John Hill (c. 1714 - 21 November 1775), called because of his Swedish honours, "Sir" John Hill, was an English author and botanist. He contributed to contemporary periodicals and was awarded the title of Sir in recognition of his illustrated botanical compendium The Vegetable System.
He was the son of the Rev. Theophilus Hill and is said to have been born in Peterborough. He was apprenticed to an apothecary and on the completion of his apprenticeship he set up in a small shop in St Martin's Lane, Westminster. He also travelled over the country in search of rare herbs, with a view to publishing a hortus siccus, but the plan failed.
He had a medical degree from Edinburgh, and he practised as a "quack doctor", making considerable sums by the preparation of dubious herb and vegetable medicines. He was known for his "pectoral balsam of honey" and "tincture of bardana".
His first publication was a translation of Theophrastus's History of Stones (1746). From this time forward he was an indefatigable writer. He edited the British Magazine (1746-1750), and for two years (1751-1753) he wrote a daily letter, "The Inspector," for the London Advertiser and Literary Gazette. He also produced novels, plays and scientific works; and was a major contributor to the supplement of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia.
From 1759 to 1775 he was engaged on a huge botanical work--The Vegetable System (26 vols fol.)--adorned by 1600 copper-plate engravings. Hill's botanical labours were undertaken at the request of his patron, Lord Bute, and he was rewarded by the Order of Vasa from the King of Sweden in 1774.
Of the seventy-six separate works with which he is credited in the Dictionary of National Biography, the most valuable are those that deal with botany. He is reputed to have been the author of the second part of The Oeconomy of Human Life (1751), the first part of which is by Lord Chesterfield, and Hannah Glasse's famous manual of cookery was generally ascribed to him (see Boswell, ed. Hill, iii. 285). Samuel Johnson said of him that he was "an ingenious man, but had no veracity." See a Short Account of the Life, Writings and Character of the late Sir John Hill (1779), which is chiefly occupied with a descriptive catalogue of his works; also Temple Bar (1872, xxxv. 261-266).
John Hill's often provocative and scurrilous writings involved him in many quarrels, both in the field of science and that of literature.
During the 1740s, and especially in 1746-1747, Hill attended many meetings of the Royal Society, and there presented the results of several of his studies, both in the field of botany (on the propagation of moss), medicine (a surgical operation to remove a needle from the abdominal wall of a man), and geology-chemistry (on the origin of the sapphire's colour, on chrysocolla, on an alternative to Windsor loam for the making of fire-resistant bricks). His works On the manner of seeding mosses and On Windsor loam appeared in the Royal Society's journal, the Philosophical Transactions.
On the basis of these contributions, Hill apparently hoped to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society. Furthermore, he had the backing of several members of the Royal Society: the botanist Peter Collinson, the physician and scientist William Watson, and the antiquarian William Stukeley. Moreover, Hill had links with important nobles: John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu and Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond, also Fellows of the Royal Society; and Sir Thomas Robinson, Governor of Barbados and antiquarian. Despite Hill's merits as a scientist (at a time when many Fellows had no scientific background) and his relations, his election to the title of Fellow failed to materialise.
Disappointed by the Royal Society's lack, in his opinion, of scientific standards, Hill started to criticise the Society. In December 1749, he started writing anonymous, critical reviews of some articles published in the Philosophical Transactions. Moreover, in January 1750, Hill began a campaign of criticism and derision against the Royal Society by publishing, under an alias, a treatise entitled Lucina sine concubitu. A letter humbly address'd to the Royal Society; In which is proved, by most Incontestable Evidence, drawn from Reason and Practice, that a Woman may conceive and be brought to bed, without any commerce with Man. Under the false name of Abraham Johnson, a physician and man-midwife, Hill pretended to have observed cases where women had become pregnant without having had any kind of sexual relations with a man.
Henry Fielding attacked him in The Covent Garden Journal, Christopher Smart wrote a mock-epic, The Hilliad, against him, and David Garrick replied to his strictures against him by two epigrams, one of which runs: "For physics and farces, his equal there scarce is; His farces are physic, his physic a farce is."
In 2012 George Rousseau published a full-length biography of Hill entitled The Notorious Sir John Hill: The Man Destroyed by Ambition in the Era of Celebrity. Rousseau's main point is that Hill has been a sadly neglected figure whose life and works ought to have been consulted to illuminate the best - and worst - features of early Georgian London, especially during the 1750s. Rousseau's biography also demonstrates Hill's polymathic endeavors as apothecary, botanist, conchologist, doctor, entrepreneur, geologist, herbalist, journalist, novelist, satirist, and all-around Wit and 'Man about Town' in an era when 'Wits' ruled the civilized world and when metropolitan culture was beginning to assume the power it has wielded over the last two centuries. Reviews of The Notorious Sir John Hill have so far applauded Rousseau's aim to demonstrate that Hill was driven by the ambition to possess a 'celebrated life' and become a 'celebrated figure' during a generation when celebrity culture was on the ascendancy.