Resurrecting the Body Politic – Physiology’s Influence on Sir William Petty’s Political Arithmetick


In: Early Science and Medicine

Sir William Petty (1623-1687), the founder of the method of “political arithmetick,” was a trained physician and anatomist. Receiving medical education both in England and on the continent, he later turned away from an academic career and a medical practice in favour of dealing with political and social matters, becoming one of the first advocates of quantifying social phenomena in order to better govern a population. Offering his services to both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, Petty sought to reform and transform society (in Ireland in particular), while considering the physician’s treatment of natural bodies and the political advisor’s treatment of the body politic to be analogous enterprises. In doing so, he did not refrain from suggesting serious interventions into social life – something that his contemporary peers did not consider compatible with their medical backgrounds. This article attempts to investigate how Petty’s proposals could have differed so much in their scope and content from those of his colleagues, while remaining true to their largely shared Baconian and Harveyan origins.


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     Ludovic Desmedt“Money in the ‘Body Politick:’ The Analysis of Trade and Circulation in the Writings of Seventeenth-Century Political Arithmeticians,” History of Political Economy37.1 (2005) 79-101; Alain Clément “The Influence of Medicine on Political Economy in the Seventeenth Century” History of Economics Review 38.2 (2003) 1-22.

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     McCormickWilliam Petty28-39.

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     See Hilde de Ridder-Symoens“The Mobility of Medical Students from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries: The Institutional Content,” in Centres of Medical Excellence? Medical Travel and Education in Europe 1500-1789eds. Ole Peter Grell Andrew Cunningham and Jon Arrizabalaga (Farnham 2010) 47-89; Rina Knoeff “Herman Boerhaave at Leiden: Communis Europae praeceptor” in ibid. 269-86; and idem “Dutch Anatomy and Clinical Medicine in 17th-Century Europe” European History Online (EGO) published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) (Mainz 20 June 2012): (last accessed 30/05/2015).

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     Simon Schaffer“The Glorious Revolution and Medicine in Britain and the Netherlands,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London43 (1989) 167-90.

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     Clément“Influence of Medicine” 12.

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     PettyEconomic Writings129.

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     See Andrew Cunningham“The Pen and the Sword: Recovering the Disciplinary Identity of Physiology and Anatomy before 1800, I: Old Physiology. The Pen,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences33 (2002) 631-55; and idem “The Pen and the Sword: Recovering the Disciplinary Identity of Physiology and Anatomy before 1800: II: Old Anatomy. The Sword” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 34 (2003) 51-76.

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     Cunningham“The Pen and the Sword I” 655.

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     Clément“Influence of Medicine” 10.

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     HarveyThe Works of William Harvey62-7.

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     William PettyEconomic Writings119.

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     McCormickWilliam Petty150.

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     See Aspromourgos“Life of William Petty,” and Juri Mykkänen, “‘To Methodize and Regulate them:’ William Petty’s Governmental Science of Statistics,” History of the Human ­Sciences7 (1994) 65-88.

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     William Petty“Letter from William Petty to Hartlib, 16 December 1650,” in The Hartlib Papers<http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/hartlib/view?file=main/8A_23&term0=title_hartlib&term1=title_to&term2=title_petty#highlight> (last accessed 30/05/2015).

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     PettyEconomic Writings157-66.

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     PettyEconomic Writings60.

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     See Steve Ridge“Political Bodies and Animal Œconomies: Reconsidering the Relationship between Healthcare and Statecraft in Late Seventeenth-Century England,” Ex Historia2 (2010) 1-19.

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     PettyEconomic Writings157.

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     PettyEconomic Writings202.

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     PettyEconomic Writings273.

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     PettyEconomic Writings656.

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     PettyEconomic Writings130.

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