An English Treatise on Living Contagion: Benjamin Marten’s New Theory of Consumptions, 1720

  • Margaret DeLacy


DeLacy describes the background of Benjamin Marten’s New Theory of Consumptions (1720): the first full presentation of a theory of contagium vivum in Britain. She discusses the work itself and its possible audience and reception. She also explores Marten’s milieu, including his relationship to the surgeon John Marten, author of scandalous bestsellers on venereal disease and masturbation, and his links to “fringe” practitioners associated with Sloane: in particular the Dutch physician Johannes Groenevelt, a partner in the Oracle clinic. She also reviews several other works on animate pathogenesis, the appropriation of the theory of contagium vivum by a con man in Paris, and the fate of the idea of parasitic pathogens after 1730.


Eighteenth Century Venereal Disease Bladder Stone Puerperal Fever London Hospital 
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  1. 2.
    Marten, A New Theory of Consumptions (London: 1720), 8. This is now online on the Hathi Trust website at It was first advertised in issue 30 of the Daily Post on November 6, 1719, Gale, Burney Collection Newspapers. I thank the Wellcome Library for access to this. Marten also cites Gideon Harvey’s claim that consumption was contagious (see chapter 2).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Singer, “Benjamin Marten, A Neglected Predecessor of Louis Pasteur,” Janus (1911) 16:81–98, on 82. Singer published large sections from chapter 2 of A New Theory of Consumptions verbatim.Google Scholar
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    Spinke identified Marten with the author of the book The Charitable Surgeon written by “T.C., Surgeon” and published by Edmund Curll. Curll later printed an advertisement denying that they were the same man. For the rest of the story, see Paul Baines and Pat Rogers, Edmund Curll, Bookseller (Oxford: 2007), 36–7 and 114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See chapter 2 for the members of the Oracle group. For venereology as a “fringe” profession, see W. F. Bynum, “Treating the Wages of Sin: Venereal Disease and Specialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” in Medical Fringe and Medical Orthodoxy, 1750–1850, eds. W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter (London: 1987), 5–28. Venereology was one of the few specialties that focused on a disease widely agreed to be contagious.Google Scholar
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    Singer was not the first to stumble on Marten’s work and be transfixed. In “The Germ Theory,” in the American Monthly Microscopical Journal (September 1891) 12:205–6, “E.H. Griffith” (probably Ezra Hollace Griffith, a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society) described a first edition he found “while visiting an old Curiosity Shop at the foot of Pike’s Peak, Colorado.” He added that he did not recall anyone who knew the “Germ Theory” had been propounded before 1865 and quoted chunks of the book. Griffith’s own article was reprinted twice in local medical publications and then apparently disappeared from scholarly knowledge until being swept up by a Google scanner.Google Scholar
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    A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms Bred in the Bodies of Men and Other Animals; Taken from the Authorities, and Observations of all Authors … from Hippocrates to this Time … trans. by Joseph Browne (London: 1721), online from Google Books. This first appeared as Historia Naturalis et Medica Latorum Lubricorum (Geneva: 1715).Google Scholar
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    William Bulloch refers to this work in his History of Bacteriology (New York: 1979), 32, and reproduces drawings of some of the insects on 33.Google Scholar
  34. 107.
    Jean Astruc, De Morbis Venereis, trans. as A Treatise of Venereal Diseases, in Nine Booksfrom the Last Latin Edition Printed at Paris, vol. 1 (London: 1754), online from ECCO. The first English translation, which I have not seen, appeared in 1737. Some library catalogues describe the author of the Système as “Robert Boyle” or state that the Système is mistakenly attributed to the chemist Robert Boyle, but Astruc does not give a first name.Google Scholar
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    This author should be distinguished from the later Pierre Desault who became famous as a Parisian surgeon. The elder Desault’s book was entitled “Dissertation sur les Maladies Vénériennes … Avec Deux Dissertations, l’Une sur la Rage, l’Autre sur la Phtisie …” (Bordeaux: 1733, Paris: 1738). It was granted an imprimatur by Andry and was translated by John Andree as A Treatise on the Venereal Distemper … with Two Dissertations: The First on Madness from the Bite of Mad Creatures; The Second on Consumptions … (London: 1738). Andree’s translation, which I have used, was dedicated to Daniel Turner, see 10–12. It is online from ECCO.Google Scholar
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    Sloane suffered a disabling stroke at the age of 79 in 1739. Though he didn’t retire as President of the Royal Society until 1741, his activity and influence were waning by 1740. For Andree’s investigation of hemlock, see Susan Lawrence, Charitable Knowledge: Hospital Pupils and Practitioners in Eighteenth-Century London (Cambridge: 1996), 214–6, 246–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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