Of the life of Cotton so few particulars have been transmitted to us by his relations and friends that we are left in ignorance even as to the family whence he descended, and the place and time of his birth. That, however, he was born about the year 1707 is rendered almost certain by a passage in one of his letters. His medical studies he completed at Leyden, under the celebrated Boerhaave, and he is believed to have taken his degree at that university.
When he returned to England, it was his intention to practise as a general physician. But this plan he was induced to relinquish, in consequence of a favourable opportunity being offered to him of exercising his skill in a separate and important branch of the healing art. A Dr. Crawley, of Dunstable, who received insane persons under his care, was on the point of retiring from his professional labours; and, us Cotton had studied all the varieties of menial disease, he resolved to become the successor of Dr. Crawley, and almost wholly to devote his time to cases of insanity. As in him extensive knowledge was combined with benevolent feelings and winning manners, it was fortunate for humanity that he thus resolved. When so delicate an instrument as the human intellect is untuned, it requires the nice and careful hand of a master to restore its harmony.
From Dunstable he removed with his patients to St. Albans, and such was the success of his curative process, that his fame spread widely, and the number of persons confided to him rapidly increased. It was, therefore, necessary for him to have a larger habitation, and to this he gave the name of The College. His private house was in St. Peter's Street, and was long remarkable as the only dwelling in St. Albans which was protected from lightning by a conductor.
In this employment, and this town, he spent the remainder of his days. The moments of his leisure were filled up by composing in prose and verse, and by an extensive correspondence with many eminent characters, among whom was Dr. Doddridge. With the author of the Night Thoughts he was also on terms of intimacy. He, however, did not often intrude his writings on file public. In 1749, he gave to the press an 8vo. pamphlet, of Observations on a particular kind of Scarlet Fever that lately prevailed in and about St. Albans. Two years afterwards he appeared in the character of a poet, by the publication of his Visions, which have been frequently reprinted. That at a subsequent period he came forward as an author may be concluded from a letter written in 1784, by Cowper to Mr. Hill; but what was the work, or when it came forth, I am unable to ascertain. I suspect it to have consisted of some of the prose essays, now forming part of the second volume in the collection of his pieces, which, in the year 1791, was made by one of his sons. "I have," says Cowper, "never seen Dr. Cotton's book, respecting which your sisters question me, nor did I know, till you mentioned it, that he had written any thing newer than his Visions. I have no doubt that it is so far worthy of him as to he pious and sensible, and I believe no man living is better qualified to write on such subjects as his title seems to announce. Some years have passed since I heard from him, and considering his great age, it is probable that I shall hear from him no more; but I shall always respect him. He is truly a philosopher, according to my judgment of the character, every little of his knowledge on natural subjects being connected in his mind with the firm belief of an Omnipotent agent."
Cotton was twice married. His first wife was Miss Ann Pembroke, with whom his union took place in the year 1738. By her, he had seven sons and daughters, five of whom arrived at maturity. She died in 1749; and, in 1750 or 1751, he was united to Miss Hannah Everett, who, after bringing him a son and two daughters, left him a widower, in May, 1772.
With the exception of two who died in infancy, it was the happy lot of Cotton to reach a very advanced period of life before ho sustained the loss of any of his children. It was not till 1780 that he was bereaved of one of them, his daughter Katherine, and this trial of his fortitude was not repeated. He had, however, other sufferings to bear. He was now seventy-three, and he felt heavily, in body and mind, the consequences of age. His memory was impaired, his mental powers could not be called into action without excessively fatiguing him, his limbs with difficulty supported his weight, frequent and severe languors threatened to put a stop to the circulation of time blood, and they were at times aggravated by that oppressive and stifling feeling round the region of the heart, all the misery of which can be fully conceived by those only who have had the misfortune to feel it. Yet, such was the strength of his constitution that, in spite of these assaults on it, his existence was protracted for eight years longer. He, died on the eighth of August, 1788, and was buried in St. Peter's Church-yard, in the same tomb with his two wives, on which is inscribed nothing more than "Here are deposited the remains of Ann, Hannah, and Nathaniel Cotton."
The character of Dr. Cotton was of the most amiable kind. His heart free from spleen or guile, was the scat of warm benevolence and unaffected piety. Mr. Hayley, who personally knew him, describes him as being "a scholar and a poet, who added to many other accomplishments, a peculiar sweetness of mariners in a very advanced life." in addition to this, we have the testimony of Cowper, who, on the first attack of that dreadful malady which blighted his youth and made his latter years a blank, was placed under the care of Dr. Cotton. In a letter to Lady Hesketh, he says, "I reckon it one instance of the Providence that has attended me throughout this whole event, that instead of being delivered into the hands of one of the London physicians, who were so much nearer that I wonder I was not, I was carried to Dr. Cotton. I was not only treated by him with the greatest tenderness while I was ill, and attended with the utmost diligence, but when my reason was restored to me, and I had so much need of a religions friend to converse with, to whom I could open my mind upon the subject without reserve, I could hardly have found a litter person for the purpose. My eagerness and anxiety to settle my opinions upon that long neglected point matte it necessary that, while my mind was yet weak, and my spirits uncertain, I should have some assistance. The doctor was as ready to administer relief to me in this article likewise, and as well qualified to do it, as in that which was more immediately his province. How many physicians would have thought this an irregular appetite, and a symptom of remaining madness! But if it were so, my friend was as mad as myself; and it is well for me that he was so."
The poems of Cotton always display propriety of thought, and sometimes vigour; the language of them, though not rising into elevation, is chaste and polished; and the numbers have a smooth and sprightly flow. Elegance is the general character of his verses, but it does not degenerate into tameness. He is happy in his compliments, and he occasionally enlivens his subjects with wit, and touches of good humoured satire. There is in his compositions much with which a reader of taste must be pleased, and little of which he can disapprove. They will bear to be more than once perused, and whatever does not become tiresome by a repetition of perusal, must bear the stamp of genius, or at least of talent.