John Zephaniah Holwell FRS (17 September 1711 – 5 November 1798) was a surgeon, an employee of the English East India Company, and a temporary Governor of Bengal (1760). He was also one of the first Europeans to study Indian antiquities.
Holwell was a survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta, June 1756, the incident in which British subjects and others were crammed into a small poorly ventilated chamber overnight, with many deaths. Howell's account of this incident (1758) obtained wide circulation in England and some claim this gained support for the East India Company's conquest of India. His account of the incident was not publicly questioned during his lifetime nor for more than a century after his death. However, in recent years, his version of the event has been called into question by many historians.
Holwell has also become an important source for modern historians of medicine, as a result of his description of the practice of smallpox variolation in eighteenth-century Bengal, An Account of the Manner of Inoculating for the Small Pox in the East Indies with Some Observations on the Practice and Mode of Treating that Disease in those Parts (London, 1767).
Born in Dublin, he grew up in London, and studied medicine at Guy's Hospital. He gained employment as a surgeon in the English East India Company and was sent to India in 1732. He served in this capacity until 1749. In 1751, he was appointed as zemindar of the Twenty-four Parganas District of Bengal. He then served as a member of the Council of Fort William (Calcutta) and defended the settlement against Siraj Ud Daulah in 1756. He later succeeded Robert Clive as temporary Governor of Bengal in 1760, but was dismissed from the Council in 1761 for remonstrating against the appointment of Henry Vansittart as Governor of Bengal. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767.
- A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole (London, 1758)
- Interesting Historical Events, Relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan With a seasonable hint and perswasive to the honourable the court of directors of the East India Company. As also the mythology and cosmogony, fasts and festivals of the Gentoo's, followers of the Shastah. And a dissertation on the metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean doctrine, 3 vols. (London, 1765-1771)
- An Account of the Manner of Inoculating for the Small Pox in the East Indies with Some Observations on the Practice and Mode of Treating that Disease in those Parts (London, 1767).
- H.P. Bayon, "John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798) and the Black Hole of Calcutta" Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 1944; Kohleun Adamson, Replacing Emotional Biases: A Critical Look at the Accounts of John Zephaniah Holwell, 2005; J. Dalley , The Black Hole: money, myth and empire, 2006.
- Wujastyk, Dominik (2001). "`A Pious Fraud': The Indian Claims for Pre-Jennerian Smallpox Vaccination". In G. J. Meulenbeld and Dominik Wujastyk (ed.). Studies in Indian Medical History (in English and Sanskrit) (2 ed.). Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 121–154. Retrieved 3 January 2014.
- Boylston, Arthur (July 2012). "The origins of inoculation". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 105 (7): 309–313. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2012.12k044. PMC 3407399.
- Holwell, John Zephaniah (1767). An Account of the Manner of Inoculating for the Small Pox in the East Indies with Some Observations on the Practice and Mode of Treating that Disease in those Parts. London: T. Becket & P. A. de Hondt.
- McCabe (1920) p. 357
- Anon (1800). "Account of John Zephaniah Holwell, Esq. (From The Asiatic Annual Register, with Additions.)". The European Magazine, and London Review. 37: 270–274.
- McCabe, Joseph (1920) "Holwell, John Zephaniah" A biographical dictionary of modern rationalists Watts & Co., London, pp. 356–357 OCLC 262462698