Higgins, Sir John (c.1678–1729), physician and Jacobite baronet, was a son of Dr Patrick Higgins, physician, of Limerick, and his wife Mary, daughter of John Loftus of Aghacotty, Co. Limerick. His grandfather Stephen Higgins was brother to the royalist doctor Daniel Higgins who was excepted from pardon after the Cromwellian siege of Limerick and later apprehended and executed by Henry Ireton (qv). He was probably 13 when taken to France after the second siege of Limerick. He went to Paris to his mother's relative Edward Loftus, a banker. He was later educated at the university of Montpellier and received the baccalaureate (29 April 1700), licentiate (23 August 1700), and doctorate (16 December 1700).
Higgins first met the duke of Berwick (qv) at Montpellier, who persuaded him to accompany his army to Spain to fight for the Bourbon Philip V in the War of the Spanish Succession, where Higgins acted as médecin-major d'armée, taking part in many of the great sieges and battles of the war of the Spanish succession. He was present at the siege of Lérida, from where he wrote an informative letter to the marquis de Torcy, the French foreign minister, which the Marquis MacSwiney subsequently uncovered at the Quai d'Orsay. MacSwiney considered it likely that Higgins was at the battle of Villaviciosa in his capacity as chief medical officer.
Philip V, the successful Bourbon claimant to the Spanish throne, bestowed on him the honorary title of medico de cámera (February 1711). In 1712 he was sent to Bayonne to tend to the queen dowager Marie-Anne of Newburg, widow of Charles II, the last Habsburg king of Spain. It was here that he met his future wife Jeanne de Courtiade, the 22-year-old daughter of Dr Jean-Baptiste de Courtiade, physician to the town of Bayonne. They married in the cathedral (25 April 1712) and a son, Jean-Baptiste was born on 23 September 1715.
Although Philip V's title to the Spanish throne had been recognised by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the province of Catalonia refused to comply and the duke of Berwick besieged Barcelona on 12 July 1714. Higgins tended the sick and wounded of his French army. With the death of Philip's first wife, Marie Louise of Savoy (February 1714), he took as his bride Elizabeth Farnese, niece and heiress of Anthony, duke of Parma. She quickly engineered the dismissal of the chief court physician, Claude Burlet, and Philip V conferred the coveted prolomedico de cámera on Higgins, who soon had the opportunity to repay this kindness by restoring the king and queen to full health after they had fallen unexpectedly ill. On 22 November 1717 he was elected president of the Royal Academy of Surgery and Medicine in Seville, and was made a royal councillor.
Such was the king's confidence in him that the Irish Jacobite Sir Patrick Redmond informed the duke of Mar (secretary to the Old Pretender, James III) that ‘his catholic majesty does not stir in the morning noon or night without him’ (quoted in Hayes, 115). Higgins remained attached to the land of his birth and made full use of his powerful position at court to help his exiled countrymen. He intervened with the king to prevent the all-powerful Spanish prime minister Cardinal Alberoni from confiscating the goods and vessels of British subjects in Spanish ports on the outbreak of hostilities with Britain in 1718.
In 1721 the duc de Saint-Simon, French ambassador to Spain, developed the symptoms of smallpox and Higgins was immediately despatched to his aid. During his recuperation the patient and physician developed a strong friendship which survived the former's return to Paris. Two delightful pen-pictures of Higgins survive in the monumental memoirs of Saint-Simon, who also described him as the first physician in Europe.
The ever grateful Philip bestowed on him the coveted title of councillor of Castile in May 1724, and his own sovereign James III made him a knight and baronet (October 1729). In a letter to his fellow Limerick man James Therry, chief herald of James III, giving information on his genealogy, he informed him of his close kinship to the Clancys of Ballybricken, the Bourkes of Ballynarrig, and to the best Barrys and Dwyers in ‘our own county’ (Limerick). Indeed, he added that ‘if I had what belongs to me I should here enjoy several considerable tenements in Limerick and in the country’ (ibid., 116).
According to J. C. O'Callaghan (qv), Higgins discovered a curious parchment in Gothic script in a Galician monastery, entitled ‘Concordantia Hispaniae atque Hiberniae a Sedulio Scoto genere Hiberniensi, et episcopo Orelensi’, allegedly written some time previous to 710–11 and showing that the Irish were of the same stock as the Spaniards. O'Callaghan also suggests that Higgins was the grandfather of Don Bernardo O'Higgins (1780–1846), president of the republic of Chile. Hayes notes that he was an uncle of James Nihell (qv) (Nihil) (1705–59), who followed him into the medical profession. Higgins's intention that Nihell follow him to Madrid were thwarted by his own death on 11 October 1729.