Rutty, John (1698–1775), physician, writer, diarist, and historian of Irish quakers, was born 25 December 1698 in Wiltshire, to quaker parents John and Esther Rutty. He may have been orphaned young, for he spoke of spending the ages 13 to 18 at various schools,then being ‘transplanted’ to a family of Friends at the age of 20 before moving to London, aged 22. However, as a nonconformist he was compelled to complete his education abroad at the university of Leiden, where he was taught by the eminent physician and botanist, Professor Herman Boerhaave, who had gathered together 5,876 species of plants for Leiden's botanic gardens. While still a student Rutty wrote a paper for the Philosophical Transactions (1720) on spina bifida. He graduated MD in 1723 after completing a thesis, De diarrhoea (Leiden, 1723). By 1724 he had settled in Dublin; he enrolled as a licentiate of the K&QCP(I) (1729) and remained in Dublin until his death.
There is no evidence that he ever married; instead religion, medicine, and natural history became the central forces in his life. He was an elder in the Society of Friends and between 13 September 1753 and December 1774 maintained a spiritual journal, published posthumously as Spiritual diary and soliloquies (London, 1776). It is an extremely honest account, for in the preface he stated he wished the reader to observe the power and prevalence of sin in the Christian's life. In it he noted attendance at quaker meetings and the early missionary efforts of visiting Friends in Ireland. Although he was not above some criticism of the quaker community, he also accused himself of gluttony, indolence, irritability, and indulging in the occasional glass of wine. Yet in reality he lived the life of an ascetic, often surviving on boiled nettles, and resided for many years in the drawing room of a house on the east corner of Boot St. and St Mary's Lane for which he paid £10 a year. The diary was described by the Critical Review (xliii (1777), 204) as ‘filled with detail of circumstances of importance to himself, but of no consequence to the world’ and Samuel Johnson laughed at his ‘self-condemning minuteness’. However, James Boswell argued that it was ‘a minute and honest register of his mind’ which, though frequently amusing, was no more so than the history of many men would be, if recorded with equal fairness' (Boswell (1835), vi, 313–15). What is clear is that Rutty, though a quaker, was equally happy reading Loyola, St Francis Xavier, or Bishop Fénelon and had a faith that welcomed the spirituality of catholic, protestant, or quaker. He also wrote The liberty of the spirit and of the flesh distinguished (1756) and the now lost Essay on women's preaching (1739), which, on the evidence of his diary, would have affirmed the right of both sexes to spread the word of the gospel.
His daily life bore testament to the writing in his journal. His style of living precluded him from becoming a fashionable doctor and he frequently treated the poor of Dublin gratis. His reputation as a man of virtue meant that in the late 1740s the yearly meeting of Irish Friends requested that he complete The history of Irish quakers, started by Thomas Wight in 1700. This was published in Dublin in 1751, with a fourth edition in 1811 together with a treatise on Christian discipline. His fame extended outside of Ireland. His work was quoted in Sophia Hume, Extracts from divers ancient testimonies of Friends and others, corresponding to the doctrines of Christianity (1760) and just weeks before his death John Wesley (qv) noted that he had visited that ‘venerable man Dr Rutty’ (Curnock (1909), vi, 58–9).
He promoted the establishment of the Medico-Philosophical Society in 1756 ‘to further medical, natural and philosophical inquiries’ (Lyons (1978), 13). He became a regular contributor to their proceedings (99 out of their 230 papers), and in 1772 was made an honorary member for life. Among his general medical publications were An account of the experiments on Joanna Stephen's medicine for the stone (1742) and A methodical synopsis of mineral waters (1757), which led to controversy with the patriot Dr Charles Lucas (qv), who felt his own observations on the spa at Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, had been slighted. At least six pamphlets were exchanged on the subject over a six-year period; Lucas came out best, but Rutty's book rated him a mention in Finnegans wake (1939) by James Joyce (qv). After The analysis of milk (1762), Rutty wrote A chronological history of the weather and seasons and of the prevailing diseases in Dublin for 40 years (1770), which is still cited in medical papers. It contained the first clear description of relapsing fever and also records the Irish famine of 1740–41. A treatise in Latin on drugs, Materia medica antiqua et nova (Rotterdam, 1775), the result of forty years' research and experimentation, was deemed by Rutty to be the principal work of his life; it is unclear if he lived to see its publication. However, he was over-reliant on the works of others rather than on his own experiments, and the book's popularity suffered when William Cullen's work on the same subject appeared nearly immediately afterwards and became the standard text for British and Irish doctors. Observations on the London and Edinburgh dispensatories (1776), designed to extend the knowledge of doctors living in remote parts of the British Isles, appeared posthumously. A fuller list of his works is in the BL catalogue (cclxxxvi, 85).
On 8 January 1755 Rutty accused himself in his diary of an inordinate interest in natural history, but this perceived vice spurred him to encourage his friend Charles Smith (qv) to write his topographical, scientific, and historical surveys of several Irish counties. At the request of the Physico-Historical Society, which Rutty joined at its inception in 1744, Rutty was the author of A natural history of the county of Dublin (2 vols, Dublin, 1772), in which he discussed Dublin's vegetation, animals, soil, and climate and estimated the population of Dublin to be 128,570. He obtained £30 from the College of Physicians to help defray expenses and had 350 subscribers.
After a mild stroke in August 1771 his health began to decline and he died 26 April 1775 at his lodgings on George's Hill, Dublin, aged 76. He was buried at the quaker burial ground in York St., which later became the site of the College of Surgeons. His property, which consisted of copyhold lands in Wiltshire, was divided between his nephews and nieces.