Dr William Oliver

Contributed by  Clive Quinnell

William Oliver was born near Penzance on the 4th August, 1695, being the second son of John and Mary Oliver of Trevarnoe, a house in the parish of Sithney, Cornwall. At the age of 19, he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, graduating M.B. in 1720. In that same year he went to the University of Leyden, which was then the principal resort of ambitious postgraduate medical students from England and for a very good reason. After some years abroad he returned to England and took his M.D. at Cambridge in 1725. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1729.

He first practised as a physician in Plymouth, where in 1724 he benefited the citizens of that town by introducing smallpox inoculation, still a relatively new technique at the time. In 1728, at the age of 33, he came to Bath with his Cornish cousin, the Rev. Walter Borlase.  


Dr William Oliver
Queen Square


Oliver's quotes:

On arrival, he probably resided in Westgate Street but as he became more successful he acquired a grand house set back on the west side of Queen Square. The house was later demolished and the site is now occupied by The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. The present building was designed in the Greek Revival style by John Pinch, the younger. It is sadly out of keeping with the rest of Queen Square and it is unfortunate that John Wood’s original design did not survive.  

Not long after coming to Bath, Oliver became a friend of Ralph Allen, a fellow Cornishman. As a result of this friendship he met Alexander Pope and other famous people of the day.


  • "The Bath is the universal hospital, not only of this but of other nations, and hither the physicians send their patients when they know no longer what to do with them at home.”  
  • "Mineral waters are natural compositions continued for the benefit of mankind, which exceed all the compounds man can invent.” 
  •  “I cannot forebear mentioning a very offensive custom of putting milk, and a variety of medicines in the waters at the pump, which then become mere vehicles, their specific properties being destroyed by the mixture.”  
  • "The water contains an aetherial essence which is  lost when transported elsewhere; it cannot be contained in bottles as it will pass through the corks" 


Cynics pointed out that if the waters could be sent to the patient he or she would not need to come to Bath and the resulting fees would be lost to the physicians!
He did not write a great deal about his medical cases, though he published an essay on gout in 1751, which ran to three editions. In 1753 he published a “pastoral” called Myra and he was the anonymous author of A faint sketch of the life, manner and character of the late Mr. Nash which was praised by Goldsmith as “written with much good sense and still more good nature.” Oliver’s “compassionate and benevolent nature” motivated his interest in founding the Bath General Hospital (now Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases) with Ralph Allen, John Wood and Richard (Beau) Nash. He was elected physician to the Hospital on 1st May, 1740, and retired on 1st May, 1761, dying three years later in 1764.
Oliver Buiscuit and Chocolate Oliver

He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Weston (where he owned the Manor House with members of his family). He is said to have bequeathed to his coachman Atkins the recipe for the famous Bath Oliver biscuit, together with a sack of flour and a sum of money. Atkins set up in business at 13 Green Street and became rich by making the biscuit. Later the business passed to a man named Norris who sold out to a baker called Carter. At length, after two further changes of ownership and a period of 120 years, the Oliver biscuit recipe passed to James Fortt. In 1952 the Fortt family business was still baking 80,000 biscuits a day in Bath. Although the biscuits are no longer made in the city, they are still available and are excellent when eaten with cheese.


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