John Aikin (January 15, 1747-December 7, 1822), M.D., epitomized the dissenting spirit that advocated freedom of religious expression in mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. He is best known today as the brother of the poet and educator Anna Lætitia Aikin Barbauld, yet deserves attention in his own right. Trained as a physician, he made contributions to not only the cause of religious freedom but the fields of botany, geography, song-writing and poetry, literary criticism, biography, medical studies, prison reform, and education; he also served as editor of the liberal Monthly Magazine from its inception in 1796 to 1807.
John was the son of the Unitarian minister John Aikin and Jane (Jennings) Aikin, who was herself the daughter of the dissenting minister John Jennings. His earliest education took place at the “Independent” Kibworth Harcourt Chapel and Academy, where his father had studied with the noted Nonconformist and hymn-writer Philip Doddridge before becoming minister of the congregation in 1749. The Rev. Dr. Aikin, Sr. then accepted an offer to teach at the newly formed Warrington Academy in 1756, where he served first as tutor of Classical languages and later as divinity professor.
John attended classes, 1756-1761, as one of the youngest students at the school, preparing for medical study but also becoming deeply immersed in literary study. His daughter Lucy, a noted biographer, later reflected on those halcyon days: “I have often thought with envy of that society. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge could boast of brighter names in literature or science than several of these dissenting tutors—humbly content in an obscure town, on a scanty pittance to cultivate in themselves, and communicate to a rising generation, those mental requirements and moral habits which are their own exceeding reward.”
As a young man Aikin divided his time between medical training and practice and the “sweet society” of his intellectual friends at Warrington and other dissenting circles. He attended hospital lectures in London, spent two years at the University of Edinburgh, 1774-1776, and finally earned his M.D. from the University of Leyden, 1784, having refused “to submit to the degradation of acquiring by purchase a title” he had earned by study. Married in 1772 to Martha Jennings (granddaughter of the Rev. John Jennings, the dissenting minister who founded Kibworth Harcourt Chapel) and raising four children, Aikin, as a dissenter and a social outsider, struggled to make ends meet in his work as a doctor.
Despite the challenges of his professional career, Akin continued his acquaintance with some of the leading liberals of the age, including his dear friend William Enfield, Unitarian minister and faculty member at Warrington; Joseph Priestley, scientist, Warrington teacher from 1767-1771, and strenuous advocate for dissenters’ rights; the prison reformer John Howard; and the “controversialist” Gilbert Wakefield, among others. He also served as professor of Classical literature at Warrington, 1778-1783. Of this period he wrote that “I never knew my time more fully taken up than at present, so various are my occupations of reading, writing, lecturing, curing, &c. &c.”
Some fruits of Aikin’s writing include Thoughts on Hospitals, 1771; a translation of Tacitus’s Germania, 1777; An Essay in the Application of Natural History to Poetry, 1777, arguing that new scientific understandings of nature could invigorate the currently “insipid” state of poetry; an edition of James Thomson’s The Seasons, 1778; the beginning volumes of the ambitious Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain, 1780; and the first two of many delightful and practical educational texts designed for the young: The Calendar of Nature, 1785, and England Delineated; or, A Geographical Description of Every County in England and Wales, 1788. Most of these and his subsequent works were published by the noted London bookseller and promoter of Unitarian causes Joseph Johnson, another lifelong friend about whom Aikin later wrote the “Biographical Account of the Late Mr. Joseph Johnson,” in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1809.
The civil unrest occasioned by the French Revolution proved decisive for Aikin. Having left his friends and established himself at Yarmouth as an M.D. with considerable difficulty—”intrigue and jealousy meeting me in every quarter”—he boldly declared himself an opponent of the Establishment in two pamphlets and through his Poems. The first of the pamphlets, The Spirit of the Constitution and That of the Church of England Compared, 1790, supported the calls for the repeal of the Test and Corporations Act, which imposed the sacrament test as a qualification for the holding of civil and military offices. The second, Food for National Penitence, 1793, took direct aim at the national day of fasting designed to implore divine aid in England’s war against France; its epigram aptly sums up his attitude toward what he regarded as a dubious mixing of church and state: “When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites” (Matthew 6.16). Opposed to the “distorted reasonings of [Edmund] Burke,” his stridently republican Poems, 1791, celebrated the “Genius of a Commonwealth,” George Washington (“Elected Chief of Freemen; greater far / Than kings whose glittering parts are fix’d by birth”), Richard Price, Priestley, and other dissenters and radical causes. Aikin knew the political slant of his poetry would incur censure and hurt him professionally, but he declared, in the volume’s Preface, that when “Freedom and justice aloud call for aid,” he would take a stand and have his say. He was immediately dismissed from his position at Yarmouth and forced to flee with his family to London.
The remaining years of Aikin’s life found him reengaged in his loves for literary endeavors and education. He eventually settled at Stoke Newington near his beloved sister—by now an accomplished poet and editor—and published many works on a typically wide range of topics. In addition to treatises on literature, prison and hospital reform, and geography, he compiled the massive ten volume General Biography; or Lives, Critical and Historical, of the Most Eminent Persons of All Ages, Countries, and Professions, 1799-1815. The brother and sister’s most influential collaboration was Evenings at Home; or the Juvenile Budget Opened: A Variety of Miscellaneous Pieces for the Instruction and Amusement of Young Persons (1793). Many times reprinted in both England and America during the nineteenth century, this series of moral lessons aimed to educate by “teaching things rather than ideas.” During this period of scholarly accomplishment Aikin continued his involvement in liberal causes through his service as Secretary to Priestley’s Literary and Philosophical Society (Aikin openly lamented his friend’s persecution), work as literary editor for the Monthly Magazine, “a periodical literary miscellany characterized by a spirit of inquiry,” and agitation for changes in the College of Physicians and its politically biased licensing of doctors.
One best hears Aikin’s Unitarian voice in his Letters from a Father to His Son, 1796-1800, in which he urged his son to exercise “freedom of thinking” and to stand up for his beliefs, and insisted upon a religion purged of “superstition” and its political manipulations: “Truth in science is only arrived at by laborious experiment and patient deduction. Historical truth requires for its investigation perfect impartiality, and an acquaintance with every possible inlet of fraud and mistake. Moral truth demands a heart capable of feeling it. Religious truth is not attained without a union of the requisites for all the other species of truth.” A clear Universalist strand of thought was equally evident in his counsel for religious tolerance: “A man who is so unfortunate as to believe that all but those of his own way of thinking are doomed to eternal reprobation, can scarcely, whatever be the native temper of his mind, view with any thing like liberal allowance the opinions opposed to his own . . . [One the other hand] we have been taught to regard the whole human race as one family, all capable of rendering themselves approved by their common Father, who, in allotting them different portions of light and knowledge, has certainly not expected from them an uniformity of belief and practice.” Drawing upon his own experience, Aikin criticized state control of religion: “Religion is [no longer] sufficiently entitled to our reverence because it is true, because it provides the most effectual support under the evils of life, and affords the most powerful aid to morality; [now] we are principally called upon to value it as the great bulwark of civil authority, the adamantine chain by which mankind are held in subjection to a power of their own creation.”
Not surprisingly, given his devotion to education and family, all four of Aikin’s children went on to have distinguished careers in such fields as writing and science, including the noted biographer Lucy Aikin. But sadly, his wish “to not live longer than I can use my pen” was not fulfilled, as he slipped into senility in his final years. Henry Crabb Robinson wrote of the elderly Aikin that “he had for some years sunk into imbecility after a youth and middle age of great activity. He was in his better days a man of talent and of the highest personal worth,—one of the salt of the earth.” He died at Stoke Newington, England. The inscription on the “simple monument” that marked his grave began:
A strenuous and consistent assertor
of the cause of civil and religious liberty
and of the free exercise of reason
in the investigation of truth.
In addition to those mentioned above, the following works give an idea of the range of Aikin’s learning and interests: Essays on Song-writing: With a Collection of Such English Songs as are Most Eminent for Poetical Merit (1772); [With Anna Lætetia Aikin] Miscellaneous Pieces of Prose (1773), a work oft noted today for its essay “The Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror,” an early defense of the Gothic imagination; A View of the Character and Public Services of the Late John Howard (1792); A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester (1795), which details the effect of growing industrialization and which Marx referenced in his German Ideology (1845); Geographical Delineations; or, A Compendious View of the Natural and Political State of All Parts of the Globe (1806); and Select Works of the British Poets: With Biographical and Critical Prefaces (1820).
An important source for information on the life and writings of Aikin remains his daughter Lucy’s Memoir of John Aikin, M.D., With a Selection of His Miscellaneous Pieces, Biographical, Moral, and Critical (1823). Also useful is Marilyn L. Brooks’ entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Less attention has been given Aikin’s remarkable range of literary and pedagogical works, but the following provide good treatment of individual subjects: Marten Hutt, “John Aikin: Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britian (1780)” for the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1998); William Powell Jones, “John Aikin on the Use of Natural History in Poetry” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1963); Michelle Levy, “The Radical Education of Evenings at Home” in Eighteenth Century Fiction (2006).
Article by Douglass H. Thomson
Posted April 26, 2009