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Jonathan Stokes

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Dr Jonathan Stokes (1755-1831) was an English physician and botanist, a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, and an early adopter of the heart drug digitalis.

Stokes was probably born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, around 1755 and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1778, qualifying as MD in 1782.

He practised medicine in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, and also pursued interests in botany as a plant collector and cataloguer.

Stokes became associated with William Withering, physician and botanist, who was a member of the influential Lunar Society. Stokes had dedicated his thesis on oxygen to Withering and became a member with him of the Lunar Society from 1783 to 1788.

Stokes contributed to Withering's An Account of the Foxglove and its Medical Uses (1785), writing a preface on the history of digitalis and providing details of six clinical trials on patients he had treated for heart failure using Withering's pioneer method. He helped to disseminate medical knowledge of digitalis, lecturing to the Medical Society of Edinburgh on 20 February 1799.

He collaborated with Withering on the third volume of the second edition (1792) of Withering's standard botanical text, 'The Botanical Arrangement of All the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain'.

Withering later fell out with Stokes (as he had with Erasmus Darwin), in a dispute concerning books.*(See below).

In 1790 Stokes was elected as one of the inaugural 16 associates of the newly founded Linnean Society of London and corresponded with Carolus Linnaeus the Younger. He spent the rest of his life in private medical practice in Chesterfield and pursued many scientific interests, publishing A Botanical Materia Medica: Consisting of the Generic and Specific Characters of the Plants Used in Medicine and Diet, with Synonyms, and References to Medical Authors (1812) and Botanical Commentaries (1830).

He died in Chesterfield on 30 April 1831 and was buried at St Mary's, Chesterfield.

The plant Stokesia cyanea or Stokesia laevis (Asteraceae/Compositae) is named after him.


Dr Jonathan Stokes - By Roy Sinclair. (November 2017).[1]

Withering and Stokes fell out due to Stokes not returning over 150 books that belonged to Withering. This was a huge number in 1790. Many organisations had libraries with fewer volumes.

They had been lent to assist Stokes in his role of helping Withering with his Botanical Arrangement.

Stokes' name is as prominent as Withering's in the first two volumes of the 2nd edition of his Botanical Arrangement, printed in 1787 before the dispute. His name is still there, but less prominent in the 3rd volume of the 2nd edition, printed in 1792 after the dispute.

Withering had to resort to lawyers to ensure their return and when they were returned, it was found Stokes had damaged some of the volumes by cutting out plates.

Many of the books were valuable first editions - the first book listed is a 1636 Gerardes Herball !

A letter listing all volumes is in the Osler-Withering bequest at the Royal Medical Society in London and it is also printed in facsimile in Ronald Manns book, William Withering and the Foxglove, MTP Press 1986. Withering was not the one at fault. Although he wasn’t intentionally bad, Stokes was just very disorganised etc.

The dispute between Erasmus Darwin and Withering is more difficult to assess but several letters exist written by Erasmus Darwin that show he set out to destroy Witherings reputation. To do so he even used his own son Robert Waring Darwin (Charles Darwins father). Robert entered into a public dispute with Withering over ethics/etiquette which was resolved in Witherings favour. Robert was so suitably embarrassed by how Erasmus had tricked him into joining in his dislike of Withering that he attempted to buy up and destroy all copies of the published dispute.

The real cause is that Erasmus considered Withering (with no justifiation) as some sort of junior protégé but Withering had very rapidly far outshone Erasmus.

Erasmus considered himself as a Gentleman Physician but saw Withering incorrectly as his social inferior despite Withering being then, medically, the more successful and famous of the two.

Erasmus was not a person to cross and his bitter sarcasm was noted by many. It is considered that this sarcasm led his son (also called Erasmus) to commit suicide and later estrangement with Robert.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Personal research of R. Sinclair