this time Dr, Theobald addressed to him 2 complimentary Latin odes.[3]

Armstrong's next venture was a tragedy, The Forced Marriage, written in 1754, but not published until 1770. Much more interesting are the Sketches or Essays on Various Subjects, in two parts, published in 1758 under the pseudonym of Launcelot Temple. It has been suggested — without evidence — that he was assisted in the composition of these essays by Wilkes, with whom he was nearly acquainted for many years.[3]


Writing many years afterwards, in 1773, Armstrong ascribes his limited success in his profession to the fact that "he could neither tell a heap of lies in his own praise wherever he went; nor intrigue with nurses; nor associate, much less assimilate,[2] with the various knots of pert insipid, lively stupid, well-bred impertinent, good-humoured malicious, obliging deceitful, waspy drivelling gossips; nor enter into juntos with people who were not to his liking" (Medical Essays). Habitual inertness and a splenetic temperament were probably the real drawbacks to his advancement. Dr. Beattie, in a letter to Sir William Forbes, writes: "I know not what is the matter with Armstrong, but he seems to have conceived a rooted aversion against the whole human race, except a few friends, which it seems are dead." [3]

One who knew him well. Dr. Cuming, of Dorchester, has set down his character briefly as follows:

He always appeared to me (and I was confirmed in this opinion by that of his most intimate friends) a man of learning and genius, of considerable abilities in his profession, of great benevolence and goodness of heart, fond of associating with men of parts and genius, but indolent and inactive, and therefore totally unqualified to employ the means that usually lead to medical employment, or to elbow his way through a crowd of competitors.[4]

In Thomson's Castle of Indolence there is a stanza which is supposed to refer to Armstrong:

   With him was sometimes join'd, in silent walk
       (Profoundly silent, for they never spoke),
   One shyer still, who quite detested talk:
       Oft, stung by spleen, at once away he broke
   To groves of pine and broad o'ershadowing oak;
       There, only thrill'd, he wandered all alone
   And on himself his pensive fury wroke,
       Nor ever utter'd word, save when first shone
The glittering star of eve — 'Thank Heaven! the day is done.'[3]

Conflict with WilkesEdit

In 1760 Armstrong received the post of physician to the army in Germany. Writing to Wilkes on 3 November of that year, he enclosed a poetical epistle entitled Day, which was published in the following year. A letter in the Public Advertiser of 23 March 1773 accused Wilkes of having published it against the author's wish. In the following number appeared a reply, signed 'Truth,' denying the charge; and this was followed, on 1 April, by a letter, signed 'Nox,' wherein the writer declared that the verses were published at Armstrong's repeated requests and against Wilkes's advice.[3]

Several years afterwards there appeared in the Gentleman's Magazin of January 1792 the notes of a conversation between Wilkes and Armstrong on the subject of the correspondence in the Public Advertiser. According to this report Armstrong accused Wilkes of having written the 3 letters in question, Wilkes denying the charge with caustic pleasantry. Whether the letters were written by Wilkes, or whether any such conversation ever occurred, is extremely doubtful; but as to the publication of Day we are able to refer to Armstrong's unpublished letters in the valuable Wilkes Correspondence acquired by the British Museum (Add. MS 30867).[3]

On 3 November 1760, when sending the epistle to Wilkes, he writes:

I … send you letters by the brace. If you approve of that in rhyme, I wish all the people in Britain and Ireland would read it, that I might be indulged in the vanity of being known for your friend. But if you think it worthy of Mr. Bowyer's press, don't submit it to that severe operation till everything you find wrong in it is altered.[3]

Wilkes ruthlessly excised whatever he thought to be inferior, and exposed a tattered version to the public, indicating the cancelled passages by stars. Moreover, after sending the epistle to press, he seems not to have troubled himself to make any communication on the subject with the author; for on 29 October 1762, unaware that the epistle was already in print, Armstrong wrote from abroad to ask Wilkes to hand over to Millar, the bookseller, "one strayed ode—item one elegy—item one epistle entitled a "Day," which I shall be glad to clear of a few clouds. You must know I kept only the first copy, which is mislaid, or more probably lost."[3]

The next letter broke off, once for all, the connection between the friends:[3]

London, 17 Sept. 1763. Sir,—I thank you for the honour of a letter, and continue sensible of every mark of friendship I have received from you, which makes me regret it the more that you have for ever deprived me of the pleasure of your conversation. For I cannot with honour or decency associate myself with one who has distinguished himself by abusing my country. I am with all due sincerity, Sir, your most humble servant, John Armstrong.[4]

Had it not been for the publication of the unfortunate Day, he would probably have continued on familiar terms with Wilkes, who (it is supposed) had procured him the post of physician to the army, and to whom he was certainly indebted for much pecuniary help.[4]

In some very vigorous lines of Churchill's posthumous satire, 'A Journey,' published in 1764, Armstrong is held up to unsparing ridicule:

Let them with Armstrong, taking leave of sense,
Read musty lectures on Benevolence,
Or con the pages of his gaping Day,
Where all his former fame was thrown away,
Where all but barren labour was forgot
And the vain stiffness of a letter'd Scot.[4]

One writer after another has asserted that Churchill's attack was provoked by some reflections on himself in Day, but the reader must be extraordinarily lynx-eyed to discover any allusion to Churchill in Armstrong's epistle. It is far more probable that the lines were written at the suggestion of Wilkes, who was on terms of close intimacy with the satirist.[4]

Later lifeEdit

At the recall of the troops from Germany Armstrong returned to London, receiving half-pay for the rest of his life. In 1770 he published, in 2 volumes of Miscellanies, such works in verse and prose as he wished to preserve. He took this opportunity of printing in his own name the 4 concluding stanzas of the 1st canto of the Castle of Indolence.[4]

Accompanied by Fuseli, he started in the same year for a tour in France and Italy. At Leghorn he visited Tobias Smollett, who was fast sinking into his grave. Under the title of A Short Ramble through France and Italy, 1771, he published some desultory notes taken on the journey. In 1773 he published his last work, Medical Essays, in which he coarsely charges his professional brethren with incompetency and servility.[4]

Armstrong died at his house in Russell Street, Covent Garden, on 7 September 1779, from the effects of a fall. He had been staying in Lincolnshire, and as he was preparing to return home his foot slipped when he was stepping into his carriage. To the surprise of everybody he left the sum of £3,000l. As his pension and his very small practice were his sole means of support, he must have lived somewhat parsimoniously.[4]



The Œconomy of Love, 1736, 8vo, was published anonymously; and it is indeed a production which not many men would care to claim. A more nauseous piece of work could not easily be found. When the author reissued the poem in 1768, he had the good sense to cancel some of the worst passages.[2]

The Oeconomy Of Love has been described as an 18th-century guide to sex and is particularly interesting in that the lines:

"To shed thy blossoms thro' the desert air,
And sow thy perish'd offspring in the winds"

are thought to be a possible inspiration for the more famous lines by Thomas Gray contained in his "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard" as follows:

"Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air."

However Armstrong's floral metaphor refers to the unnecessary shedding of semen whilst the author cautions young men against sexual practices that he condemns in his role as poet and physician.

In the class of poetry to which it belongs, the Art of Preserving Health holds a distinguished place. No writer of the 18th century had so masterful a grasp of blank verse as is shown in parts of this poem. The powerful passage descriptive of the plague (book iii.) has been highly praised. As in all didactic poetry, the practical directions are of little interest; but those who value austere imagination and weighty diction cannot afford to neglect Armstrong's masterpiece.[3]


Always terse, often original, and sometimes brilliant, Armstrong's prose is undeserving of the neglect into which it has fallen.[3]

Critical introductionEdit

by George Saintsbury

Armstrong is, beyond all doubt, the most remarkable poet of the school of Thomson. It would appear that the style in his case was not the result merely of imitation of the author of The Seasons, but came from a similar cause, the study at once of the Queen Anne men and of older writers. Both Shakespeare and Spenser were sufficiently attractive to Armstrong when he was quite a boy to induce him to imitate them, and though the imitations show more zeal than appreciation, they have some merit.

The Economy of Love ... contains many stately verses, and some which exhibit considerable novelty of structure. On the whole Armstrong’s versification and language are Thomsonian. The blemishes of that style, such as the ridiculous classicism which calls a cold bath a ‘gelid cistern,’ and so forth, are present in large measure. But the merits of abundant fancy, of surprising range of illustration, and of a certain starched grace which is not unattractive, are present likewise.

It would be difficult to find a more unsuitable subject for poetry than the art of preserving health: yet in treating it Armstrong has managed to produce many passages which lovers and students of blank verse cannot afford to disdain. His vigour is unquestionable, and his skill is by no means of an every-day order. The poem however is deformed, not merely by the unavoidable drawbacks of its subject, but by the insertion of a large mass of unnecessary and now obsolete technicalities, which could at no time have added to its attractions, and which now make parts of it nearly unreadable. Here and there, too, we are offended by the defect which Armstrong shares with Swift and with Smollett, the tendency to indulge in merely nauseous details. On the whole however the merits of The Art of Preserving Health far outweigh its defects.

It may indeed be urged by a devil’s advocate that it is but a left-handed compliment to say that a man has done better than could be expected a task which, as sense and taste should have shown him, ought not to have been attempted at all. But Armstrong must always have, with competent judges, the praise which belongs to an author who has a distinct and peculiar grasp of a great poetical form.

His rhymed verse is on the whole very inferior to his blank. The rhymes are frequently careless, and the poet’s ear does not seem to have taught him how to construct couplets with the proper variety and continuity of cadence. His satire however, if a little conventional, is sometimes vigorous.[5]


There is a mezzotint portrait of him, from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, inscribed 'John Armstrong, M.D. The suffrage of the wise, the praise that's worth competition is attained by sense alone and dignity of mind.'[4]

Strangely what must have been once the small town of Castleton, with a castle, church, manse, regular licensed markets and many homes, has now totally disappeared. In the churchyard, however an obelisk stands to the memory of John Armstrong. It reads:

            If yet thy shade delights to hover near
            The holy ground where oft thy sire hath taught,
            And where our fathers fondly flocked to hear
            Accept the offering which their sons have brought.
            Proud of the muse,which gave to classic fame
            Our vale and stream,to song before unknown;
            We raise this stone to bear thy deathless name,
            And tell the world that Armstrong was our own.

            To learning, worth, and genius such as thine,
            How vain the tribute monuments can pay!
            Thy name immortal with thy works shall shine,
            And live when frailer marble shall decay.

Of considerable note, also written on the same stone, in this deserted churchyard of a town or village of which nothing else remains, lies the further inscription:

        "In Memory of George Armstrong,M.D.,1720-1789, Brother of John the Poet.
         Doctor George Armstrong is the Father of modern Paediatrics,
         and the Founder of the World's First Hospital for Sick Children.
         He died in London where he had given his life for the children of the poor"



  • The Art of Preserving Health: A poem. London: A. Millar, 1744; Philadelphia: R. Wright, 1821.
  • Of Benevelonce: An epistle to Eumenes. London: A. Millar, 1751.
  • Taste: An epistle to a young critic. London: R. Griffiths, 1753.
  • The Oeconomy of Love: A poetical essay. London: M. Cooper, 1758.
  • Miscellanies. (2 volumes), London: London: T. Cadell, 1770.
  • The Poetical Works. Edinburgh: Apollo Press, by the Martins, 1782; Perth, UK: R. Morison, Jr., 1782.
  • The Poetical Works; with the life of the author. London: C. Cooke (Cooke's edition), 1796.
  • The Poetical Works of Armstrong, Dyer, and Green (with John Dyer & Matthew Green; edited by George Gilfillan). Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1858.


  • The Forced Marriage: A tragedy. London: T. Cadell, 1770.


  • A Synopsis of the History and Cure of Venereal Diseases. London: A. Millar, 1737.
  • Sketches; or, Essays on various subjects (by "Launcelot Temple, Esq."). London: A. Millar, 1758.
  • Medical Essays. London: T. Davies, 1773.
  • Conjectures on the Mortality of the Human Soul (by "a freethinker"). London: J. Wilkie, 1778.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Miscellaneous Works: In verse and prose. Dublin: L. Flin, 1767.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[6]

See alsoEdit

References Edit

  • PD-icon.svg Bullen, Arthur Henry (1885) "Armstrong, John (1709-1779)" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 2 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 94-96 
  • The Border Magazine April 1926
  • Liddesdale:Historical and Descriptive, by John Byers, 1952
  • John McQueen and son, Galashiels


  1. John William Cousin, "Armstrong, John M.D.," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 12.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Bullen, 94.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Bullen, 95.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Bullen, 96.
  5. from George Saintsbury, "Critical Introduction: John Armstrong (1709–1779)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 21, 2016.
  6. Search results = au:John Armstrong 1779, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 21, 2016.

External linksEdit

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