Orphaned from working-class parents (some sources say farmers) at 13, Quesnay taught himself to read using a medical book, and so decided he might as well become a doctor. He established himself as a physician and became an early advocate for surgery as an important part of medical practice—not such a popular position among doctors of his day. Quesnay played a part, though, in getting the King of France to separate surgeons from barbers, surely a benefit for both professions. Quesnay’s even stronger influence with King Louis XV was later secured when he attained an appointment as personal physician to Madame de Pampadour, the king’s mistress.
Quesnay must have possessed an unusually fine mind; he impressed his patients dramatically, generating the word of mouth that led to such connections in high places. Once established among the aristocracy, Quesnay’s brilliance attracted the other leading intellects of his age, so much so that he was invited to write articles on agriculture for the famous French Encyclopédie. Somewhere along the way his agricultural interest led to an interest in economic theory, and Quesnay founded the new school of economists whose practitioners came to be called the physiocrats, out of their affinity for the methods of physics.
In those days, conventional wisdom conceived of a nation’s economic strength in terms of trade; favorable trade balances, therefore, supposedly brought wealth to a nation. But Quesnay argued that the true source of wealth was agriculture—the productivity of the land. He further argued that governments imposed a human-designed impairment to the “natural order” of economic and social interaction. A “laissez-faire” or “hands-off” policy should be preferred, he believed, to allow the natural flow to occur.
Encountering Quesnay while in Paris, Smith was also entranced and began to merge the physiocratic philosophy with his own. Upon his return to England in 1766, Smith embarked on the decade-long task of compiling his insights into human nature and the production of prosperity, ending with the famous tome titled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, mercifully shortened in casual usage to simply Wealth of Nations.