“From time to time in history men are born a whole age too soon. Probably the men were so great, so self-fed, that recognition of them by others was not necessary to them.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“[Young] was one of the most acute men who ever lived, but had the misfortune to be too far in advance of his contemporaries.They looked on him with astonishment, but could not follow his bold speculations,and thus a mass of his important thoughts remained buried and forgotten in the Transactions ofthe Royal Society until a later generation by slow degrees arrived at the rediscovery of his discoveries,and came to appreciate the force of his arguments and the accuracy of his conclusions.”
-Herman Von Hemholtz
The English polymath Thomas Young helped decipher the Rosetta Stone, unlock the secrets of of vision and color perception, and laid the foundations for the wave theory of light. As a medical doctor, prolific contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica and a member of the Royal Society he published numerous papers on a dizzying array of subjects. Young-Helmholtz Theory, Young’s Temperament, Young’s Modulus and the Young-Laplace Equation are all testaments to the breadth of his interests and his lasting influence on our world.
Thomas Young was born in Somersetshire, England, on the 13th of June, 1773.His aptitudes, combined with his discipline and curiosity, made him a model pupil and a stupendous autodidact. He learned to read at age two: by age six he had read twice through the Bible and had begun learning Latin. Between 1780 and 1786 he attended two boarding schools where he learned Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. He began studying sciences by himself. Needing instruments for his research, he learned how to construct telescopes and microscopes.
Reflecting on his character, psychologist Collin Martindale writes:
“Young exemplifies the traits one finds in a genius of the first order: a tendency toward analogical thinking, high intelligence, an amazing capacity for hard work, extremely wide interests, distaste for traditional dogmas, and very high self-esteem. “
Since his death he has won the praise of figures as eminent as Einstein, Clerk-Maxwell, and Helmholtz, however, accusations dilettantism persist. A modern science historian writes:
“He was certainly highly intelligent but he appears to have lacked the discipline and insight necessary to pursue topics in great depth. He was most comfortable writing on subjects where he could organize the views of others in original ways.”
Some of these qualities, perhaps, are attributable to his upbringing. Francis Galton found him an unsuitable subject for his book on hereditary genius for, besides one great uncle, Richard Brocklesby, Young’s ancestry was not illustrious. Thomas’s father, a banker and merchant, and his mother, daughter of a wealthy trader, were hardly derelicts, yet they did not display the intellectual prowess that would earn their son the epithet “Phenomenon.” His parents, unlike those of child prodigies John Stuart Mill and William James Sidis, did not wish to show off their son’s talents. Nor did they, unlike the parents of countless forgotten phenomena, pressure him to study. Unlike fellow polymath Robert Hooke, Young was an amicable and sociable man who enjoyed dancing, singing, playing the flute and horseback riding.
As Asimov said about him: “he was the best kind of infant prodigy, the kind that matures into an adult prodigy.”
Although there is scant mention of them in his autobiographical sketch, a piece in which he refers to himself in the third person, his parents, and their Quaker faith, undoubtedly had an impact upon . A minority sect, Quakers were disproportionately represented in many professions, including medicine. The physician Thomas Dimsdale, a friend of the Young family, botanist James Backhouse and chemist John Dalton, were among the great Quaker scientists of the 19th century. The physician Richard Brocklesby, a fellow of the Royal Society, was another.
Beginning at age 6 he attended a string of boarding schools. Predictably, they were not the right pace for him. At one near Bristol which he described as “miserable” he found he had finished the mathematics textbook before the class was halfway done. At 9 he transferred to a school in Dorsetshire where he was given more freedom to work independently.
At 13 he graduated from primary school. Shortly thereafter he became infatuated with Hebrew. At 14 he was familiar with 13 disparate languages, living and dead. It was around this time Thomas, outfitted in quaint Quaker clothing, visited a bookstore and began perusing an expensive volume written in Greek or Latin. The seller, amused by the boy, told him he could have it if he translated one page into English. Young performed the task quickly and skillfully. Bewildered, the shopkeep kept his promise and unhappily parted with the tome.
From 1787 to 1792 Thomas lived with David Barclay to help tutor his grandson, Hudson Gurney. Although different in many ways, the two remained lifelong friends. Gurney was particularly impressed by Young’ patience and even temper. One day while riding Thomas attempted to jump a six bar gate. On his first attempt he was thrown from the horse. He tried again and was thrown again. On his third attempt he cleared it. He believed strongly in the power of perseverance; he believed what one man can do another can if he willing to make the effort.
Interrupting an otherwise idyllic stay with Barclay, at 15 he contracted the consumption. He was subjected to some of the practices he would later question as a physician. He was only bled twice and kept on a diet of milk, eggs, broth and vegetables. The most painful part of his treatment involved a blister his doctors insisted on keeping open on his chest. Although their methods were ineffective, they were not as harmful as many of the popular treatments of the era. His caretakers, Richard Brocklesby, personal doctor of Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, and Thomas Dimsdale, the man who inoculated Catherine the Great against smallpox, were quite moderate compared to their contemporaries. Yet his unpleasant brush with death proved to be a blessing in disguise as it brought him to the attention of his Uncle, who wished to guided his gifted nephew through his adolescence.
“Not that I am of the opinion eating a little fish twice or thrice a week would hurt you, but you must make the trial cautiously and follow that which seems on experience not to be prejudicial.….Your prudery about abstaining from the use of sugar on account of the slave trade, in any one else would be altogether ridiculous, but as long as the whole of your mind keeps free from spiritual pride or too much presumption in your facility of acquiring language, which is no more than the dross of knowledge, you may be indulged in such whims, till your mind becomes enlightened with more reason.”
Thomas was an abolitionist and abstained from the produce of the slave trade for seven years. True to his Quaker faith, David Barclay would, at the cost of 3,000 pounds sterling, free 30 slaves in Jamaica.
Brocklesby associated with an impressive group of men, including the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke, who was receiving acclaim for his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke was impressed by Young’s translation of a Shakespearean soliloquy into Greek. Speaking for his famous patient, Brocklesby instructs his nephew, now on the precipice of adulthood:
“Burke advises you to study Aristotle’s Logic, his Poetics, and above all books, Cicero’s moral and philosophic works.Your mind is not yet strained to any, and he thinks you should be reared and cultivated in the best manner, so as to form your views, to emulate a Bacon or a Newton in the maturity and fullness of time; for he thinks it worthwhile for a comprehensive mind to be disregardful of any pecuniary emoluments of a profession, if you can but be satisfied with a small competence,and feel your mind prone to and satisfied with enlarged and useful speculation”
At 17 he had read nearly all of the major writers of antiquity in their original tongues and a considerable number of technical tracts, including Newton’s Optiks, a work that would later inspire, according to the Doctor himself, his most important contribution. While he was a competent experimentalist, who, like Boyle and Hooke, could design apparatuses when needed, he generally preferred to take a theoretical approach to problems, performing thought experiments based in lieu of the tedious process of trial and error. His boyhood included the reading of barometers and the examinations of plants, but these trivial pursuits lost their lustre as he grew older. He expresses this in his autobiographical sketch:
“Not that he was ever particularly fond of repeating experiments, or even of attempting new ones; for he thought the sacrifice of time generally great, and the success very uncertain”
Yet he was not a compulsive reader either:
“Though he wrote with rapidity, he read but slowly, [and] perhaps the whole list of the works that he studied, in the course of 50 years, does not amount to more than a thousand vol-umes:while it is said that William King the poet read no fewer than seven thousand in the course of a residence of seven years at Oxford.
William King is unknown today, even by literary scholars. Undoubtedly influenced by his illness and his uncle, Thomas decided to become a physician. He left Barclay’s country house for London, where he would study at the Hunterian school of anatomy. Admiration may have played a part, Brocklesby offered him part of his estate if he followed in his footsteps. This surely was tempting to a young man who had many affluent friends but was not independently wealthy himself.
What drew so many promising pupils John Hunter’s school? Every student was promised his own cadaver. Because this was an era before refrigeration and modern mortuary techniques, the bodies in most seasons did not last long. This meant the school often had to call upon Resurrection Men to bring them bodies. Entire graveyards were picked clean to keep up with demand. “Many a bereaved relative followed an empty coffin in a solemn funeral procession through Georgian London,” writes Wendy Moore in her biography about John Hunter.“On several occasions when thefts were suspected,horrified relatives would frantically dig up grave after grave only to find every body gone.”
Surgery was more gruesome than than it is now; even the most respected surgeons in London thought nothing of using scalpels encrusted with bodily fluids. This was a time before the importance of sanitation was recognized by the scientific mainstream.
It was in this strange but stimulating environment Young, while watching the dissection of an ox’s eye, became interested in the longstanding question of ocular accommodation: how the eye changes it shape to see objects at different distances, a problem that had been tackled by Descartes and Johannes Kepler. His research on this topic culminated in his first scientific paper of note; he presented it to the Royal Society when he was 20:
“It is well known that the eye,when not acted upon by any exertion of the mind, conveys a distinct impression of those objects only which are situated at a certain distance from itself; that this distance is different in different persons,and that the eye can, by volition of the mind, be accommodated to view other objects at a much lesser distance; but how this accommodation is effected, has long been a matter of dispute, and has not yet been satisfactorily explained.”
Earlier in the 18th century George Porterfield noticed that cataract patients whose eyes had been couched could see but could not accomodate. However, with lenses of different levels of convexity they were able to see objects at different distances. Yet how the lens performed this feat was still a mystery, one that Young partially solved. After studying the structures of the eye in detail he concluded accommodation was caused by the lens changing its curvature. This is correct. However, the lens itself is not muscular. The lens of the eye changes shape, it was later discovered, due to the ciliary muscles, which, acting like strings, contract to flatten the lens and, when at ease, thicken it, like an adaptable pair of eyeglasses.
Young’s paper, Observations on Vision, was read by Brocklesby in 1793., John Hunter claimed he had already made this discovery almost immediately after the presentation. This led to rumors about plagiarism. Perhaps, they speculated, Charles Blagden had blabbed at one of Brocklesby’s symposiums. Although damaging to his reputation, Young’s modesty and record of excellence triumphed over the gossip. John Hunter died shortly after making his claim. His student, Everard Home, delivered the lecture in his place. Based on experiments with cataract patients, he claimed the lens was not the sole cause of accommodation. Because Home’s name carried such authority, Young publicly withdrew his hypothesis. In 7 years he would perform his own remarkable series of experiments to prove his point.
He left London for Edinburgh, where he would continue his studies. Tuition was inexpensive, the lectures were in the vernacular and there were no religious restrictions. Both Oxford and Cambridge were closed to Quakers. Wishing to take the scenic route, he resolved to travel by horseback. On his way he met Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, upon whom he made a favorable impression. Erasmus wrote a letter of introduction for the budding scientist to a friend at Edinburgh: “He unites the scholar with the philosopher,and the cultivation of modern arts with the simplicity of ancient manners.”
Against the injunctions of his Quaker upbringing, Young took up dancing and the flute. He also attended theatrical performances. As usual, he was meticulous and critical in his approach. Purportedly his peers found him in his room after his first dance lesson with a compass tracing the steps. In his spare time he eagerly devoured Don Quixote, Orlando Furioso and Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Of the eminent Dr. Johnson’s work he wrote: “It exhibits some strength of mental powers, but with a mixture of pedantry, bigotry and prejudice.”
On a stout black horse he set off for Scotland.
“To lose one’s way in a dark night, to have to pass through rocks and bogs, to ford deep waters, to cross steep mountains, to stand long in waiting for an asylum at a late hour in a miserable hut; to be prepared for deranged accoutrements, a lame horse, his shoes loose,his back galled, his spirits flagging; and again after a short time to be welcomed with as much hospitality, and entertained with as much splendor,as any lord of a castle could receive a knight-errant: to be at ease from every care and in the enjoyment of every amusement that men of sense and women of elegance can afford:all these vicissitudes exercise the same qualities, require the same virtues, and excite the same emotions as the obsolete chivalrous tales of fabulous ages”
By Young’s own account he had an immensely good time dancing and conversing with the ladies of Scotland. Biographer Thomas Peacock called him “passionately fond” of female company. Young preserves his dalliances in his travel log:
“I was showing Lady C.some of my sketches; she begged to see my notes,and I showed the greatest part of them. All the family are musical; the ladies sing admirably;cards and the fine piano occupied the evening. After supper,besides other songs, I heard a most beautiful canzonet It was twelve o’clock when we retired. After breakfast I took my leave;not without regretting that I had so little time to observe the beauties of Inverary. Lady Charlotte is handsomer than Lady Augusta,she sings better,but she has less good sense, and less sweetness; an innocent giddiness sometimes gives her the appearance of a little affectation; she is to Lady Augusta what Venus is to Minerva; I suppose she wishes for no more. Both are goddesses.”
Toward the end of his journey he communicated his new found love of travel to his mother:
“I think I cannot better spend the next two years of my life, than in attending (at the same time I continue my scientific pursuits under the most eminent professors in different parts of Europe) to the various forms into which the customs and habits of different countries have moulded the human mind; in imitating what is laudable,and in avoiding what is culpable,and in exerting myself to gain the acquaintance and friendship of the virtuous and learned.”
Unusual for a scientist of his time, and particularly an English one, Young did not allow nationalism to blind him to the potential shortcomings of his own nation’s universities. For this reason he traveled to Gottingen. There he not only became fluent in German, but the value he saw in cross cultural exchange was strengthened during his stay. Of Germany he says, “science here has one advantage—that the doctrines of both countries are well known here, while the English attend little to any opinions but those of their own country.”
His dissertation, composed in Latin and dedicated to his Uncle Brocklesby, combined his love for language and anatomy. He constructed an alphabet containing 47 letters meant to encompass all the sounds humans were capable of making. He hoped this would be useful to those recording languages from the oral cultures of Africa and the Americas. After graduating he took a tour of Germany and Austria, mingling and meeting with some of the continent’s finest minds. He had been away from England for nearly two years. Due to new legislation mandating two full years be spent at the same institution in order to earn a physician’s license, Young returned to school. For a variety of professional reasons he applied to Cambridge. Although he had been drifting away from the Quaker faith for some time, he had to formally renounce it before being admitted.
His renunciation did not excommunicate him from the Quaker Church, however. This would happen later because he had been seen in “places of public diversion.” He was not happy with the situation but, in his own words, attempted to “make the best of it.” Many of the lectures covered material he had already been exposed to. Thus, most of his time was spent in solitary study. His lukewarm attitude toward Cambridge was downplayed by his first two biographers, proud alumni themselves, but Thomas took no pains to conceal his disenchantment with the state of England’s oldest institutions of learning. The island, he asserted, was forty years behind the continent. His commitment to objectivity are captured by a short sketch of him written by one of his Cantabrigian peers:
“He seldom gave an opinion, and never volunteered one. He never laid down the law like other learned doctors,or uttered apothegms,or sayings to be remembered. Indeed, like most mathematicians, (though we hear of abstract mathematics), he never seemed to think abstractedly. A philosophical fact, a difficult calculation, an ingenious instrument,or a new invention, would engage his attention;but he never spoke of morals, of metaphysics,or of religion. Of the last I never heard him say a word, nothing in favor of any sect, or in opposition to any doctrine; at the same time, no sceptical doubt, no loose assertion, no idle scoff ever escaped him.”
He was not reclusive by any means, merely anxious to move on with his life and his studies. Shortly after his graduation Brocklesby passed away, leaving him with a sizeable inheritance. The house he promptly sold before returning to London to begin his career. Like most inheritances, his was bittersweet. It could not have come at a more opportune moment and it could not have happened to a more deserving person, one who was not and perhaps could not, turned idle by money. His new wealth gave him temporary financial security, but it did not diminish his industriousness. Always prudent, he kept his costs of living low and sought employment.
He continued to research accomodation. Using and sometimes improving on the methods developed by others earlier in the century, he found the near and far points of his own vision. Young was mildly myopic; his near point was 8 inches, which he initially assumed to be normal. We now know it is 10. Yet he was not oblivious to this for long, in his sketch he mentions how his shortsightedness affected his ability to properly read the reactions of others. The believability of plays of mistaken identity was undoubtedly greater then.
Young outlined four possible explanations for accommodation. Indifferent to the success or failure of his own speculations, it put each one to the test. Through a series of brilliant of experiments, some of which he performed on himself, he weeded out opposing hypotheses. In 1793 he believed the lens itself was muscular. Now he was not sure. In his paper, On the Mechanism of the Eye, he wisely stayed quiet about the exact way in which the eye’s curvature changes.
He delivered On the Theory of Light and Colors to the Royal Society a year later. Whereas his last paper had depended upon painstaking and sometimes dangerous experiments, this paper was based largely on speculation. Young found the current explanations of color vision convoluted, and made a more parsimonious proposal to replace them: “Now, as it is almost impossible to conceive each sensitive point of the retina to contain an infinite number of particles, each capable of vibrating in perfect unison with every possible undulation,it becomes necessary to suppose the number limited.”
It was known then light existed on a spectrum. Newton’s prism proved it beyond a doubt. Yet it seemed unlikely the human eye had receptors for each and every possible color. Breaking from this clunky orthodoxy, which made the implicit assumption that humans had been designed to perfectly perceive their environments, Young postulated different colors stimulated different combinations of receptors and the brain interpreted this information. Green, an intermediate wave length, stimulates both yellow and blue, for example. Young’s retinal mosaic, though given empirical substance by Helmholtz, was not definitively proven until 1959.
John Dalton was also interested in color vision, but for much more personal reasons. Red-green color blindness to this day is occasionally called Daltonism in his honor. He describes his affliction thus:
“That part of the image which others call red appears to me little more than a shade or defect of light. After that the orange, yellow and green seem one colour which descends pretty uniformly from an intense to a rare yellow, making what I should call different shades of yellow.”
Dalton attributed his color blindness to a discoloration of his aqueous humor, which seemed less farfetched than Thomas’s proposition. Rods and cones had not yet been discovered. The brain as the processing center of information was not an unexplored topic, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was published over twenty years before. It was not translated into English until 1839, but its ideas had reached the island whose intellectual insularity Thomas lamented. There is no evidence the book affected him or that he even read it, but the notion of innate categories of perception was very much in the air. Dalton’s eyes, which had been preserved for posterity, were later examined by experts. He was no exception. His was caused by faulty photoreceptors.
Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, reflecting on the trichromatic theory later in the 19th century, writes “Thomas Young was the first who, starting from the well-known fact that there are three primary colors, sought for the explanation of this fact, not in the nature of light but in the constitution of man.”
In spite of his learning, Young was not known for his presentations. Compared to his contemporary Sir Humphrey Davy he was, in the words of a director of the Royal Society, a “narcoleptically boring speaker.” In 1802 Young began one of his presentations with an eloquent introduction, one which surely inspired his audience, even if his delivery was dry.
“Those who possess the genuine spirit of scientific investigation, and who have tasted the pure satisfaction arising from an advancement in intellectual acquirements,are contented to proceed in their researches,without inquiring at every step what they gain by their newly discovered lights,and to what practical purposes they are applicable:they receive a sufficient gratification from the enlarge-ment of their views of the constitution of the universe,and experience,in the immediate pursuit of knowledge,that pleasure which others wish to obtain more circuitously by its means.And it is one of the principal advantages of a liberal education, that it creates a susceptibility of an enjoyment so elegant and so rational.”
Here it could be argued he was merely echoing the ideals of the Enlightenment, however Young, as attested by friends and acquaintances, did not possess mystical or philosophical inclinations. He was speaking as a practical man free from the fetters of agendas and ideologies. His focus turned midway in the year from the opthamology to optics. Newton envisioned light as a stream composed of many tiny particles; Huygens believed it was a wave that traveled through an invisible medium called ether. This is not as odd as it sounds; it was known then that light could travel through a vacuum, while the other waves known, like sound, needed a medium. The particle theory, though more succinct, had a flaw. As Huygens noticed, when light hits the boundary between two media (like air and water) part of the light is transmitted and refracts while part of it is reflected.
It is hard to say whether Young imbibed the Enlightenment motto saepre aude or merely embodied it. His questioning of Newton was construed as heresy. As a phenomenon he commanded respect, but even a phenomenon could not question a god.
He swiftly responded to these charges: “But, much as I venerate the name of Newton, I am not therefore obliged to believe that he was infallible. I see, not with exultation, but with regret, that he was liable to err, and that his authority has, perhaps, sometimes even retarded the progress of science.”
Another issue with Isaac Newton’s corpuscles was interference, defined as “the process in which two or more light, sound, or electromagnetic waves of the same frequency combine to reinforce or cancel each other, the amplitude of the resulting wave being equal to the sum of the amplitudes of the combining waves.”
If light were a particle we would expect the presence of two slits to have no bearing on the result; the results would be identical, only doubled. Here he showed constructive and destructive interference took place.
“Suppose a number of equal waves of water to move upon the surface of a stagnant lake, with a certain constant velocity, and to enter a narrow channel le ading out of the lake. Suppose then another similar cause to have excited another equal series of waves, which arrive at the same time, with the first. Neither series of waves will destroy the other, but their effects will be combined: if they enter the channel in such a manner that the elevations of one series coincide with those of the other, they must together produce a series of greater joint elevations; but if the elevations of one series are so situated as to correspond to the depressions of the other, they must exactly fill up those depressions. And the surface of the water must remain smooth; at least I can discover no alternative, either from theory or from experiment.”
In 1804 Thomas married Eliza Maxwell. Thomas Peacock, a biographer who knew Young and his wife, described it as a happy relationship and Eliza as a loyal wife who kept her husband afloat amidst the controversies his theories provoked. When asked to describe their relationship, Eliza said, “it was a marriage of mutual affection and esteem, such as he had always looked forward to as the great object of his professional and other exertions,and secured him a home which was graced by all the refinements of good manners and a cultivated taste:it was a singularly happy marriage.” They conceived no children.
Not even physics, the crown jewel of the natural sciences, is exempt from infighting and intrigue. The empirical confirmation of light wave-like properties did not shield Young from criticism.
One of the most vicious attacks came from Henry Brougham, a man whose work was published with the assistance of Lord Blagden, the gossip who circulated rumors of plagiarism against Thomas. The paper, which veered far from purely academic criticism, Young had critiqued a mathematical paper by Brougham years before. Brougham calls Young’s paper on light “another Bakerian Lecture, containing more fancies, more blunders, more unfounded hypotheses, more gratuitous fic-tions,all upon the same field on which Newton trod, all from the fertile, yet fruitless, brain of the same eternal Dr Young”
Young’s response was swift
“Conscious of[his] inability to explain the [diffraction] experiment which I have advanced,too ungenerous to confess that inability, and too idle to repeat the experiment, he is compelled to advance the supposition that it was incorrect…
“The writer confesses that he has not ‘sufficient fancy to discover’ how the ‘interference of two portions of light’ could ever produce an appearance of color.The poverty of his fancy may indeed easily be admitted,but it is unfortunate that he either has not patience enough to read,or intellect enough to understand,the very papers that he is criticizing; for, if he had perused with common attention my Bakerian Lecture on light, he might have understood such a production of color without any exertion of fancy at all.”
Although he been recently appointed to a long awaited position at one of London’s hospitals, Young continued his research. He, a polyglot with familiarity of the discoveries on the continent, was better equipped than anyone to write a general work of nonfiction concerning science in its entirety.
Natural Philosophy was published in 1807. In the spirit of the Principia, within its two volumes he described various physical and mechanical phenomena in detail. He had been a professor at the Royal Institution for nearly six years and, had, in the interim, worked tirelessly, endured attacks from witless detractors, experienced financial difficulties and received little acclaim for all his efforts. Having now a wife to support, he resolved to redirect his focus from physics to physic.
Of Young’s style Peacock writes:
“We are surprised to find ourselves at the end of an investigation,even within the limits of space which would commonly be deemed hardly sufficient to master the difficulties which meet us at the beginning. But his rare sagacity hardly ever deserts him”
Young’s modulus, an equation with applications in a huge variety of fields, is a measure to predict the compression or elongation of material based on its elasticity or rigidity. This is, obviously, very useful to engineers. Differences in substances led him to contemplate one of the oldest problems in history: the fundamental composition of matter. Along with Dalton, Young was one of the physicists who championed the atomic theory. Although its foundations were laid in the 19th century, it was not universally accepted. Ever parsimonious, and always swimming against the stream, he did not believe heat was an invisible substance existing in its own right, but merely a consequence of molecular motion.
Whereas physics had advanced greatly since Aristotle, medicine had advanced little since Hippocrates and Galen. Within his two books on medicine, one a general text, the other on consumptive disorders, Young questioned the established wisdom as well as the innumerable quack remedies being peddled in England and America. Medicine was not systematic; doctors relied largely on anecdotes and the accepted wisdom of the ancients. His texts were perceived as too impersonal; a quality patients, and, sadly, his colleagues, did not find endearing.
Joseph Pettigrew in his series of biographies of eminent physicians summarizes:
“He was perhaps too deeply informed,and therefore too sensible of the difficulty of arriving at true knowledge in the profession of medicine, hastily to form a judgment;and his great love of and adherence to truth made him often hesitate where others felt no difficulty whatever in the expression of their opinion.”
Young himself channeled his frustrations with his profession into a poem:
“Medical men, my mood mistaking,
Most mawkish, monstrous messes making,
Molest me much; more manfully,
My mind might meet my malady:
Medicine’s mere mockery murders me.”
The doctors of the time did not want to admit their field was still in its infancy. Thomas Peacock had great sympathy for Young’s frustrations.
“It is the peculiar misfortune of the medical profession that its members can rarely dare to confess their ignorance, thinking it more or less necessary—in order to maintain their influence with their patients and with the world—to speak with equal decision, whether they are authorized by their knowledge to do so or not.”
Young began deciphering the Rosetta Stone in 1814. He was 41. Containing inscriptions in hieroglyphs, demotic Egyptian and Greek. Although others assumed the hieroglyphics were pictograms, Young thought perhaps they represented words or phonemes. Until Champollion’s arrival in 1819, he was one of the few linguists working on the the Egyptian language. In contrast to his rival, Champolllion was monomaniacal, excitable and political, even at one point leading an insurrection against the French king in Grenoble. Whereas Champollion visited Egypt and had a deep interest in its history and culture, Young viewed decipherment as a puzzle. Of course he already had many accomplishments whereas his competitor did not. The failure to add another to his his list would not destroy his reputation as a scholar. He was fully aware of how much more it meant to Champollion than to him.
“the further [Champollion] advances by the exertion of his own talents and ingenuity, the more easily he will be able to admit, without any exorbitant sacrifice of his fame, the claim that I have advanced to a priority with respect to the first elements of all his researches; and I cannot help thinking that he will ultimately feel it most for his own substantial honor and reputation, to be more anxious to admit the just claims of others than they be to advance them.”
The Anglo-French rivalry, which had reached a feverish pitch during the Napoleonic Wars. The debate, stoked by nationalism, went back and forth. The English said their man took the first steps and laid the foundation, the French retorted that not all of Young’s assertions were correct.
The Egyptologist John Ray succinctly summarizes the affair: “Young was the first person since the end of the Roman Empire to be able to read a demotic text, and, in spite of a proportion of incorrect guesses, he surely deserves to be known as the decipherer of demotic. It is no disservice to Champollion to allow him this distinction.”
Eventually the two men met in Paris. He writes to Gurney, “[Champollion] as shown me far more attention than I ever showed or could show,to any living being:he devoted seven whole hours at once to looking over with me his papers and the magnificent collection which is committed to his care.”
Fortunately there is no evidence Eliza ever saw this letter. The stereotype of the detached intellectual is a common one, but it is ideal few live up to and even fewer manage to maintain in their personal lives. Equanimity was a lifelong trait for Thomas. Although not without social graces and emotional intelligence, he was normally more engaged with other pursuits.
Pattern recognition and symbolic manipulation are common measures of intelligence. It was these talents, as well as his familiarity with many other scripts, which enabled him to see the similarities between the demotic and hieroglyphic scripts. He realized one was merely a variation of the other. The abundance of his knowledge and the number of fields over which it was spread, coupled with the number of symbolic systems he was familiar with, made him an ideal code cracker. He was also a fine general linguist. Though he was not the first to recognize the relationship between Sanskrit and European languages, he coined the term Indo-European to describe this family.
During the later half of his life he made a minor contribution to insurance and consulted for the British navy regarding a new way to construct ships. Although he had no family history of heart disease or any of the bad habits that typically contribute to its development, he passed away at age 56 due to excessive ossification of his aorta.
His name is in hundreds of textbooks and he is known, in name alone, to students from a variety of fields. Yet the man himself, never one to lust after fame, would likely be content with this state of affairs. He and his achievements are known to the few who share his sense of wonder and his passion for learning. Let us hear the man speak for himself and for all who love knowledge for its own sake:
“[H]is own idea was, that the faculties are more exercised, and therefore probably more fortified, by going a little beyond the rudiments only, and overcoming the great elementary difficulties, of a variety of studies, than by spending the same number of hours in any one pursuit: and it was generally more his object to cultivate his own mind than to acquire knowledge for others in departments which were not his immediate concern: while he thought with regard to the modern doctrines, of the division of labor,that they applied much less to mind than to matter,and that while they increased the produce of a workman’s physical strength, they tended to reduce his dignity in the scale of existence from a reasoning being, to a mere machine.”