FRYER, JOHN (b. ca. 1650; d. London, 31 March 1733), British travel-writer and doctor, the eldest son of William Fryer of London (FIGURE 1). He matriculated at Trinity College in Cambridge on 13 July 1664 and graduated Bachelor of Medicine in 1671, transferring on 23 July of that year to Pembroke College in Cambridge as a Fellow-Commoner. It is likely that his family had connections with the British East India Company, but certainly a Court Minute of the Company, dated 11 September 1672, records his appointment as “a Chyrurgeon for Surat” and a subsequent letter provides details of his remuneration at “50s. per month to commence at his arriveall” (Fryer, 1909-15, I, p. xiii).
On 9 December 1672 Fryer sailed from Gravesend with the annual fleet of the East India Company on the Unity, under the command of William Cruft, the very captain and ship which were to take the young Edmond Halley (1656-1742) to the island of St. Helena in the southern Atlantic four years later to observe the transit of Mercury across the Sun. On the Island of Johanna (Nzwani, one of the islands of the Comoros archipelago in the Indian Ocean), Fryer made some important observations concerning the antiscorbutic qualities of oranges and limes. Fryer arrived in Masulipatnam, the earliest English settlement on the Coromandel coast (southeastern coast of the Indian peninsula), on 26 June 1673. Then he sailed on to Madras and subsequently arrived in Bombay around Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), exactly a year after leaving England. He was not to return to England until the August of 1682. His eight years in the East furnished the materials for his New Account of East-India and Persia, in Eight Letters, which he published in 1698 (Fryer, 1698).
Although his writings fail to rival those of his French contemporaries Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89), and François Bernier (1625-88), they display a lively curiosity, which, sharpened by his scientific training, produces accurate observations in geology, meteorology, and all aspects of natural history. Fryer also provides some shrewd insights into the nature of Mughal government in the later years of Awrangzeb’s reign (r. 1658-1707), such as how the generals and news-writers “consult to deceive the Emperor, on whom he depends for a true state of things” (Fryer, 1909-15, II, p. 52). Tending towards the Anglicanism and royalism of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), whose Religio Medici he admired, Fryer exhibited a certain unenlightened prejudice against Hindu “idolators,” balanced by his contempt for the “impostor” Mohammad. Despising the “fanaticism” of the “Hodges” (ḵᵛāja, here meaning ‘a man of religion’), Fryer preferred to fast on 30 January to honor the martyrdom of Charles I of England (r. 1625-49).
His professional background makes Fryer a valuable commentator upon contemporary medicine as practiced in Surat, where there is “no formal Graduation, Examination or Proof of their Proficiency” (Fryer, 1909-15, I, p. 286). He finds little skill in anatomy, surgery, or pharmacy; the Indians are “Martyrs to death by Leeches, clapping on an hundred at once [...] They pretend to understand the Pulse, but the Urine they will not look on” (Fryer, 1909-15, I, p. 287). In recording, however, that some Indian physicians blame elephantiasis upon “bad Water (to which, as we to the Air, they attribute all Diseases),” he unintentionally points to inadequate Western theories of the disease (Fryer, 1909-15, I, p. 139).
Fryer became interested in the effects of climate upon health and took the opportunity of continuing his studies by sailing on the Scipio Africanus for the Persian Gulf. Arriving at Gombroon (Bandar-e ʿAbbās) on 22 March 1677, Fryer noted that the “Company’s Trade is but small here,” exporting only drugs, fine “Carmania Wool, Goats, Dates, and Horses” (Fryer, 1909-15, II, p. 164), but with the Dutch East India Company controlling the substantial imports of cloth and spices from India and the Moluccas (the Maluku Islands; see INDIA xiii. INDO-IRANIAN COMMERCIAL RELATIONS).
Returning to his avocation, Fryer argues that the illegality of dissection, here as in India, hampered the study of anatomy and effective surgery. Fryer admires “the ingenious Sir Thomas Herbert,” who had visited Persia exactly 50 years earlier, but whereas Sir Thomas Herbert (1606-82) had praised Safavid doctors, noting their preference for vegetable, rather than mineral, drugs, Fryer will not be impressed. He admits the superb variety of medicinal herbs available in apothecary shops, but criticizes Persian doctors’ ignorance of extracts and essences of plants and roots, and inefficient methods of dispensing. He notes the endemic diseases of Persia, including “Phrensies, Plurisies, [...] distempers of the Eyes;” “But the fashionable Malady of the Country is a Clap, scarce One in Ten being free from it” (Fryer, 1909-15, III, p. 97). If eye disease is caused by irritant sand (Idem, II, p. 170), the etiology of syphilis, Fryer insists, is specifically cultural and Islamic, namely: “the unbounded Liberty of Women, Cheapness of the Commodity’, and the encouragement of their filthy Law” (Idem, III, p. 98).
“The Books of greatest vogue, are those of Corge Nessir Tussi (Ḵᵛāja Naṣir-al-Din Ṭusi [1201-74], the polymath, philosopher, and astronomer); the ‘Rouze el Saphet’ (the universal history Rowżat al-ṣafāʾ [‘Garden of Purity’] of Mirḵᵛānd); and ‘A Book, like our Æsop’s Fables, called Emuel Sohaly’ (Anwār-e sohayli of Ḥosayn Wāʿeẓ Kāšefi [d. 1505], the Persian version of Bidpai; see Fryer, 1909-15, III, pp. 70, 82, 83). He considered Persian scientists and intellectuals “as rare as Black Swans;” theoretically shackled to Aristotelian thinking and “the ipse dixit of their Prophet,” they were practically impeded by a serious lack of scientific equipment.
Fryer was impressed by the stately mercantile buildings, the gardens and ice-houses of the Safavid capital, Isfahan; he appreciated the wines of Shiraz, and the nightingales of its groves, but, though he praises the “sweet Singers of Siras” (the muezzins), he makes no mention of Hāfeẓ or Saʿdi. His description of the ruins at Persepolis is interesting, especially as in 1677 he counts 18 pillars standing in the Hall of Xerxes (William Francklin in 1787 records 15 [Francklin, p. 93], their diminishing number pointing to the regularity of catastrophic earthquakes). Fryer is dismissive of superstitious Muslim explanations of earthquakes and falling stars, but on his return to India his spectacular description of Newton’s Comet of 1780 reveals his European fear of its proving “ominous,” contrasting with the Indians who “disclaim its Influence here” (Fryer, 1909-15, III, p. 175).
Fryer was presumably in practice after his return to England in 1682; he was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1697, and a review entitled “An Abstract with Some Reflections on a New Account of East-India and Persia” was published in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions of 1698 (see Bibliography). In the summer of that year he married a niece of Rose Desborough, née Hobson, the second wife of Samuel Desborough (1619-90), keeper of the great seal of Scotland. They had at least one daughter, Anna Maria Sanderson, to whom letters of administration were granted on 14 April 1733. Fryer died on 31 March 1733, at his Bread Street home in the parish of All Hallows in London (Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1733, p. 214).
Cyril Elgood, A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate, Cambridge, 1951.
R. W. Ferrier, “The Armenians and the East India Company in Persia in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” The Economic History Review, N.S. 26/1, 1973, pp. 38-62.
Idem, “The Terms and Conditions under which English Trade Was Transacted with Safavid Persia,” BSOAS 49/1, 1986, pp. 48-66.
William Francklin, Observations Made on a Tour from Bengal to Persia, in the Years 1786-7, Calcutta, 1788.
John Fryer, “An Abstract with Some Reflections on A New Account of East-India and Persia,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 20, 1698, pp. 338-48.
Idem, A New Account of East-India and Persia, in Eight Letters: Being Nine Years Travels, Begun 1672 and Finished 1681 ..., London, 1698; repr. Delhi, 1985.
Idem, A New Account of East-India and Persia, ed. W. Croke, 3 vols., London, 1909-15.
Geoffrey Fryer, “John Fryer, F. R. S. and His Scientific Observations, Made Chiefly in India and Persia between 1672 and 1682,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, March 1979, pp. 175-206.
Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1733.
Gordon Goodwin, “Fryer, John (d. 1733),” rev. Philip Carter, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Mathew and B. Harrison, Oxford, 2004; available (by subscription) at www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/10219 (accessed on 6 March 2009).
Pramod K. Nayar, “Marvellous Excesses: English Travel Writing and India, 1608-1727,” Journal of British Studies 44/2, April 2005, pp. 213-38.
D. V. S. Reddy, “An Account of Indian Medicine by John Fryer, M. D., F. R. S.,” Indian Medical Gazette 75, 1940, pp. 34-42.
J. Venn and S. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigenses, 4 vols., Cambridge, 1922-27.
R. White, portrait of John Fryer, reproduced in A New Account of East India and Persia (1698).
(Michael J. Franklin)
Originally Published: March 6, 2009
Last Updated: March 6, 2009