Joseph Townsend

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Joseph Townsend

Joseph Townsend (4 April 1739 – 9 November 1816) was a British medical doctor, geologist and vicar of Pewsey in Wiltshire, perhaps best known for his 1786 treatise A Dissertation on the Poor Laws in which he expounded a naturalistic theory of economics and opposed state provision, either outdoor or otherwise.

In A Dissertation on the Poor Laws, Townsend criticized relief as allowing the population to swell by protecting the weak (see his parable of the goats and dogs on the Island of Fernandez), and thus called for the abolition of any state relief in pursuance of greater productivity, as "it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour." (Townsend, 1971:23)[1] In another statement, he more explicitly said: "[Direct] legal constraint [to labor] . . . is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise, . . . whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry, it calls forth the most powerful exertions. . . . Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjugation to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse."[2]

Townsend has been credited with anticipating Thomas Malthus' argument against public welfare assistance in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).[3] Unlike Malthus, however, Townsend advocated a system of social insurance through compulsory membership of friendly societies, which would meet the health and burial costs of the poor.


He was the fourth son of Chauncy Townsend, London merchant and Member of Parliament. Educated at Clare College, Cambridge, he graduated B.A. in 1762.[4]

Townsend was ordained in the Church of England in 1763 and then studied Medicine at Edinburgh; he remained a practising Anglican throughout his life, serving as the Rector of Pewsey from 1764 until his death. Townsend was associated with the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection, establishing a chapel on her behalf in Dublin in 1767–8, and with the Calvinist wing of Methodism in the late 1760s, and he is reputed to have allowed Methodists to preach from his pulpit in the 1780s. He was personal chaplain to the Duke of Atholl from 1769 and accompanied him on the 'grand tour'.

In the field of medicine, Townsend was noted for the introduction of 'Townsend's Mixture' of mercury and potassium iodide, as a treatment for syphilis. William Smith, the pioneer of geological mapping, first outlined his theory of stratigraphy over lunch at Townsend's house at 29 Pulteney Street, Bath in June 1799 to Townsend and Rev Benjamin Richardson. Although he accepted Smith's stratigraphy he rejected his support of James Hutton's 'uniformitarian' geology. Townsend defended the biblical creation story in The Character of Moses as an Historian, Recording Events from the Creation to the Deluge (1813).[5]


  • A Dissertation on the Poor Laws, 1786
  • A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787, 1791.
  • "Townsend Guide to Health Being Cautions and Directions in the Treatment of Diseases", 1795.


  1. ^ Joseph Townsend, An Essay on the Poor Laws, ed. Ashley Montagu (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 2.
  2. ^ "The Invention of Capitalism | Duke University Press". 29 October 2012. Archived from the original on 27 April 2016. Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  3. ^ Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, ed. Geoffrey Gilbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), xv.
  4. ^ Sherbo, Arthur. "Townsend, James". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27613. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ Morris, AD (1969). "The Reverend Joseph Townsend MA MGS (1739–1816) physician and geologist--'Colossus of Roads'". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 62 (5): 471–7. doi:10.1177/003591576906200523. PMC 1811030. PMID 4890357.

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