The Last True Know-It-All
The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous
Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured
the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Feats of
Genius. Andrew Robinson. x + 288 pp. Pi Press, 2006. $24.95.
What are we to make of Thomas Young (1773-1829), a man who
contributed 63 articles to the Encyclopedia Britannica,
including 46 biographical entries (mostly on scientists and
classicists) and substantial essays on "Bridge,"
"Chromatics," "Egypt," "Languages" and
"Tides"? Was someone who could write authoritatively about
so many subjects a polymath, a genius or a dilettante? In an
ambitious new biography, Andrew Robinson argues that Young is a good
contender for the epitaph "the last man who knew
everything." Young has competition, however: The phrase, which
Robinson takes for his title, also serves as the subtitle of two
other recent biographies: Leonard Warren's 1998 life of
paleontologist Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) and Paula Findlen's 2004
book on Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), another polymath.
Young, of course, did more than write encyclopedia entries. He
presented his first paper to the Royal Society of London at the age
of 20 and was elected a Fellow a week after his 21st birthday. In
the paper, on how the eye focuses properly on objects at varying
distances, Young hypothesized that deformation of the crystalline
lens accomplished the accommodation. In subsequent articles he
explored this phenomenon more fully, drawing (like Newton) on
evidence he obtained through gruesome self-experimentation. Young
also theorized that light traveled in waves, through a vibration of
particles in the ether—that supposed ubiquitous substance,
whose existence was contested. And he believed that, to account for
the ability to see in color, there must be three receptors in the
eye corresponding to the three "principal colors" to which
the retina could respond: red, green, violet.
Later in his life, when he was in his forties, Young was
instrumental in cracking the code that unlocked the unknown script
on the Rosetta Stone, a tablet that was "found" in Egypt
by the Napoleonic army in 1799 and has been on display in the
British Museum since 1802. The stone contains text in three
alphabets: Greek, something unrecognizable and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The unrecognizable script is now known as demotic and, as
Young deduced, is related directly to hieroglyphic. His initial work
on this appeared in his Britannica entry on Egypt. In
another entry, he coined the term Indo-European to describe
the family of languages spoken throughout most of Europe and
northern India. These are the landmark achievements of a man who was
a child prodigy and who, unlike many remarkable children, did not
disappear into oblivion as an adult.
Born to devout Quakers in 1773 in Somerset, Young lived from an
early age with his maternal grandfather, eventually leaving to
attend boarding school. He had devoured books from the age of two,
and through his own initiative he excelled at Latin, Greek,
mathematics and natural philosophy. After leaving school, he was
greatly encouraged by his mother's uncle, Richard Brocklesby, a
physician and Fellow of the Royal Society. Following Brocklesby's
lead, Young decided to pursue a career in medicine. He studied in
London, following the medical circuit, and then moved on to more
formal education in Edinburgh, Göttingen and Cambridge. Largely
through Brocklesby, Young was introduced into elite society. He then
broke with his Quaker upbringing by attending the theater and
learning to dance and play the flute. In addition, he was an
After completing his medical training at the University of Cambridge
in 1808, Young set up practice as a physician in London. He soon
became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a few years
later was appointed physician at St. George's Hospital.
Young's skill as a physician, however, did not equal his skill as a
scholar of natural philosophy or linguistics. Earlier, in 1801, he
had been appointed to a professorship of natural philosophy at the
Royal Institution, where he delivered as many as 60 lectures in a
year. These were published in two volumes in 1807. In 1804 Young had
become secretary to the Royal Society, a post he would hold until
his death. His opinions were sought on civic and national matters,
such as the introduction of gas lighting to London and methods of
ship construction. From 1819 he was superintendent of the
Nautical Almanac and secretary to the Board of
Longitude. From 1824 to 1829 he was physician to and inspector of
calculations for the Palladian Insurance Company. Between 1816 and
1825 he contributed his many and various entries to the
Encyclopedia Britannica, and throughout his career he
authored numerous books, essays and papers.
Young, then, is a perfect subject for a biography—perfect, but
daunting. Few men—Robinson compares Young to Robert Hooke and
Leonardo da Vinci—contributed so much to so many technical
fields. Robinson pays due credit to George Peacock's substantial
biography of 1855 and Alexander Wood's slighter one of 1954.
Robinson's aim is to introduce nonscientists to Young's work and
life. He succeeds, providing clear expositions of the most technical
material (especially that on optics and Egyptian hieroglyphs) and
peppering bland narratives of professional disputes with, for
instance, asides about visiting Erasmus Darwin or having dinner with
Lord Elgin. Each chapter opens with an epigraph containing some of
Young's choice words.
The story Robinson tells relies on a model of science in which there
were clear winners and losers. This might have been tempered by a
more reflexive analysis about Young's sense of his own ambitions and
achievements. Likewise, greater scrutiny of Young's pecuniary
concerns and at-times-substantial income might have been rewarding.
But on balance, Robinson is judicious in weighing the perquisites
and penalties of life as a polymath in the decades around 1800.
Some readers of this book will, like Robinson, find Young's
accomplishments impressive; others will see him as some historians
have—as a dilettante. Yet despite the rich material presented
in this book, readers will not end up knowing Young the way it is
possible to get to know the 17th-century diarist John Evelyn or
Darwin's granddaughter Gwen Raverat. We catch glimpses of a playful
Young, doodling Greek and Latin phrases in his notes on medical
lectures and translating the verses that a young lady had written on
the walls of a summerhouse into Greek elegiacs. But his personal
life is a pallid specter next to his vibrant career and fervent studies.
Young married Eliza Maxwell in 1804, and according to Robinson,
"their marriage was a happy one and she appreciated his
work." Almost all we know about her is that she sustained her
husband through some rancorous disputes about optics and that she
worried about money when his medical career was slow to take off.
Robinson does not discuss what it meant in that age for a couple of
their status to remain childless.
It is remarkable that Young had no protégés. Here his
interactions with his own mentors—first his grandfather, then
Brocklesby—and his reverence for past figures (most notably
Newton, whom he first read at the age of 17) are germane.
Very little evidence survives about the complexities of Young's
relationships with his mother and father. Robinson does not credit
them, or anyone else, with shaping Young's extraordinary mind. It is
perhaps no coincidence that we are currently experiencing both an
increasing fascination with the geniuses of the past and a trend of
zealous parenting. Anyone interested in what it means to be a genius
should read this book.