The Notorious Sir John Hill: The Man Destroyed by Ambition in the Era of Celebrity by George S. Rousseau G’71 now available from Lehigh University Press.
Sir John Hill (1714 - 1775) was one of Georgian England’s most vilified men despite having contributed prolifically to its medicine, science, and literature. Born into a humble country family, the son of an impecunious God-fearing Anglican minister, he started out as an apothecary, went on to collect natural objects for the great Whig lords, and became a botanist of distinction. But his scandalous behavior prevented his election to the Royal Society and entry to all other professions for which he was qualified. Today, we can understand his actions as the result of a personality disorder; then he was understood in moral terms. When he saw the die cast, he turned to journalism and publication, and strove maniacally to succeed without patronage. As a writer he was cut down in fierce “paper wars.” Yet by the time he died, he had been knighted by the Swedish monarch and become a household name among scientists and writers throughout Britain and Europe. His life was a series of paradoxes without coherence, perhaps because he was above all a provocateur. In time he would also become a filter for the century in which he lived: its personalities - great and small - as well as the broad canvas of its Enlightenment culture. Any biography necessarily stretches beyond the man to those whose profiles he illuminates.