The Correspondence of James Jurin

Primary Contributors:

Andrea Rusnock, the Wellcome Library, and Cultures of Knowledge

James Jurin, by James Worsdale. c. 1740s. Oil on canvas, 127 by 100.4cm. (© The Royal Society, London, inv. no. 9681)

James Jurin (1684–1750)

James Jurin is known in particular for his pioneering epidemiological work with smallpox variolation. Born in London, the son of John Jurin, a dyer, and his wife Dorcas Cotesworth (sister of the physician Caleb Cotesworth), he was admitted to the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital and from there gained a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. Following his election as a Fellow to the college in 1706, Jurin was encouraged by the Master, Richard Bentley, to travel with Mordecai Cary (who — as well as proving a life-long friend to Jurin — became subsequently Bishop of Cloyne and Killala) to Leiden to attend the lectures of Hermann Boerhaave. Jurin enrolled at Leiden in 1709, although he did not receive a degree. Upon his return to England Jurin took up an appointment as headmaster of the Grammar School at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was medicine, however, that drew him back to Cambridge and following the award of his MD in 1716, he built up a practice in London and — during summer months — in Tunbridge Wells. In 1724 he married Mary Douglas, née Harris, the widow of a Northumbrian landowner, with whom he raised a family of five daughters and a son.

A follower of Newton (his portrait at the Royal Society shows him holding a copy of Newton’s Principia), Jurin  was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1717, where for five years he served as Secretary from 1722 and in which capacity, he was responsible for the publication of the Philosophical Transactions. In 1725 he was appointed physician to the newly founded Guy’s Hospital, and from 1732 he served as Governor.

Jurin worked consistently as an advocate of smallpox variolation, a practice that involved placing pus or material from the scabs of an infected patient into a vein of a non-immune individual to trigger a mild case of the disease and result in life-long immunity. He used his position as Secretary of the Royal Society to advertise in the Philosophical Transactions for accounts of experiences with this procedure. From the responses collated, he made calculations regarding the odds of mortality following variolation, and he published in a series of annual pamphlets between 1723 and 1727. Jurin worked also to collect meteorological reports from observers from as far afield as the New World, and he conducted considerable experimental work into capillarity. He was a member of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, which focussed on the study of antiquities in addition to natural philosophy. On 19 January 1750, Jurin became president of the Royal College of Physicians but, just three months after this appointment, he died in London on 29 March at the age of sixty-six.

Partners and Additional Contributors

Collation of the metadata of these letters and preparation for upload to the union catalogue was undertaken at the suggestion of Richard Aspin of the Wellcome Library, London. Permission to work from the calendar published in her impressive edition, The Correspondence of James Jurin, was given by Professor Andrea Rusnock, and the work to prepare and upload the metadata was undertaken by EMLO Digital Fellows Lucy Hennings and Mira Hudson, with assistance from Charlotte Marique.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The Correspondence of James Jurin (1684–1750), ed. Andrea A. Rusnock (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi, 1996).


The 701 letters calendared in this catalogue range from 1703 to 1750, just two months before Jurin’s death. Written predominently in English, a number are in Latin and in French. Jurin’s correspondence stretches across Europe: he exchanged letters with scholars, philosophers, and natural scientists as far afield as Eric Benzel in Uppsala, members of the St Petersburg Academy of Science, Pietro Antonio Michelotti in Italy, and Voltaire in France. Throughout his life he engaged with a number of the public controversies that played out across Europe in the early eighteenth-century. ‘Methinks I have followed your principles . . . ‘ Voltaire wrote in 1741 to Jurin, ‘Tell me whether I am a worthy disciple, … who loves truth ought to read . . . especially mr jurin.’1 As Secretary of the Royal Society, Jurin renewed contact with Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek and encouraged him, in what proved to be the final year of the microbiologist’s life, to continue his work. As Andrea Rusnock explains, ‘Jurin’s life and works, as revealed through his correspondence, provides a rich sense of the community among natural philosophers and physicians in the republic of letters.’2


Jurin’s surviving correspondence is distributed among a number of institutions. Over 300 letters were deposited by Mr Michael Totton in the Wellcome Library in 1984 (Wellcome Western mss. 6137-6146). Jurin’s daughter Frances had married a certain William Totton and the letters had descended by inheritance. The second largest batch of Jurin letters is in the Royal Society Library and dates from his tenure as secretary of the society. The remaining letters are found in a clutch of other repositories across the UK and the USA.

Further resources


James Jurin, A Letter to the Learned Caleb Cotesworth, M.D. … Containing, a Comparison Between the Mortality of the Natural Small Pox, and that Given by Inoculation … (London, 1723).

Andrea Rusnock, ‘Jurin, James (bap. 1684, d. 1750)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008).

Andrea A. Rusnock, ed., The Correspondence of James Jurin (1684–1750) (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi, 1996). In 2014, Editions Rodopi became part of Brill and continues under the imprint Brill | Rodopi. The edition is not currently in print, but it may be downloaded from Brill (access via a subscribing institution required).

Andrea A. Rusnock, ‘The weight of evidence and the burden of authority: case histories, medical statistics and smallpox inoculation’, in R. Porter, Medicine in the Enlightenment (Amseterdam and Atlanta, GA, Editions Rodopi, 1995), pp. 289–315.

Related Resources

Wellcome Library, London, catalogue.

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1 The Correspondence of James Jurin (1684–1750), ed. Andrea A. Rusnock (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi, 1996), p. 431.

2The Correspondence of James Jurin (1684–1750), ed. Andrea A. Rusnock (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi, 1996), p. 9.