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Thomas Young
(13 Jun 1773 - 10 May 1829)

English physician, physicist and Egyptologist who investigated a broad range of science topics, including the interference of light, defects of the eye's lens, elasticity and helped decipher the Rosetta Stone.

Thomas Young

by Rev. William Henry Milburn

from Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1890)

Thomas Young
Thomas Young

[p.670] “It is a curious fact,” says Mr. Emerson, “that certain enormity of culture makes a man invisible to his contemporaries. 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.” Of no man who has died in this century is this remark truer than of Thomas Young, who may be styled, without exaggeration, the most learned, profound, variously accomplished scholar and man of science that has appeared in our age—perhaps in any [p.671] age. Arago intimates that possibly eight or ten of his contemporaries might have been able rightly to value and appreciate the man and his work, and suggests that the suffrages of Fame must be weighed, not counted: the applause of a million is usually not worth as much as the praise of one competent man.

As early as 1815 Humboldt attested that “there is no field of human knowledge which Dr. Young has not cultivated with success; wherever he passed, his path is marked with discoveries.” I have heard that Helmholtz has said: “The greatest discovery I ever made was that of the genius and writings of Thomas Young; I consider him the greatest man of science that has appeared in the history of this planet.” Professor Tyndall, when in this country, said something to this effect: “If a horizontal line were drawn from the top of Sir Isaac Newton’s genius, stretching to our own day, it would leave immeasurably below it every head that has since appeared excepting that of Thomas Young; and if it declined at all to reach his, the declination would be very slight.”

Thomas Young was born at Milverton, in Somersetshire, England, on the 13th of June, 1773. He was therefore only nineteen years of age when, in 1792, he took lodgings in Westminster for the purpose of prosecuting his medical and anatomical studies. In the autumn of 1793 he entered himself as a pupil at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and devoted himself systematically to the preparatory studies of his future profession. Giving himself with enthusiasm to the study of the eye and of vision, he embodied some striking original views in a memoir which was read before the Royal Society, and published in their Philosophical Transactions. The merit of this paper was so great that it gained for its author the honor of membership in that illustrious body at the early age of twenty-one. He was soon after elected to be its corresponding secretary, a position which he filled with distinction for the rest of his life. Young’s paper no sooner appeared than the celebrated anatomist and physiologist. John Hunter, claimed the discovery announced in it as his own, but Young was acquitted of the charge of plagiarism.

In 1794 he made the acquaintance of the Duke of Richmond, then holding a high place in the government. His Grace was so much pleased with Young that he offered to make him his private secretary. This tempting offer and the advantages which it opened were declined.

I cannot forbear to quote Arago on this incident. “Young happily had a consciousness of his own powers. He perceived in himself the germ of those brilliant discoveries which have since adorned his name; he preferred the laborious but independent career of the man of letters to the golden chains exhibited so temptingly to his eyes.”

Young chose to pursue his medical studies at Edinburgh, and afterward at Göttingen. On his way to the northern capital he visited Erasmus Darwin, who said of him, “He unites the scholar with the philosopher, and the cultivation of modern arts with the simplicity of ancient manners.”

While in Edinburgh he mixed largely in society, not merely amongst his fellow-students, but among the professors of the university and the principal inhabitants of a city and neighborhood proverbial for hospitality. He began the study of music, and took lessons on the flute, and. thoroughly mastered the theory of the one and to some extent the practice of the other. He took private lessons in dancing, and repeatedly attended performances at the theatre. The story is told that some friends calling after one of his dancing lessons found him tracing minutely with rule and compasses the route gone through by the performers, and the improvements he thought might be made in the figures. After the close of his studies in Edinburgh he proceeded to Göttingen, where in due time he took his degree of M.D., closely applying himself the while to dancing, horsemanship, music, drawing, history, and philosophy, as well as to medicine.

The first time he mounted a horse, in company with a grandson of Mr. Barclay, the rider who preceded them leaped a high fence. Young wished to imitate him, but fell at ten paces. He remounted without saying a word, made a second attempt, was again unseated, but this time was not thrown further than on the horse’s neck, to which he clung. At the third trial he succeeded in executing what another had done before him. This experiment was repeated at Edinburgh and Göttingen, and carried to an extent almost incredible. In one of these cities Young [p.672] entered into a trial of skill with a celebrated rope-dancer; in the other (in each case the result of a challenge) he acquired the art of executing feats on horseback with remarkable agility, even in the midst of consummate artistes. Thus, those who are fond of drawing contrasts may on the one side represent to themselves the timid Newton never riding in a carriage, so much did the fear of being upset preoccupy him, without holding to both doors with extended arms; and on the other, his distinguished rival galloping on the backs of two horses with all the confidence of an equestrian by profession.

Many of his memoirs testify to the profound knowledge which he had happily acquired of the theory of music. He carried out also to a great extent the talent of executing it; and I believe it is certain that of all known instruments, even including the Scottish bagpipe, only one or two could be mentioned on which he could not play. During his stay in Germany his taste for painting was carefully schooled. The magnificent collection at Dresden absorbed his attention entirely; for he aspired not solely to the easy credit of connecting together without mistake the name of such or such an artist with such or such a painting; the defects and the characteristic qualities of the greatest masters, their frequent changes of manner, the material objects which they introduced into their works, the modifications which those objects and the colors underwent in the progress of time, among other points, occupied him in succession. Young, in one word, studied painting in Saxony, as he had before studied languages in his own country, and as he afterward studied the sciences. Everything he undertook was a subject of profound meditation and research.

Almost immediately on his return to England he was admitted as a Fellow Commoner of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in order to take his English degree of M.D. The statutes, which were framed in the early part of the reign of Elizabeth, were rigorous and unalterable in all that regards the time and form of graduation. Thus six entire years must elapse between the admission of a student and the degree of M.B., and five more before he was allowed to attain the mature honor of the Doctorate; and the University possessed no power, unless in virtue of a special mandate of the crown, to reduce the length of these intervals. Young, therefore, was not admitted to the degree of M.B. until the year 1803, when he was thirty years of age, nor to that of M.D. until five years afterward; he had begun the practice of his profession in virtue of his German degree before the expiration of the first of these periods, but did not attain the honor of the Fellowship of the College of Physicians before the conclusion of the second. He was introduced to his college by its head. Dr. Farmer, as “a pupil capable of reading lectures to his preceptors”; and once in the college combination-room silenced the famous but pompous Dr. Samuel Parr by an apt quotation from Bentley. When Young left the room, Parr asked who he was, and said, “A smart young man that”; a phrase which an Englishman to-day would declare to involve an Americanism.

Whilst residing in Cambridge, Young prepared a memoir entitled “Outlines and Experiments respecting Sound and Light.” Some of the conclusions and speculations to which these investigations lead are of great theoretical importance, not merely as tending to correct many prevalent errors and misconceptions respecting the propagation of sound, but especially as establishing the great principle of the interference of sounds, and the explanation of the phenomena of beats and of the grave harmonics which is founded upon it—a principle which speedily conducted him to the discovery of the kindred principle of optical interferences, “which has proved,” says Sir John Herschel, “the key to all the more abstruse and puzzling properties of light, and which would alone have sufficed to place its author in the highest rank of scientific immortality, even were his other almost innumerable claims to such a distinction disregarded.”

In a letter to Nicholson’s Philosophical Journal for 1801, he made the first public announcement of the extension of the principle of interference from sound to light, and the consequent establishment of its propagation by undulation.

The first memoir, “On the Theory of Light and Colors,” in which this discovery was developed, was read to the Royal Society on the 12th of the following November. It was succeeded by a second, entitled “An Account of some Cases of the Production of Colors,’’ which was [p.673] read on the 1st July, 1802; and by a third, entitled “Experiments and Calculations relative to Physical Optics,” read on the 24th November, 1803. The publication of these three memoirs constitutes the first great epoch in the history of his optical discoveries. After the completion of the first of these memoirs, which had employed so much of his time, and which gave rise to so many important speculations, Young established himself in London, attending the hospital very closely, and began the practice of his profession at 48 Welbeck Street, where he remained for five-and-twenty years, spending his summers, however, at Worthingby-the-Sea, a pleasant resort not far from Brighton, and in those days much visited by good society.

It was a fortunate circumstance for the fame of Dr. Young that he never gained much practice as a physician; and though some of the best years of his life were diverted to professional duties and occupations, he was enabled to devote many more to those literary and scientific pursuits in which few could compete with him.

The first subjects which occupied him were the essays under the signature of “The Leptologist” and the “Memoir on the Mechanism of the Eye.” to which allusion has been already made. Upon this last production he put forth all his powers. The optical and anatomical investigations which it contains are of no ordinary difficulty and importance, more especially the happy adaptation of an instrument called the optometer, originally invented by Dr. Porterfield, for accurately measuring the focal distance of the eye both in a vertical and horizontal plane, which in many eyes are unequal to each other; the determination of the refractive power of a variable medium, and its application to the constitution of the crystalline lens; the indication of the nice and accurate adjustment of every part of the eye for viewing at the same time the greatest possible range of objects without confusion; the measurement of the collective dispersion of colored rays in the eye; and ingenious and multiplied experiments for ascertaining, in some cases beyond the reach of controversy, what parts of the eye are changed and what are not when passing from the view of near to distant objects, and conversely.

In the year 1800 the Royal Institution was founded, chiefly through the exertions of the well-known Sir Benjamin Thompson—Count Rumford. It was designed as a great metropolitan school of science, where lectures should be given, models of useful instruments exhibited, and collections of books on science, and of chemical and philosophical apparatus, formed on a most magnificent scale. In the following year Dr. Young was called to the chair of natural philosophy in this institution, and in conjunction with Mr., afterward Sir Humphry Davy, filling the chair of chemistry, edited its journal. The lectures which he gave there were afterward published, and were divided into three parts, containing twenty lectures each. The first including mechanics, theoretical and practical; second, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, acoustics, and optics; the third, astronomy, the theory of the tides, the properties of matter, cohesion, electricity, and magnetism, the theory of heat and climatology. They form altogether the most comprehensive system of natural philosophy that has ever been published in England; equally remarkable for precision and accuracy in the enunciation of the vast multitude of propositions and facts which they contain, for the boldness with which they enter upon the discussion of the most abstruse and difficult subjects, and for the addition or suggestion of new matter or new views in almost every department of philosophy.

It has been remarked that no writer on any branch of science which these lectures treat of can safely neglect them, so rich is the mine of knowledge which they contain, and it is a well-known fact that many important propositions and discoveries have been more or less clearly indicated in them which have been recognized or pointed out when other philosophers discovered them independently or announced them as their own. One striking example of such an anticipation is furnished by his statement of the radiation of heat and deposition of dew, afterward worked out and appropriated by Dr. Wells. Young likened himself, and it would seem with justice, to Cassandra, who always told the truth, but was seldom understood and never believed.

The science of physical optics is so abstruse as to forbid even an attempt in this place to present a summary of the researches and their results of Sir Isaac [p.674] Newton, Huygens, and the other illustrious men who devoted so much time and pains to this interesting and important field of inquiry, or to state the undulatory theory of light discovered and announced by Young, and afterward independently announced by Fresnel, the French engineer, who did what Young could not— make it known to and received by the scientific men of Europe—and who so handsomely acknowledged Young’s priority of discovery, while maintaining the independence and originality of his own methods and their beautiful consequences. Those who desire to pursue the subject may do so in Young’s writings, and if these be not at hand or found too difficult, a lucid statement of the whole matter may be read in Dr. Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences. Let me quote this passage from Sir John Herschel: “A doctrine which we owe almost entirely to the ingenuity of Dr. Young, though some of its features may be pretty distinctly traced in the writings of Hooke (the most ingenious man perhaps of his age), and though Newton himself occasionally indulged in speculations bearing a certain relation to it. But the unpursued speculations of Newton and the apercus of Hooke, however distinct, must not be put in competition, and, indeed, ought scarcely to be mentioned, with the elegant, simple, and comprehensive theory of Young— a theory which, if not founded in nature, is certainly one of the happiest fictions that the genius of man has invented to group together natural phenomena, as well as most fortunate in the unexpected support it has received from all classes of new phenomena, is, in fact, with all its applications and details, a succession of felicities, insomuch that we may be almost induced to say, if it be not true, it deserves to be so.” There is now no sufficient ground even for the fragment of doubt which is here insinuated. The evidence upon which this theory rests, though inferior in completeness, is hardly less so in force, to that which exists for the theory of gravitation. The part played by the famous apple in the “theory of gravitation” was performed for the “undulatory theory of light” by the soap-bubbles, with their beautifully colored rings, of which all children are so enamoured.

The world is to-day justly amazed at the influence wielded at the beginning of this century by the shallowness, flippancy, and slapdash style of the Edinburgh Review and its group of writers, most of them now growing very obscure. Not even Jeffrey himself impressed his sharp and narrow qualities upon the Review so much as did the blatant ferocity and arrogant egotism of Henry Brougham, afterward Lord High Chancellor of England. Lord Campbell’s mot about his brother Scotchman will be remembered when many other things have been forgotten, “That if he had known a little law he would have known something about everything.” Dr. Young had taken occasion in one of his papers a few years earlier to speak of Brougham and one of his scientific essays in what the latter thought to be a disparaging and patronizing way, and as the fierce and turbulent young borderer had a memory “like a row of pegs” to hang grudges on, he was not slow in taking a merciless revenge. No sooner had Young’s “Memoir on Light’’ appeared than Brougham rushed to attack him with the fierce savagery of his cattle-stealing, house-burning, marauding forebears. Of all the disgraceful papers to be found in the Edinburgh at this period, I suppose none deserves such odium as those furnished by Brougham on Young. It would be difficult to refer to another example where the irresponsible power of anonymous criticism has been so unscrupulously exercised, or where the effects which it produced were so long and so injuriously felt. It is safe to say that the truculent reviewer managed to keep fast for a generation most British men of science in the toils of their fond duncery that what Sir Isaac Newton had failed to do could not be accomplished by any man, thus preventing their recognition and even notice of Thomas Young; Brougham’s derisive pooh-pooh and snap of the fingers consigned the reputation of one of the greatest men of science that has lived to a limbo from which it has scarcely even yet emerged. Dr. Young answered the attack of his reviewer in a vigorous, manly, and convincing manner. Only one copy of his pamphlet, however, was sold, and no private means were used to secure its circulation; it produced, therefore, no effect whatsoever in correcting the impressions which had been produced upon the public mind by Brougham’s attacks. It was reserved for Arago and Fresnel to become at a much later period [p.675] the expositors and interpreters of these memoirs, and to rescue them from the neglect which they had so long and so unjustly experienced from his own countrymen.

This tribute from Helmholtz is interesting. It is from his lectures on “The Recent Progress of the Theory of Vision.” “The theory of colors, with all its marvellous and complicated relations, was a riddle which Goethe in vain attempted to solve; nor were we physicists and physiologists more successful. I include myself in the number; for I long toiled at the task without getting any nearer my object, until I at last discovered that a wonderfully simple solution had been presented at the beginning of this century, and had been in print ever since for any one to read who chose. This solution was found and published by the same Thomas Young who first showed the right method of arriving at the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He 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 most important thoughts remained buried and forgotten in the Transactions of the 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.”

On the 20th of December, 1804, he read to the Royal Society a memoir on the “Cohesion of Fluids,” which was published in their Transactions for the following year. The investigations which it contains are amongst the most original and important of the contributions which he made to physical science, but being conducted entirely without the aid of figures or symbolical reasoning, are extremely obscure. A long time consequently elapsed before their value was fully appreciated. The famous La Place seems to have appropriated some of the fruits of Young’s labors in this field, at first without acknowledgment, and even when later on he gave Young credit, it was stinted and grudging.

Earnestly as he strove to win recognition in his profession, and highly as lie deserved its first honors and emoluments, he never became a popular physician, for here as elsewhere he was far in advance of his age. Those were the days of “heroic treatment” in medicine, while his views and methods agreed with the best practice of to-day.

Upon the publication in 1807 of his lectures on philosophy in two quarto volumes of 750 pages each, he applied himself to the preparation of a course on medicine which should do for that science what the other had done for Nature and her laws. His medical lectures were delivered at the Middlesex Hospital, but had very small audiences, as the tax which they made upon the brains of the hearers was too great for most students. He expanded and published them in 1813 as an Introduction to Medical Literature, including a system of “Practical Nosology.” It is a work of great labor, and bears much the same relation to the medical that his lectures bear to the mathematical and physical sciences.

The “Sketch of Animal Chemistry” which is given in the appendix of this work was translated from the Swedish of Berzelius by the aid of a. grammar and a dictionary, without any previous acquaintance with the language. The illustrious chemist gratefully acknowledged the service, and expressed his admiration of the skill and correctness with which the task had been executed.

The last of his medical publications was A Practical and Historical Essay on Consumptive Diseases, which appeared in 1815. It is a condensed and admirably arranged abstract of everything that had been said and done with regard to consumption. It was written and published within a period of nine months from the time it was begun, and is a work of great interest and value.

Knowing that the public is apt to hold in light esteem a professional man who concerns himself with studies and pursuits apart from his special line, Dr. Young withheld his name from most of his publications, whether original or translated, in general science. He contributed numerous articles to Nicholson’s Journal, the Imperial and Quarterly Reviews, the Retrospect, and other periodical publications, including his “Theory of the Tides,” one of the most considerable of his scientific labors. It was this voluntary withdrawal of his name from public observation, notwithstanding the variety and importance of his researches, which left nearly undisturbed the impression [p.676] produced by the intemperate abuse of the Edinburgh Review.

More than fourteen years had elapsed since Dr. Young quitted Edinburgh— where he first became known in connection with Greek literature by the selections from the Anthologia which he made for the second volume of the Analecta of Professor Dalzel, and the notes by which they are accompanied—when an article appeared in the Quarterly Review which excited more than common attention amongst scholars and men of letters. The subject of it was the Herculanensia, a splendid work, containing several learned and philological and antiquarian dissertations relating to Herculaneum and the condition of the region in its neighborhood. The appearance of this article, equally remarkable for its critical acuteness and vigorous writing, at once placed its author, in the estimation of the public, in the first class of the scholars of the age. The editor of the Review, in a letter to George Ellis, says, “Young’s article is certainly above all praise.”

A corrupt passage to be restored; a mutilated, rude, or badly spelled inscription to be completed, or corrected, or interpreted; an alphabet or meaning to be extracted from an unknown language by a careful analysis of its different parts, by connecting what is unknown with what is known, or with such documents as his various learning could supply—were always labors of predilection with him. His review of the Herculanensia had made his qualifications for such tasks generally known; and from that time to the end of his life inscriptions from all quarters, especially in Greek and the hieroglyphical and cursive characters of ancient Egypt, were referred to him for discussion or interpretation. In seven years from 1816 he contributed to the Supplement of the Encyclopædia Britannica sixty-three articles, of which forty-six were biographical. Among the rest, that on “Egypt” was much the most considerable; but the articles on “Bridge,” “Cohesion,” “Chromatics,” and especially that on ‘‘ Tides,” are hardly surpassed in originality and importance by any works on these subjects which have appeared in any age.

In 1814 a slight incident drew his attention to Egyptian hieroglyphics, and between May and November of that year he subjected the three inscriptions of the well-known Rosetta stone to a most laborious analysis, which ended in a conjectural translation of the second of the three. Of the three inscriptions upon this stone, the first is in the hieroglyphical or sacred, and the second in the enchorial or native characters of Egypt, whilst the third is in Greek.

The interesting path thus opened, although it led into such an intricate labyrinth, was followed by Young with his accustomed energy and diligence. Leading students of the Continent, as well as in England—Porson and Heyne, Silvestre de Sacy and Ackerbladt—had found themselves entangled in the inextricable maze when Young began his explorations. The article “Egypt”—which was undertaken, as we have seen, for the Supplement of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and written in 1818, though not published until the year following—contained a general view of the results both of his critical and historical labors; it has been pronounced “to be the greatest effort of scholarship and ingenuity of which modern literature can boast.”

This is not the place to discuss the rival claims of Young and Champollion to the priority of discovery in the dim fields of Egyptian interpretation. The cause of Champollion was warmly espoused by his countrymen, who crowned him with applause, emoluments, and honors; while, as was usual with him, Young had few voices on his side in England; and even yet in this, as in so many other departments, his genius and labors have been awarded the scantiest and tardiest recognition. The article “ Egypt,” which contained the principal record of Young’s researches in hieroglyphical literature, was addressed, not to learned, but to general readers, and it exhibited, therefore, a very imperfect view of the vast mass of materials which he had collected, and of the patient and skilful analysis to which they had been subjected. These manuscripts were all written before the preparation of that article, and nearly five years before the appearance of Champollion’s letter to M. Dacier, and it is obvious from an inspection of them that they had received no subsequent additions. The whole of the intervening period, in fact, had been fully occupied in writing nearly seventy articles for the Supplement of the Encyclopædia Britannica, as well as by a great variety of public [p.677] and other engagements. His biographer, Dr. Peacock, says: “It was only after a perusal of his unpublished manuscripts that I became fully aware how very imperfectly the published writings of Dr. Young represented either the extent or the character of his researches, or the real progress he had made in the discovery of phonetic hieroglyphics many years before Champollion had made his appearance in the field. It seemed to be the fate of Dr. Young, in everything relating to his hieroglyphical researches, to be plundered, misrepresented, or misunderstood.”

About 1810 the Lords of the Admiralty sought his aid to decide upon the value of some suggested improvements in naval architecture; in 1811 he was elected one of the physicians of St. George’s Hospital; in 1818 he was appointed secretary to a commission for ascertaining the length of the seconds pendulum, for comparing the French and English standards with each other, and for considering whether it would be practicable and advisable to establish throughout the empire a more uniform system of weights and measures. In 1818 he was appointed superintendent of the Nautical Almanac and secretary of the Board of Longitude, with a salary of four hundred pounds per annum, which he considered sufficient to justify his appearing henceforward before the public in his proper character of a man of science, without regarding the possible loss of professional income which might result from his doing so. The results which followed from his appointment showed that the opinion entertained of the universality and soundness of his attainments was not misplaced, and we find him discharging the new duties which devolved upon him, including a very extensive astronomical correspondence, with a mastery of the subject as complete and technical as if the study of that science had formed the chief business of his life.

In the interval of twelve years which elapsed between the publication of his “Reply to the Edinburgh Review“ and the appearance of Fresnel’s first “Memoir on Diffraction.” in 1816, the name of Dr. Young was ostensibly connected with no important experimental or theoretical optical investigations. In fact, his previous labors upon the subject seemed to have been absolutely forgotten, and it would be difficult to point out a single allusion made to them in any optical work or a memoir published during that period, either at home or abroad. In the intermediate period La Place had published his celebrated memoir on the double refraction of Iceland spar; Malus had discovered the polarization of light by reflection, and was engaged in a brilliant series of researches connecting his discovery with the optical properties of crystalline bodies, when a premature death brought his labors to a close; Brewster was enriching every department of experimental optics with most remarkable speculations and discoveries: Arago had found the colors of crystalline plates produced by polarized light, and though less fertile than some of his contemporaries in the number of his contributions to the science, he was second to none of them in the critical sagacity with which he analyzed their labors; Biot was combining theoretical and practical researches with a success and ingenuity which seemed to promise him the first place amongst optical discoverers, when it was his misfortune to waste his energies and compromise his reputation in the proposition and obstinate maintenance of his theory of movable polarization.

But in the mean time Young, though he engaged in no continuous optical investigations, and preserved strictly the incognito which he considered to be due to his profession, was neither an idle nor an unconcerned observer of what was passing around him. Occasionally, and at distant intervals, he endeavored to connect his own views of the nature of light with some of the rich harvest of results which, chiefly through the labors of Brewster, had followed the discoveries of Malus. Meanwhile a young French officer of engineers, inferior to none of those who had preceded him in experimental and mathematical skill and in inventiveness, had recently appeared on the scene, who was destined in the course of a few years to connect these scattered and apparently incongruous phenomena by a consistent theory, and give a new aspect to the whole face of optical science. This was Fresnel. who thus wrote to Young: “When we believe that we have made a discovery, it is not without regret that we find that another has made it before us; and I will frankly confess to you, sir, that such was the feeling experienced [p.678] when Arago showed me that there were only a small number of observations really new in my original memoir. But if anything could console me for not having had the advantage of priority, it is that it has brought me in contact with a philosopher who has enriched physical science with so great a number of important discoveries—a circumstance which has not a little contributed to increase my own confidence in the theory which I have adopted.” The discussion which arose out of Fresnel’s memoir, and the ample references to Dr. Young’s writings which it contained, were the means of calling the attention of men of science in France both to the undulatory theory and to its author.

Arago tells the pretty story as to how he himself became possessed of the information which he imparted to Fresnel. “In the year 1816 I visited England in company with my learned friend Gay Lussac. Fresnel had recently made his debut in the career of the sciences, in the most brilliant manner, by his ‘Memoir on Diffraction.’ This work, which in our opinion contained a capital experiment irreconcilable with the Newtonian theory of light, became naturally the first subject of our conversation with Dr. Young. We were astonished at the number of restrictions which he imposed upon our commendations of it, when at last he declared that the experiment which we valued so highly was to be found since 1807 in his Lectures on Natural Philosophy. This assertion appeared to us unfounded, and a long and very minute discussion followed. Mrs. Young was present, without offering to take any part in it, as the fear of the ridicule implied in the sobriquet of bas bleu makes English ladies reserved in the presence of strangers. Our neglect of propriety never struck us until the moment when Mrs. Young quitted the room somewhat precipitately. We were beginning to make our apologies to her husband, when we saw her return with an enormous quarto volume under her arm. It was the first volume of the Lectures on Natural Philosophy. She placed it on the table, opened the book, without saying a word, at page 387, and showed with her finger a figure where the curvilinear course of the diffracted bands, which was the subject of the discussion, is found to be established theoretically.”

There were few subjects of public interest where investigations involving a difficult application of mathematical and mechanical principles were concerned in which Young’s assistance was not required. Life-assurance was beginning to excite a wide and deep interest, and as he was invited to the subject he spent much time and pains upon elaborate calculations to ascertain the value of life, upon which to base, in accordance with sound principles, annuities and assurance. His course of life, considered apart from the variety of his occupations, was remarkably uniform. He resided in London from November to June, and at Worthing from July to the end of October. His professional engagements restricted his visits elsewhere within very narrow limits.

In writing to a friend who complained of ennui and a want of resolution to employ himself, he says: “About this time last year”—the letter is dated December, 1820—”I was giving myself a holiday of a few weeks, and I fell into a sort of fidgety languor, and fancied I was growing old. It wore off very soon, however, and I am convinced there is no remedy so effectual for this and other intellectual diseases as plenty of work, without anxiety and fatigue. This autumn I have been, in fact, going on with a work which then almost frightened me at having undertaken, and am already printing the first part of it. I am also writing over again my article on ‘Languages,’ in the Quarterly Review, with many additions, for the next Supplement of the Encyclopædia Britannica; and a biographical memoir on Lagrange, which will be almost as long, requiring a list of one hundred different papers on the most abstruse parts of mathematics. I have then the business of the Board of Longitude to manage, and some of the Royal Society’s. The arctic expedition is now settled, but we are fitting our astronomer for the Cape with all his books and instruments. Then there is a Committee of Elegant Extracts to consider the tonnage of ships, appointed by the Royal Society, the Admiralty, the Board of Trade, and the Treasury, which will not take long, but I shall have the onus. Then there is my hospital, to speak nothing of my private patients, who are very discreet at this time of the year. I must shortly do a little more to the hieroglyphics, and after one number more I shall be able to judge if the thing is worth continuing or not. I have learned more or [p.679] less perfectly a tolerable variety of things, but there are two I have never yet learned—to get up and to go to bed. It is now past twelve o’clock, but I shall write an hour longer.”

In the year 1826 he removed from his house in Welbeck Street to another in Park Square, which had been built under his own directions, and fitted up with great elegance and taste.

On the 6th of August of the following year he was elected one of the eight foreign associates of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, in the place of Volta—the highest honor that can be conferred on a man of science. Davy and Wollaston were already members; their places and that of Young were afterward not less worthily filled by Brown, Faraday, and Brewster.

In a letter written in the autumn of 1828 he says: “As for myself, I am perfectly content with the life I lead: walking on business of routine every day from eleven to two; the rest of the day sitting over my hieroglyphics or mathematics, and conversing in my library with people beyond the Alps or the Mediterranean. I have lost all ambition for a more bustling life or more active scenes, and I believe I am as happy as a person so old in soul is capable of being. In mental faculties I am not yet so old, and I amuse myself almost daily with some petty bonnes fortunes among some of the nine sisters.”

In February, 1829, his health began to give way, and by April his friends and physicians became alarmed at his symptoms. Though under the pressure of severe illness, nothing could surpass the kindness of his affections to all around him. He said that he had completed all the works on which he was engaged, with the exception of the rudiments of an Egyptian dictionary, which he had brought near to its completion, and which he was extremely anxious to finish. It was then in the hands of the lithographers, and he not only continued to give directions concerning it, but labored at it with a pencil when, confined to his bed, he was unable to hold a pen. To a friend who expostulated with him on the danger of fatiguing himself, he replied it was no fatigue; that it was a work which, if he should live, it would be a satisfaction to have finished; but otherwise, which seemed most probable, it would still be a great satisfaction never to have spent an idle day in his life.

His illness continued, with some slight variations, but he was gradually sinking into greater and greater weakness, till the morning of the 10th of May, when he expired without a struggle, having hardly completed his fifty-sixth year. The disease proved to be an ossification of the aorta, which must have been in progress for many years. His remains were deposited in the vault of his wife’s family in the church of Farnborough, Kent.

As a physician, a linguist, an archaeologist, a mathematician, scholar, and philosopher in their most difficult and abstruse investigations, Thomas Young has added to almost every department of human knowledge that which will be remembered to after-times.

Arago says: “Who would not imagine that he had before him the register of the labors of several academies, and not those of a single individual, on hearing, for instance, the following list of titles: ‘Memoir on the Establishments where Iron is Wrought:’ ‘Essays on Music and Painting;’ ‘Remarks on the Habits of Spiders and the Theory of Fabricius;’ ‘On the Stability of Arches of Bridges;’ ‘On the Atmosphere of the Moon;’ ‘Description of a new Species of Opercularia;’ ‘Mathematical Theory of Epicycloidal Curves;’ ‘Restoration and Translation of Different Greek Inscriptions;’ ‘On the Means of Strengthening the Construction of Ships of the Line;’ ‘On the Play of the Heart and of Arteries in the Phenomena of Circulation;’ ‘Theory of Tides;’ ‘On the Diseases of the Chest;’ ‘On the Friction of Axes of Machines;’ ‘On the Yellow-Fever;’ ‘On the Calculation of Eclipses;’ ‘Essays on Grammar,’ etc.”

This list, it should be borne in mind, is intended by Arago merely as a specimen of the vast catalogue which might be made of Young’s writings.

Although Westminster Abbey does not hold his dust, Dean Buckland allowed Young’s devoted widow to place within its famous walls a profile medallion of him executed by Chantrey, and beneath it a slab containing an inscription written by his life-long friend Hudson Gurney.

When we consider the grandeur of his genius, the multifarious greatness of his works, the simplicity and sublimity of his character, we are amazed at the indifference of mankind, which has suffered his name to rest in comparative obscurity.

The engraving was used in the original text, captioned as from “Peacock's Life of Young,” by permission of John Murray, Publisher, London. Text and the engraving from: Rev. William Henry Milburn, 'Thomas Young, M.D., F.R.S.', Harper's New Monthly Magazine (Apr 1890), 80, No. 479, 670-679. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by Thomas Young.
  • 13 Jun - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Young's birth.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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