Warden Wilkins of Wadham

5th November 2013

News, Alumni news

As we approach the 400th anniversary of the birth of Wadham’s Warden, the Revd Dr John Wilkins, Dr Allan Chapman looks back on the life of this pioneering and visionary man, whose ‘scientific club’ went on to become The Royal Society of London.

  • John Wilkins

    John Wilkins (1614–1672), Warden of Wadham College (1648–1659), by John Greenhill

  • Dr Allan Chapman, alumnus and lecturer, Wadham College

January 1st 2014 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Revd Dr John Wilkins, who in 1648 became Wadham College’s sixth Warden.  Wilkins is significant because he was a persuasive advocate of the new ‘experimental’ approach to science, was deeply influenced by the scientific writings of Sir Francis Bacon, and at Wadham became a great inspirer of the young, including Wadham’s own Sir Christopher Wren, and Wren’s Christ Church friend Dr Robert Hooke.

Family background
Wilkins was born in Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, the son of Walter Wilkins, an Oxford goldsmith, and Jane Dod, a lady with Northamptonshire county gentry and clerical connections.  His maternal grandfather, the Revd John Dod, was a major influence upon his early years, and young John went up to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and was subsequently ordained priest in the Church of England.  He enjoyed family clerical patronage, and seems to have had ample opportunity to further his career in Oxford, London, and beyond, including becoming Chaplain to Prince Louis of the Rhine, King Charles I’s nephew, in Germany, and visiting Heidelberg University.  Following Walter’s death, Jane would re-marry, and Walter Pope, born of that marriage, would go up to Wadham during his half-brother’s Wardenship, and himself become a clergyman-scientist, F.R,S., and Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London.  The two half-brothers, both Anglican clergymen and scientists, would always remain close.

But before this time, in the mid-1640s, Wilkins became part of  that informal circle of experimentally-minded scientific friends, including Samuel Hartlib, George Ent, and John Wallis, that centred upon the Royalist Physician, Dr, later Sir, Charles Scarburgh F.R.S. – which no doubt helped to develop his taste for informal clubs of scientific gentlemen.

Wilkins was a pioneer of the use of the English language as a vehicle for carrying the ‘new science’ beyond the scholarly community.

Dr Allan Chapman

An English-language science writer

Wilkins was a pioneer of the use of the English language as a vehicle for carrying the ‘new science’ beyond the scholarly community to the English-literate laity.  His written English was easy to read, almost conversational, with a strong sense of narrative, and took the ‘big’ astronomical ideas of the age to anyone who could read an English Bible or story-book.

Wilkins’ Discovery of New World and Discourse concerning a New Planet (1638, 1640), Mercury; or the Secret Messenger (1641), and Mathematical Magick (1648) discussed the ideas of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and a variety of ingenious inventions, in plain English and accompanied by engraved illustrations.  It is clear that he was inspired and captivated by the ‘new astronomy’, and was an enthusiastic proponent of the heliocentric theory, which saw the earth and planets as rotating around the sun (contra the classical earth-centred universe), with the stars being located not equidistantly from the earth on a ‘starry sphere’ but scattered, perhaps to infinity, throughout space.  Of course, all of these ideas had taken on added weight since the first application of the telescope to astronomy in 1609, and Wilkins was at pains in his writings to point out that while the moon looked smooth to the naked eye, it actually had a rough, mountainous, pitted surface when viewed through the telescope, suggesting it to be a world, with continents, just like the earth.  And perhaps the other planets, which the telescope revealed to be spheres and not mere points of light as they had appeared to the naked eye since time immemorial, could likewise have continental features, which could well be disclosed by improved instruments.

Wilkins also discussed the mechanical problems involved in attempting to build a winged ‘Flying Chariot’ that might not only cross the oceans, but might even fly to the moon, and make contact with any ‘Selenites’ or moon-folk who might live there!

Mathematical Magick explores possible applications of mechanical technology to everyday life.  These extended from automatic kitchen spits for cooking meat to industrial machines, powered land vehicles, flying machines, and a variety of self-acting contrivances.  For springs, levers, gears, and the harnessing of natural forces could – in the full Baconian tradition – alleviate and improve the human condition.  Wilkins, indeed, had a visionary sense of how technology might change the world.

Wilkins had a visionary sense of how technology might change the world.

Dr Allan Chapman

Warden Wilkins - diplomat, pragmatist, moderate and friend

As Warden of Wadham, he began, around 1650, to form a Philosophical [Scientific] Club of scientific friends, both Wadham men and people from the wider community and nation. 

Perhaps the most famous was the Hon. Robert Boyle, son of an Irish earl, who settled in Oxford to be part of Wilkins’s scientific circle, and whose great discoveries in the chemistry of gases, respiration, combustion, and chemical action were reported to the informal gathering of friends. Wadham’s gardens were notable for their collection of mechanical contrivances, including a talking statue, a rainbow-maker, and glass beehives used to study the bee colony. Robert Hooke in 1675 mentions him and Wilkins experimenting with flying machines in the garden at Wadham 20 years before.  And it was almost certainly in the 'garden' at Wadham that the experiment which used a syringe to administer an opiate to Sir Christopher Wren's dog was performed in 1656 to see if the blood circulated, and could therefore get the drug to the brain faster that giving it orally.  

Friendship, however, is the key to Wilkins.  All the evidence suggests that his geniality and gift for friendship were legendary. A thing, I would suggest, which comes across in the portrait Mary Beale painted after he became Bishop of Chester in 1668, which displays a quizzical smile rarely found in formal portraits of  seventeenth-century ecclesiastical and state dignitaries.  Indeed, his ability to turn Wadham into a tolerant haven during those ‘troubled times’ of post-Civil-War Cromwellian England became well known.  Though on good terms with Oliver Cromwell, and even marrying Oliver’s youngest sister Robina, the widow of Peter French, a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, Wilkins used his great influence in Oxford to mitigate the rigours of those Puritan factions which were attempting to enforce a strict Calvinist discipline on the University.  This is borne out by the fact that Royalist gentry, such as the father of Sir Christopher Wren (himself the evicted Royalist Dean of Windsor) were willing to entrust their sons’ education to Wilkins – as well as, in the case of Wren, to the Royalist Sir Charles Scarburgh.

Wilkins was an astute diplomat, an instinctive moderate, and a pragmatist, who at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was more than glad to resume the exercise of his Holy Orders as a clergyman of the Church of England into which he had been ordained in 1637.

Wadham’s gardens were notable for their collection of mechanical contrivances, including a talking statue, a rainbow-maker, and glass beehives used to study the bee colony. Robert Hooke in 1675 mentions him and Wilkins experimenting with flying machines in the garden at Wadham 20 years before.

Dr Allan Chapman

The Royal Society

In 1659 Wilkins left Wadham to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, though in spite of his popularity amongst the Trinity dons, he was removed from that office, as the previous, Puritan-evicted Master was still alive, and had a right to claim his old job back.

By 1660, Wilkins’ old Oxford Club had started to meet in Gresham College, in the City of London, where they teamed up with an associated group of London-based scientific friends that already met at Gresham, where Wren was now Professor of Astronomy (prior to the blossoming of his more famous career as an architect).  In November 1660 members of this Club applied to the new King Charles II, and were granted the title ‘The Royal Society of London’.
Unlike the French Académie, neither the monarch nor the state gave anything to the Society beyond Charters of Privilege and some items of ceremonial regalia.  Obliged to pay its own way, the new Royal Society enjoyed the independence to conduct whatever researches it chose, with no supervision or interference from ‘on high’.  A formula which became normal practice for other British learned societies, including those with Royal Charters, such as the Royal Academy of Arts (1768), Royal College of Surgeons (1800), and the Royal Astronomical Society (1820).

Wilkins became Secretary of the new Royal Society, and would have been the obvious candidate for the Presidency, but his marriage connection with Cromwell undermined that possibility.  The Society, however, in the same spirit as Wilkins’ Oxford ‘Club’, was a free association of ‘Gentlemen, free, and unconfin’d’, as Wilkins’ old Wadham pupil, Bishop Thomas Sprat  F.R.S., later of  Rochester, would put it in his History of the Royal Society, (1667: second edition, 1702, p. 67).  The Society’s remit extended from experimental medicine to astronomy, from machinery to the microscopic discovery of living cells in plant structures.

The Royal Society would not only become the prototype for subsequent British and English-speaking world scientific societies; it would also influence those of the U.S.A., Australia, and beyond.  And useful knowledge was primary.  Not just research, but how that research could be applied for the progressive improvement of human life.  In the words of Wilkins’ intellectual mentor, Bacon, ‘for the Glory of God, and the Relief of Man’s Estate’, or pure and applied scientific research – an approach to knowledge, indeed, that appealed strongly to Wilkins’ practical and deeply humane turn of mind.

Wilkins and theology

Like Sir Francis Bacon, Wilkins saw scientific progress – as did his friend Boyle, and many others – in terms of divine revelation, as God revealed the secrets of His creation to intelligent, rational, experimental inquiry.

In addition to his formal theological works, the whole of Wilkins’ English scientific writings are suffused with a sense of divine wonder.  No fundamentalist or simple Biblical literalist, Wilkins, like his heroes Kepler and Galileo, believed that the Bible’s purpose was to tell us of God’s great creative majesty, and His loving relationship with the human race which He had created in His own image.  It was not to be read as a textbook of physics: for God had given us brains and intelligence to work the physics out for ourselves, by science over the process of time.  It must be admitted, however, that not everyone agreed with Wilkins; one instance was the Scottish theologian Alexander Ross, who launched a tirade against his Biblical interpretations in 1646.  But Wilkins played a leading role in the foundation of the School of ‘Natural Theology’: an approach to science and religion that would flourish in his own time, would be taught to the young Charles Darwin in Cambridge in 1825, and which many scientists of distinction, including Fellows of the Royal Society, can still accept in its essential theological and scientific premises today.  And while he was deprived of his Wardenship of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1660, Wilkins’ career in the re-established Church of England advanced apace: he first became Dean of Ripon, then in 1668 Lord Bishop of Chester.

John Wilkins’ significance and legacy


In this 400th anniversary year, we might think of John Wilkins as a remarkably far-sighted, perhaps prophetic, figure.  For he was a firm advocate of the new instrument- and experiment-based approach to science, in which devices such as the telescope, magnetic compass, barometer, microscope, and other instruments and research procedures were viewed as having the power to transform long-held ideas of how the universe and natural world were constituted.  Likewise, in the tradition of Sir Francis Bacon, he saw scientific knowledge as facilitating a new, progressive technology, which, when ‘ingeniously’ applied, had the power to transform the human condition for the better.

Wilkins saw knowledge not in arcane, closeted terms, and accessible only to a learned elite, but as open, participatory, and involving people on all levels, from learned philosophers to ingenious artisans, very much in the tradition of the researchers in the fictional ‘Salomon’s House’ on the island of Bensalem, in Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627).  It was towards this end that he used plain English as the medium of communication for his visionary ideas.

Wilkins’ Essay towards a Real Character (1668) was a pioneering work in linguistics and symbolic languages, in which he proposed a universal philosophical (scientific) language, clear and precise, and able to rise above the inconsistencies of translations and conventional linguistic usage.

As a theologian he was highly influential, if sometimes controversial.  His writings on Preaching (five editions, 1646-1675), The Beauty of Providence (1649, 1677, etc.), and the Gift of Prayer (1653, etc.), and his Collected Sermons were widely studied.  But his posthumous Principles and Duties of Natural Religion (1675), like his more obviously scientific writings, was especially significant, as it explained the relationship between science, religion, and the power of Godly scientific endeavours to make the world a better place.

John Wilkins died of the ‘stone’, or a stoppage of the urinary tract, in November 1672.  True to form as a man of science, he was partially dissected by way of post mortem by medical friends.  No stone, however, was found, leading some contemporary and subsequent writers to speculate that his death might have come about accidentally, as a result of the strong opiate or toxic medications not infrequently used in seventeenth-century medical practice.  One might also wonder whether Wilkins could have succumbed to a form of prostate cancer, which, as a disease, was not even recognised in the seventeenth century.

His impact upon the age in which he lived, and the recollection of his achievement upon the ages that would follow, was inspiring in its character.

The College will  be celebrating the quatercentenary of Wilkins' birth in 2014. Details will appear on the website in due course.

Watch Dr Allan Chapman talk about microscopy and Robert Hooke's contribution to science in the Bodleian Library Great Medical Discoveries series.

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