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NOOTH, JOHN MERVIN, physician, army officer, and scientist; baptized 5 Sept. 1737 in Sturminster Newton, England, eldest son of Henry Nooth, apothecary, and Bridget Mervin; appears to have married twice, the second time to Elizabeth —, and he had two sons and at least one daughter; d. 3 May 1828 in Bath, England.

John Mervin Nooth entered the University of Edinburgh in 1762 or 1763 and graduated md in 1766; his thesis was a study of rickets. His family clearly was well-to-do, and in 1769–70 Nooth was able to follow the fashionable custom of spending a year touring the Continent. He evidently pursued scientific studies thereafter, since he was elected to the Royal Society of London on 13 March 1774, having been nominated by Benjamin Franklin and the anatomist William Hunter among others, and was admitted 11 days later. He had previously communicated a note to the society on an improved construction of an electrical machine. In 1775 he published in the society’s Philosophical Transactions his most important contribution to science, “The description of an apparatus for impregnating water with fixed air.” Fixed air was the 18th-century term for carbon dioxide. This paper caused a dispute between Nooth and the celebrated scientist Joseph Priestley over the design of Priestley’s pioneering apparatus in the field, but Priestley himself eventually acknowledged the superiority of Nooth’s device. Nooth’s apparatus was widely employed for some decades to produce fixed air, which among many uses was highly regarded as a therapeutic agent. His suggestion that his method would permit the production of artificial spring waters, thus saving patients the expense of visiting distant spas, proved unsuccessful in practice, but it presaged the now ubiquitous carbonated beverage industry.

In October 1775, after the outbreak of the American revolution, Nooth was appointed both physician extraordinary and purveyor in the medical service of the British army in North America; he took up his posts at New York in the autumn. This combination of positions was unusual and suggests an influential patron. On 10 April 1779 he became superintendent general of hospitals for the British forces in North America. The medical department was racked with discord, and Nooth’s position of high responsibility was intended to allow him to overcome difficulties, which he had some success in accomplishing. He held the post until 1783 when, the revolution over, he left America with the last units of the British army; he went on half pay on 6 Feb. 1784. In London by April 1784, Nooth invented an instrument for the giving of artificial respiration. A contemporary medical writer described the inventor as “a gentleman distinguished as much for liberality as genius, to whom the Arts are indebted for several valuable inventions, which are commonly attributed to others.”

Nooth was placed on full pay some time in 1788 and in late summer was sent to Quebec as superintendent general of hospitals. He acquired the reputation of a superior physician, and was sought out by such distinguished patients as Governor Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton*], Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe* of Upper Canada, and Prince Edward* Augustus, the future Duke of Kent and Strathearn. Indeed Edward, who was in Halifax, had Nooth sent there in 1798 expressly to treat him for a severe leg injury sustained in a fall from a horse, because “Nooth is I believe justly considered the first professional man on this continent.” Nooth helped to investigate the Baie-Saint-Paul malady, which was creating serious health problems in the 1780s [see James Bowman*]. He concurred in the general opinion of local physicians that the disease was probably a variant of syphilis and devised remedies that were thought to be helpful by contemporary authorities. In 1795 he testified before the Lower Canadian House of Assembly about the importation of contagious diseases into the colony on ocean vessels. His interest in medical discovery and the trust he inspired in others are indicated by his involvement in an agreement between one of his colleagues, Dr George Longmore*, and the Roman Catholic priest Pierre-Joseph Compain*, by which Longmore acquired a secret cure for cankers.

In addition to his official duties as the senior army medical officer in Canada and his activities as a practitioner, Nooth pursued numerous scientific interests. In the summer of 1792 he was visited for three days by the French botanist André Michaux*, who was on an expedition to Lower Canada; Michaux was impressed by a number of his inventions. Nooth was a regular correspondent of Sir Joseph Banks*, to whom he sent samples of many indigenous plants, including Zizania aquatica (wild rice). He made meteorological studies, examined mineral springs, and pointed out variations in the position of the magnetic pole.

Nooth also had a strong interest in the economic, social, and political situation in Lower Canada and wrote at length about it to Banks. He worried about the spread of revolutionary principles by the Americans, “who lately have taken upon them the kind office of debauching the good people of the Colony who are & I am sorry to say it, too much disposed to listen to those diabolical doctrines which have been lately propagated by the French Nation.” He thus approved both the passage of an alien act to clear the colony of “French Emissaries” and the exemplary execution of David McLane* in 1797, which together “have greatly check’d the spirit of Democracy amongst us.” He chafed at the want of economic development despite the colony’s natural advantages and a healthy climate, unrivalled in the United States. “If this country was inhabited by an intelligent set of people,” he fumed, “it would very soon become important.” In 1790 he was a director of the Agriculture Society of Quebec, which had been founded the previous year to promote the commercialization of the colony’s agriculture through the introduction of the most recent scientific practices in crop cultivation and animal husbandry. He reproached the Canadians for not exploiting the Labrador fisheries more fully and conducted experiments to find an improved method of extracting oil from white porpoise blubber. On the other hand he praised the Canadians for leaving no part of a carcass unused and declared their method of soap manufacture far superior to European practices.

Land granting, immigration, and settlement were also among Nooth’s preoccupations. He approved Simcoe’s policy of opening wide to Americans the door of Upper Canada and expected that the resulting immigrants would “greatly increase the internal Strength of this Country” and counterbalance the disaffected Canadians. In Lower Canada he was strongly critical of the Executive Council in its dispute with Governor Robert Prescott* over land-granting policy. He argued that the council’s refusal to issue patents on land already applied for, and in some cases occupied, was causing financial stress to bona fide colonizers, such as William Berczy*, a personal friend, whom he would be instrumental in having released from debtor’s prison in 1799. As a participant in the war against the Americans from 1775 to 1783, Nooth was himself entitled to a grant of crown land in Lower Canada. He made numerous proposals for other grants individually and in company with associates. In November 1802, as a leader according to the system of township leaders and associates [see Samuel Gale*], he received a patent on 23,100 acres of land in Thetford Township. He also owned land in William Henry (Sorel).

In 1790 Nooth had purchased two adjoining lots on Rue Saint-Louis, Quebec, and he established his residence on them. Five years later his household counted three Protestants and four Roman Catholics, the latter probably servants. From 1797 Nooth mysteriously became increasingly ill, and in 1799 he requested permission to return to England. In July he sold his house to John Hale* for £1,500, a price that indicates he had been living in some luxury. He left Quebec at the end of the month and took up residence on Quebec Street, London. Soon after, he coughed up a lead bullet; it had apparently lain in a glass of wine that he had hurriedly finished off and had become lodged in his bronchial tree. Following his recovery, Nooth was physician to the Duke of Kent’s household from 1800 until the duke’s death in 1820. Nooth went to Gibraltar about 1804; three years later he was placed on half pay and returned to England. He maintained scientific contact with Lower Canada for some time through correspondence with Jean-Baptiste Lahaille*, professor at the Séminaire de Québec. Nooth died at Bath, where he had been living probably since at least 1819, and was buried in the rural parish of Bathampton on 10 May 1828.

Nooth’s apparatus of 1775 remained in common use through most of his lifetime and was still on sale in pharmacies in the mid 19th century. Thousands were exported from Britain. In December 1846 the chemist Peter Squire made of its bottom chamber the essential part of a vaporizer he invented to administer ether in one of the first operations to employ general anaesthesia.

Charles G. Roland

In addition to his doctoral thesis, “Tentamen medicum inaugurale de rachidite . . . ,” submitted in 1766 to the University of Edinburgh, John Mervin Nooth wrote at least two articles: “The description of an apparatus for impregnating water with fixed air; and of the manner of conducting that process,” Royal Soc. of London, Philosophical Trans. (London), 65 (1775): 59–66; and “Case of a disease of the chest from a leaden shot accidentally passing through the glottis into the trachea,” Soc. for the Improvement of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge, Trans. (London), 3 (1812): 1–6. Nooth’s letters to Sir Joseph Banks, which are held at the Bibliothèque de la Ville de Montréal, Salle Gagnon, were edited and published by Jacques Rousseau in Le Naturaliste canadien (Québec), 58 (1931): 139–47, 170–77, as “Lettres du Dr J. M. Nooth à Sir Joseph Banks.” William Berczy did a portrait of Nooth but its location is unknown.

ANQ-Q, CN1-83, 16 avril 1790; CN1-256, 13, 21 juill. 1799. AUM, P 58, U, Nooth to [Berczy], 5 Dec. 1799. PAC, RG 1, L3L: 2455–58; RG 8, I (C ser.), 279. PRO, PROB 11/1742/371; WO 7/96. Somerset Record Office (Taunton, Eng.), Bathampton, Reg. of burials, 10 May 1828. William Berczy, “William von Moll Berczy,” ANQ Rapport, 1940–41: 23. Corr. of LieutGovernor Simcoe (Cruikshank), 1: 159. “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 22, 72, 122. “Le duc de Kent: à quelle date faut-il assigner son départ définitif du Canada?” Montarville Boucher de La Bruère, édit., BRH, 25 (1919): 367–76. Gwillim, Diary of Mrs Simcoe (Robertson; 1911). L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1823, app.T. André Michaux, “Portions of the journal of André Michaux, botanist, written during his travels in the United States and Canada, 1785 to 1796 . . . ,” ed. C. S. Sargent, American Philosophical Soc., Proc. (Philadelphia), 26 (1889): 72. Joseph Priestley, Experiments and observations on different kinds of air (3v., London, 1774–77), 2: 265–76. William Smith, The diary and selected papers of Chief Justice William Smith, 1784–1793, ed. L. F. S. Upton (2v., Toronto, 1963–65), 1: 46. F. X. Swediaur, Practical observations on the more obstinate and inveterate venereal complaints; to which are added, an account of a new venereal disease which has lately appeared in Canada, and a pharmacopaia syphilitica . . . (3rd ed., Edinburgh, 1788). Isaac Weld, Travels through the states of North America, and the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (4th ed., 2v., London, 1807), 1: 384. Bath Chronicle (Bath, Eng.), 8 May 1828. Quebec Gazette, 16 Oct. 1788, 15 Aug. 1799. William Johnston, Roll of commissioned officers in the medical service of the British army . . . (Aberdeen, Scot., 1917), 47. John Andre, William Berczy, co-founder of Toronto; a sketch ([Toronto, 1967]), 53. Gabriel Nadeau, “Un savant anglais à Québec à la fin du XVIIIe siècle: le docteur John-Mervin Nooth,” LUnion médicale du Canada (Montréal), 74 (1945): 49–74. P.-G. Roy, “Une vieille maison de Québec, le commissariat,” BRH, 48 (1942): 362–64. David Zuck, “Dr Nooth and his apparatus; the role of carbon dioxide in medicine in the late eighteenth century,” British Journal of Anœsthesia (London), 50 (1978): 393–405.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Charles G. Roland, “NOOTH, JOHN MERVIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nooth_john_mervin_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nooth_john_mervin_6E.html
Author of Article: Charles G. Roland
Title of Article: NOOTH, JOHN MERVIN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: November 23, 2014