I have had the privilege of spending the past two weeks working with one of Britain’s foremost historians. He is 92 now, and though frail of constitution his mind is absolutely fine. I am amazed at how well he remembers people and events dating back sixty, seventy, sometimes even eighty years. “I suffered from every conceivable illness before the age of ten, which got rid of them for the rest of my life”, he told me the other day, and indeed his health is remarkable. He enjoys his meals and drinks, with a good glass of wine and a substantial dose of Scotch in the evening. “I never expected to get so old. It’s remarkable.” He also expressed his sadness of loosing friend after friend, dying of old age.

I couldn’t help but thinking about Isaac Newton, who lived to see the ripe old age of 84. There are various parallels in the story above with Newton’s life. We do not know of childhood illnesses, but apparently Newton was born prematurely. John Conduitt, who married Newton’s niece Catherine Barton and took care of him in his old age, relates that

“Sir I. N. told me that he had been told that when he was born he was so little they could put him into a quart pot & so weakly that he was forced to have a bolster all round his neck to keep it on his shoulders & so little likely to live that when two women were sent to Lady Packenham at North Witham for something for him they sate down on a stile by the way & said there was no occasion for making haste for they were sure the child would be dead before they could get back…”

After this initial setback, he seems to have done quite well, health-wise. There’s no mention in his biographical conversations of any sort of physical illness, apart from suffering from myopia when he grew older, which apparently wasn’t much of a hindrance:

“He was shortsighted in the latter part of his life but beleived he was not so when he was young because he could remember that when he was but nine year old & went to school to Killingworth over Woolstrope Common he could see Grantham Spire like a stick which was six miles off & he could not haue done if he had then been shortsighted – His eyes had that faculty that they never tired with reading & to the last he could read the smallest letter by the light of a coal fire without the use of spectacles”

This does not mean that he never suffered from the occasional sneeze or cough, and he was even somewhat of a hypochondriac. As the son of John Wickins, Newton’s erstwhile room mate at Trinity College recalls,

“He sometime suspected Himself to be inclining to a Consumption, & the Medicine He made use of was the Lucatellus Balsam which when he had compos’d Himself, He would now & then melt in Quantity about a Quarter of a Pint & so drink it.”

For those wondering about ‘Lucatellus Balsam’, Newton left a recipe for it among his manuscripts. It’s being held by Lamar University, and should be accessible here, but the server seems down today. Fortunately, the Newton Project has a online copy of David Brewster’s Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: 1855)  where in a note to the letter by John Wickins, Brewster tells us:

“The following method of making the Leucatello’s Balsam I have found in Sir Isaac’s own hand: ‘Put Venus turpentine one pound into a pint of the best damask rose-water; beat these together till it look white, then take four ounces of bees-wax, red sanders half an ounce, oil of olives of the best a pint, one ounce of oil of St. John’s wort, and half a pint of sack. Set it (the sack) on the fire in a new pipkin, add to it the oil and wax, let it stand on a soft fire where it must not boil, but melt till it be scalding hot. Then take it off. When it is cold, take out the cake, and scrape off the dirt from the bottom. Take out the sack, wipe the pipkin, put in the cake again, set it on the fire, let them melt together, and then put in also the turpentine and sanders; let them not boil, but be well melted and mixed together; take it off and stir it now and then till it is cold. If you would have it to take inwardly, add to it when it is off from the fire, half an ounce of powder of scuchineal (cochineal) and a little natural balsam.

For the measell, plague, or smallpox, a half an ounce in a little broth, take it warm, and sweat after it. And against poison and the biting of a mad dog; for the last you must dip lint and lay it upon the wound, besides taking it inwardly. There are other virtues of it; for wind, cholic, anoint the stomach, and so for bruises.'”

Apparently, Newton thought of Lucatellus/Leucatello’s Balsam as the ultimate cure for everything. I wouldn’t dare trying it myself, but it’s hard to argue with an octogenarian. I much more prefer Scotch.

From this same note by Brewster, Newton’s first ‘real’ biographer, we even learn about his eating habits and his attitude towards illness:

“… Doctor [Stukely] says that ‘his breakfast was orange-peel boiled in water, which he drank as tea, sweetened with sugar, and with bread and butter. He thinks this dissolves phlegm.’ Lord Pembroke told the Doctor that when Newton ‘got a cold, he lay in bed till it was gone, though for two or three days’ continuance, and thus came off the illness by perspiration.'”

As the careful reader will have noticed, this post has so far only referred to Newton’s physical illnesses, and the lack thereof. The year 1693 however marks an episode in Newton’s life about which much has been speculated. Newton’s strange behaviour has been ascribed to senility, temporary madness due to alchemical poisoning, the break-up of his intimate relationship with the young Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and other causes.

In September of that year he wrote two strange letters to Samuel Pepys and John Locke, telling Pepys that

“Some time after Mr Millington had delivered your message, he pressed me to see you the next time I went to London. I was averse; but upon his pressing consented, before I considered what I did, for I am extremely troubled at the embroilment I am in, and have neither ate nor slept well this twelve month, nor have my farther consistency of mind. I never designed to get anything by your interest, nor by King James’s favour, but am now sensible that I must withdraw from your acquaintance, and see neither you nor the rest of my friends any more, if I may but leave them quietly.”

Three days later he wrote to Locke, saying

“Being of opinion that you endeavoured to embroil me wth woemen & by other means I was so much affected with it as that when one told me you were sickly & would not live I answered twere better if you were dead. I desire you to forgive me this uncharitableness. For I am now satisfied that what you have done is just & I beg your pardon for my having hard thoughts of you for
it & for representing that you struck at ye root of morality in a principle you laid down in your book of Ideas & designed to pursue in another book & that I took you for a Hobbist. I beg your pardon also for saying or thinking that there was a designe to sell me an office, or to embroile me.”

His friends took the matter very seriously. Pepys contacted John Millington, Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, expressing his concern with Newton’s health. Before Millington had any chance of bringing the matter to Newton, it was Newton himself who explained to Millington that

“he had writ to [Pepys] a very odd letter, at which he was much concerned; added, that it was in a distemper that much seized his head, and that kept him awake for above five nights together, which upon occasion he desired I would represent to [Pepys], and beg [Pepys’s] pardon, he being very much ashamed he should be so rude to a person from whom he hath so great an honour.”

As Millington told Pepys,

“He is now very well, and, though I fear he is under some small degree of melancholy, yet I think there is no reason to suspect it hath at all touched his understanding, and I hope never will…”

A few days later Locke wrote to Newton, expressing his shock about Newton’s initial statement, “…I cannot but be mightely troubled that you should have soe many wrong and unjust thoughts of me…” and his relief about the remainder of Newton’s letter, saying “…I receive your acknowledgmt of the contrary as ye kindest thing you could have done me since it gives me hopes I have not lost a freind I soe much valued.”

Newton’s own explanation of the matter arrived ten days later. On October 15th he wrote to Locke

“The last winter by sleeping too often by my fire I got an ill habit of sleeping & a distemper wch this summer has been epidemical put me further out of order, so that when I wrote to you I had not slept an hour a night for a fortnight together & for 5 nights together not a wink”

Robert Iliffe has recently argued that it’s likely that his friends had indeed tried to “embroil him with woemen”, since it was quite common for fellows of a certain age to resign from their colleges, marry and settle somewhere. Unsurprisingly, just like his usage of self-medicine Newton had some very idiosyncratic ideas about marriage, at least concerning himself. But let’s leave that for a future post.


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