Although less known today, James Jurin was a prominent figure in medicine and natural philosophy during his lifetime (1648–1750). His Enlightenment circle of contacts included Newton, Fontenelle, Voltaire, Buffon, Maupertuis, [End Page 116] Leeuwenhoek, Hans Sloane, George Berkeley, and Gabrielle Emilie du Châtelet. From 1721 to 1727, he held one of the most influential positions in the intellectual world: Secretary to the Royal Society of London, whose duties included selecting which papers would be included in the Society’s publication, the Philosophical Transactions. Jurin’s power to determine which information would be shared beyond the London meetings distinctly influenced the diffusion of knowledge. As a Cambridge- and Leyden-trained physician, he rejected numerous medical reports, many likely to have been of much personal interest, arguing that they were “not very acceptable for the most part to our Noblemen, who comprise the greater part of the Royal Society” (p. 32). Similarly, he rejected many papers that attempted to answer antiquarian concerns, claiming the subject to be “no part of our business or design” (p. 31). He also rejected papers that proposed new inventions, arguing that the Society “never concern[ed] themselves in any undertakings of this kind, how usefull & practicable soever they may seem,” except to make “them known to ye World, when brought to perfection” (p. 32). As Secretary, Jurin was also responsible for keeping the Society’s Register Books and maintaining an extensive international correspondence, and he seriously dedicated his time to the latter duty—a task that Marie Boas Hall has aptly termed the “art of epistolary commerce.” 1
Andrea Rusnock has organized the publication of a large selection of Jurin’s extant intellectual interchange. This collection of 277 letters, all translated into English, provides invaluable insight into the minds of many contemporary men (and women) of letters. Rusnock’s impressive selection includes works dating between 1703 and 1749, encompassing all topics of natural philosophy from a wide stratum of society, from St. Petersburg’s Josias Weitbrecht to Boston’s Cotton Mather. She also gives a complete “Calendar of the Manuscript Correspondence of James Jurin” (pp. 496–569), with brief synopses and location sites of additional letters. Jurin’s fifty publications from his own professional career are also separately identified.
As readers of the collected letters of any president, monarch, diplomat, or scientist know, perusing a lifetime of correspondence in chronological order allows readers to trace the evolution of the writer’s thoughts much more precisely than by reading published works alone. This selection of Jurin’s letters reveals his mastery of a vast range of natural philosophic interests. For example, he competently discusses John Woodward’s theory of the Deluge, supporting his own argument with physical evidence, and he encourages Leeuwenhoek to measure his microscopic objects using small pieces of silver wire of “exact magnitude,” claiming Leeuwenhoek’s previous methods to be “insufficient” since hairs, “not only of different Persons, but even of ye same Persons, differ very much in diameter . . . [and] the same may be said of grains of Sand” (p. 121). Two particular subjects, smallpox and meteorology, featured prominently in the Philosophical Transactions during Jurin’s tenure at Secretary. His extensive replies [End Page 117] to correspondents about these matters not only reflect his personal interest in these subjects, but also allow historians to date more precisely Jurin’s activities supporting inoculation and to identify more thoroughly his international “correspondence network” for collecting and quantifying meteorological observations (p. 27).
One minor shortcoming this reader found in Rusnock’s biographical introduction to Jurin (pp. 8–61) was the lack of evidence supporting his apparently extensive medical practice. Only one paragraph is dedicated to his medical career, the position that Rusnock claims to have been his “primary occupation” (p. 42). Since minimal insight into Jurin’s actual practice may be extracted from his own published works, excepting the therapeutic efficacy of tar water and remedies for the...