genius: the series

The Life of John Stuart Mill: Transcript of the Documentary


The video is here. There are, of course, minor discrepancies between the script and the video (e.g I chose to say one word instead of another based on how it sounded when read aloud).

John Stuart Mill was an English child prodigy who grew up to make seminal contributions to philosophy, economics, logic and political science. As an activist, public figure and member of parliament, he immersed himself in the practical aspects of domestic policy and diplomacy. He was a tireless and early champion of representative government, secularism, women’s rights, decentralization, economic freedom and personal liberty. Today many of his ideas are so widely accepted they seem commonplace, though they were radical at the time and, thanks to the breadth of his writings and the broadness of his thoughts, he has served as an inspiration to many disparate figures. John’s thought, which has entwined itself with the cultural fabric of the West, was shaped largely by his own quest for autonomy.


Born in London on May 20th, 1806. Son of James Mill, a Scottish intellectual and devout follower of Jeremy Bentham. The importance the elder Mill’s quest to turn his son into a genius at all costs cannot be underemphasized in an examination of John’s life. Nor can the influence of Jeremy Bentham.


Jeremy Bentham was a polymathic scholar and lifelong bachelor who dabbled in a sundry of unrelated ventures, among them a primitive telephone and a prison design he dubbed the Panopticon. Ironically the amount of debt he incurred pushing the Panopticon almost resulted in his own incarceration as a debtor. A child prodigy in his own right, he read a thick history of England as a toddler and began learning Latin at three. Though he studied to become a lawyer, he never practiced. Yet his legal training did not go to waste. He was an advocate for free speech, animal rights, the abolition of slavery, gender equality and, perhaps most offensive to his period’s sensibilities, the decriminalization of homosexuality. He and his followers were labeled radicals by mainstream English society because their ideas were not palatable to the Whigs or the Tories. Influenced by French philosophes like Voltaire, he exalted reason above custom and tradition. His empiricist psychology, dubbed associationism, attempted to explain consciousness by asserting that all mental phenomena is the result of the association of various perceptual elements. This view of the mind was elucidated upon further by James and later by John. Bentham views humans as little more than pleasure-maximizing robots and his ethical opinions reflect his outlook. According to his wishes, Bentham was mummified. His corpse now resides at University College in London.


Sadly, his soulless utilitarianism, which did not differentiate between types of pleasures, is often conflated with Mill’s more subtle views on ethics and morality.


As a boy James Mill was recognized for his precociousness. His gifts gained him the patronage of Sir John and Lady Jane Stuart. He was made the tutor of their daughter. James, like Sir Walter Scott and so many others, fell in love with her almost immediately. Yet it was not to be. She was the daughter of his aristocratic patrons. Here the seeds of his disdain for England’s social hierarchy were sown. Later James would name his daughter Wilhelmina after his forbidden love interest. He later became a Presbyterian minister, but his sermons were deemed too intellectual. He married Harriet Barrow in 1805. Together they had nine children. The family struggled financially before the publication of The History of India. As he so ardently hoped, his achievements would soon be eclipsed by his son’s. James is most famous now as the domineering father who molded his child into the perfect prodigy. Others have followed his example—with varying levels of success. It is possible James would not have tried to make John a morally and intellectually perfect man if he had not subscribed to such an epistemology which set nurture above nature. Although nominally an Epicurean and a radical, James never shook his Calvinist dedication to hard work or the traditional Christian conception of a woman’s place. As John would later recall, his father “professed the greatest contempt for passionate emotions.” Harriet was a housewife who rarely spoke and never dared challenge her husband. One of Mill’s sister called their marriage “an instance of two persons, a husband and wife, living as far apart, under the same roof, as the north pole from the south.” As a teacher James was stern and unrelenting, when his son found a text inscrutable James insisted he read it again. One contemporary said:


“The one really disagreeable trait in James Mill’s character, and the thing that has left the most painful memories, was the contemptuous way he allowed himself to speak and behave to his wife and children before visitors. When we read his letters to friends, we see him acting the family man with the utmost propriety, putting wife and children into their due place; but he seemed unable to observe this part in daily intercourse.”


Mill’s education is often depicted as incessant cramming, and while he was obliged to learn almost constantly through study or conversations with his father and the eminent visitors to the house, James knew rote memorization, though not without a place, was not conducive to cultivating deep and genuine understanding.


“A man who, in his own practice, so vigorously acted up to the principle of losing no time, was likely to adhere to the same rule in the instruction of his pupil. I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek; I have been told that it was when I was three years old. My earliest recollection on the subject, is that of committing to memory what my father termed vocables, being lists of common Greek words, with their signification in English, which he wrote out for me on cards. Of grammar, until some years later, I learnt no more than the inflections of the nouns and verbs, but, after a course of vocables, proceeded at once to translation…

Much of it consisted in the books I read by myself, and my father’s discourses to me, chiefly during our walks. From 1810 to the end of 1813 we were living in Newington Green, then an almost rustic neighbourhood. My father’s health required considerable and constant exercise, and he walked habitually before breakfast, generally in the green lanes towards Hornsey. In these walks I always accompanied him, and with my earliest recollections of green fields and wild flowers, is mingled that of the account I gave him daily of what I had read the day before. To the best of my remembrance, this was a voluntary rather than a prescribed exercise. I made notes on slips of paper while reading, and from these in the morning walks, I told the story to him; for the books were chiefly histories, of which I read in this manner a great number: Robertson’s histories, Hume, Gibbon; but my greatest delight, then and for long afterwards, was Watson’s Philip the Second and Third.

In these frequent talks about the books I read, he used, as opportunity offered, to give me explanations and ideas respecting civilization, government, morality, mental cultivation, which he required me afterwards to restate to him in my own words. He also made me read, and give him a verbal account of, many books which would not have interested me sufficiently to induce me to read them of myself.”

He was raised in a secular household, of his father John wrote, “finding, therefore, no halting place in Deism, he remained in a state of perplexity, until, doubtless after many struggles, he yielded to the conviction, that concerning the origin of things nothing whatever can be known. This is the only correct statement of his opinion; for dogmatic atheism he looked upon as absurd.”


From a tender age John helped his father edit ponderous tomes and official papers. In childhood he composed histories of England and of Roman government. By 14 he had read most of the classics of antiquity and by 16 was acquainted with economics, politics, history, higher mathematics, logic and all branches of philosophy. In this same year he began working for the East India Company. Though it was not an especially prestigious position, it gave him enough time to pursue his other interests while making a comfortable income. It was not an easy job; he produced two thick volumes on behalf of the company every year, and while the workload may have burdened a less industrious intellect, Mill continued to work and to write books until the company was disbanded following the Sepoy Revolt of 1857. These accomplishments did not puff him up. No one ever described him as arrogant. This is partially due to the strange and arguably abusive parenting methods of James Mill, who made sure his child never felt in any way special or unique. In his Autobiography he recalls this without bitterness.


“[my father] completely succeeded in preserving me from the sort of influences he so much dreaded. I was not at all aware that my attainments were anything unusual at my age. If I accidentally had my attention drawn to the fact that some other boy knew less than myself–which happened less often than might be imagined–I concluded, not that I knew much, but that he, for some reason or other, knew little, or that his knowledge was of a different kind from mine. My state of mind was not humility, but neither was it arrogance. I never thought of saying to myself, I am, or I can do, so and so. I neither estimated myself highly nor lowly: I did not estimate myself at all. If I thought anything about myself, it was that I was rather backward in my studies, since I always found myself so, in comparison with what my father expected from me. “


Although he always insisted he was below average in all natural endowments and his only advantage was his willingness to learn from anyone about anything, and had achieved what he had entirely thanks to his carefully managed childhood, it’s obvious his father chose him  among his 9 children because of the promise he displayed and, as we have seen, James himself did not lack innate talent. H.R Bourne and other friends of the adult John Stuart Mill were struck by his powers of memory which, though highly trained, were likely unusually powerful from the beginning.


“Nothing escaped his notice at the time of its occurrence: nothing was forgotten by him afterwards. His friends often found, to their astonishment, that he knew far more about any passages in their lives that he had been made aware of than they could themselves remember; and, whenever that disclosure was made to them, they must have been rejoiced to think, that this memory of his, instead of being, as it might well have been, a dangerous garner of severe judgments and fairly-grounded prejudices, was a magic mirror, in which their follies and foibles were hardly at all reflected, and only kindly reminiscences and generous sympathies found full expression.”


Oxford would have been a welcome reprieve, yet he had no reason to attend. It was still customary then to swear allegiance to the Anglican Church before admission, something John, who had been raised as a skeptic, objected to on principle. He was already employed, financially stable and had completed the equivalent of an undergraduate education by the age of nine. His teen years were spent paying lip service to the Benthamic radicals, but increasingly he was finding fault with their beliefs. More and more he longed to declare independence from them, to gain autonomy, a concept which would later play a central role in his life and thought. At age 20 he suffered a nervous breakdown. He later used an excerpt from Coleridge’s poetry to describe his torpor.


“A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear,
A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet or relief
In word, or sigh, or tear.”


Then, more prosaically in his Autobiography, chronicled his depression and its unexpected resolution.


“It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what  is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first ‘conviction of sin.’ In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them–would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my burden grew lighter.”


Dr. A.W Levi believes Mill’s crisis was brought on by a sublimated desire to rebel against his father’s authority.


“In reading Marmontel’s account John could in the process of identification and without guilt bring to full consciousness the idea that his father in the natural course of things would some day die, and that he himself would assume the dominating role…in experiencing his father’s death and the freedom which this would mean to his own ego, but under the literary and imaginative circumstances which would absolve him of the guilty wishes themselves,

Mill brought to the surface of his consciousness what had hitherto been laboriously repressed, and by his cathartic act spontaneously found the real solution for his mental crisis”

Dr. Peter Glassman claims Mill’s crisis forced him to “think and live in a healthier way. Specifically it forced him to acknowledge and repudiate the loneliness and the suffering that always before he had felt himself obliged to conceal and accept.” The following decade was quiet but fecund. His twenties were spent absorbing and assimilating, partially out of insecurity and uncertainty, and partially to avoid the censure of the older utilitarians if he published something which strayed from far from the orthodoxy. He continued to read widely and befriended many of the most eminent men of the age, including Thomas Carlyle, to whom he wrote:


“I am often in a state almost of scepticism, and have no theory of Human Life at all, or seem to have conflicting theories, or a theory which does not amount to a Belief. This is only a recent state, and as I well know, a passing one, and my convictions will be firmer and the result of a larger experience when I emerge from this state, than before.”


As it so often happened, he was right.


“I have what for a considerable time was quite suspended in me, the feeling of growth. I feel myself much more knowing, more seeing, having a far greater experience of realities, not abstractions, than ever before, nor do I doubt that this superior knowledge will make itself available in the form of greater power, for accomplishing whatever work I may be called to, shall I say also for choosing the work which I most worthily perform.”


In 1836 James Mill passed away from a series of “pulmonary attacks” likely brought on by tuberculosis. John, now 30, was grief stricken. He suffered several sympathetic pulmonary episodes of his own. He had lost the person who had overseen, and to large extent controlled, the development of his mind and manners. He had lost and parent and a part of himself, a very large part of himself. Yet he pulled himself out of his depression and, ultimately, the passing of the old despot who had given, and taken, so much from him, would finally allow John Stuart Mill to become his own man.


In 1838 his Essay on Bentham was published, the man who blithely proclaimed: “prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.” Mill had struggled for most of his life to repress and then later, come to terms with, his objections to this cold and narrow view of existence. Although he always admired Betham’s willingness to question authority, he fully admitted to his old idol’s shortcomings:


“Bentham’s knowledge of human nature is bounded. It is wholly empirical; and the empiricism of one who has had little experience. He had neither internal experience nor external; the quiet, even tenor of his life, and his healthiness of mind, conspired to exclude him from both. He never knew prosperity and adversity, passion nor satiety. He never had even the experiences which sickness gives; he lived from childhood to the age of eighty-five in boyish health. He knew no dejection, no heaviness of heart. He never felt life a sore and a weary burthen. He was a boy to the last.”


His essay on Coleridge, published two years later, was part of the reconciliation of his heart and mind. Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poetry, for Mill, was the antidote to his predominantly austere childhood and his analytical education. The art and philosophies of the Romantics gave him a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and his own emotions. More than once he lamented the English tendency to conceal strong feelings. His salvation would not come in the form of poetry or prose. In 1830 he met a bright, striking, articulate and married woman named Harriet Taylor. He was smitten with her from the beginning. The feeling soon became mutual, but to avoid scandal they did not indulge in any physical contact. Her husband was aware of their affections for one another. This put some strain on their marriage, but less than one would expect. Harriet resided in a separate residence with her daughter from 1833 onward. There was a quiet understanding between the three parties until Mr. Taylor’s death in 49. John and Harriet wed two years later.


During their lengthy and allegedly sexless ffair Mill composed some of his best known works. His Principles of Political Economy, not surprisingly, touched upon matters of political and social significance. He is remembered as a transitional figure and as the last great classical economist. Though Principles of Political Economy was the standard textbook on the subject for nearly half a century, today he is glossed over in introductory courses. This is primarily because he did not specialize in one area. He contributed to comparative advantage in international trade, opportunity cost, and to theories of innovation. Unlike his predecessors he paid attention not merely to the creation of wealth, but to its distribution. Moreover, he was among the first to see the difficulties involved with predicting economic phenomenon, and thus situated himself midway between Malthus’s gloomy predictions of population growth outpacing production and Adam Smith’s sunny world of laissez faire, thus, in a sense, setting a precedent for more sophisticated analysis of complex systems. He wisely proposed multiple outcomes depending on the rate at which technology developed and other unforeseen variables. As well as pointing on inequities, he went so far as to attack the dogma of growth for growth’s sake:


“I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of humankind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.”


Needless to say, he did not care for social Darwinism. Hlthough he disagreed with Herbert Spencer, its leading prophet, he assisted financially in the publication of his Principles of Philosophy. Spencer would, years later, recall this event a tribute to Mill.


Though deeply influenced by David Ricardo, a regular visitor to his childhood home, he did see potential problems with free markets, although he also recognized the pitfalls of collectivist economies and various taxation schemes. Throughout his life he argued in favor of entrepreneurship and capitalism insofar as they were the best way to insure personal autonomy, the cornerstone of his ethics. It has been contended his wife softened his view of socialism. It was because of her a chapter on labor was added to his Principles of Political Economy. Yet a mind as broad as his, which made a habit out of studying the opinions of its opponents in more depth than its own, would likely have given it a fair hearing with or without her influence. He sees its virtues and its flaws:


“It is the common error of Socialists to overlook the natural indolence of mankind; their tendency to be passive, to be the slaves of habit, to persist indefinitely in a course once chosen…Competition may not be the best conceivable stimulus, but it is at present a necessary one, and no one can foresee the time when it will not be indispensable to progress.”


Earlier in his career he asserted:


“All who are on a level with their age now readily admit that government ought not to interdict men from publishing their opinions, pursuing their employments, or buying and selling their goods, in whatever place or manner they deem the most advantageous. Beyond suppressing force and fraud, governments can seldom, without doing more harm than good, attempt to chain up the free agency of individuals”

In his Principles of Political Economy he propounds his views on women’s suffrage. However, even his opus on logic contained passages dedicated to moral and political philosophy, in A System of Logic he argues in favor of individual freedoms and public education. Logic in Western thought was still concerned primarily with syllogisms and deduction from first principles. Although Bacon, Hume and others served as forerunners, A System of Logic stands as a powerful and formal exposition of induction, and Mill’s methods stand the test of time as a means of establishing causality. The first of the five states “if two or more instances of the phenomenon under investigation have only one circumstance in common, the circumstance in which alone all the instances agree, is the cause (or effect) of the given phenomenon.”

Unlike his own mother, who remained always in the background while James instructed the children and discussed matters of importance with the other radicals, Harriet actively and eloquently participated in conversation with him and his guests. In her he found a lover, a friend, a confidante. Most of all, unlike she was an equal who he trusted to help him write and edit a number of his best known works.


Harriet passed away in 1858. It is difficult to fathom what a blow this was for him. He loved her passionately until the end. Minor quibbles aside, there is no evidence to suggest their marriage was anything but loving or they anything but devout to each other. She was the saving grace of his life. Her daughter, Helen, who would become an actress, kept in contact with Mill until his death at the age of sixty six. He did not remarry or, as far as anyone can tell, develop a romantic relationship with another woman during his twenty years as a widower.


“Were I but capable of interpreting to the world,” he wrote of Harriet, “one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.”


During this period he dedicated himself to postulating his views on representative government, liberty and the individual’s relationship to society. In On Liberty Mill argued ferociously for personal freedoms, but towards the end of the piece advocated for compulsory public education and tests for voting rights:

“Once in every year the examination should be renewed, with a gradually extending range of subjects, so as to make the universal acquisition, and what is more, retention, of a certain minimum of general knowledge, virtually compulsory. Beyond that minimum, there should be voluntary examinations on all subjects, at which all who come up to a certain standard of proficiency might claim a certificate.”


Moreover, he was not without a certain elitism, as evinced in some of his private letters to Harriet. He recognized the pivotal point gifted people play in moving civilization forward. To what end in particular he did not say, as he disagreed sharply all teleologies, including Auguste Comte’s.


“Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people—less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character. If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the better for their genius. “


“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.”


For his dedication to women’s rights Mill was cruelly mocked by newspapers and viciously criticized by his fellow intellectuals.  In The Subjection of Women, he argued  “the legal subordination of one sex to another – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other…

I consider it presumption in anyone to pretend to decide what women are or are not, can or cannot be, by natural constitution. They have always hitherto been kept, as far as regards spontaneous development, in so unnatural a state, that their nature cannot but have been greatly distorted and disguised; and no one can safely pronounce that if women’s nature were left to choose its direction as freely as men’s, and if no artificial bent were attempted to be given to it except that required by the conditions of human society, and given to both sexes alike, there would be any material difference, or perhaps any difference at all, in the character and capacities which would unfold themselves.”


Mill spent the remainder of his life in Avignon, close to his wife’s grave.  He passed away in 1873 and was buried beside her. The grave would serve as a tourist spot throughout the Victorian era. For, in spite of his association with Bentham and the radicals, he was, in the words of one biographer, “the last great Romantic.” His death was met with many tributes from those he had inspired:


“He may have blundered and stumbled in his pursuit of truth; but it was part of his belief that stumbling and blundering are necessary means towards the finding of truth, and that honesty of purpose is the only indispensable requisite for the nearest approach towards truth of which each individual is capable. That belief rendered him as charitable towards others as he was modest concerning his own attainments. He never boasted; and he despised no one. The only things really hateful to him were arrogance and injustice, and for these he was, to say the least, as willing and eager to find excuse as could be the most devout utterer of the prayer, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ We had noted many instances, coming within our own very limited observation, of his remarkable, almost unparalleled magnanimity and generosity; but such details would here be almost out of place, and they who need such will doubtless before long receive much more convincing proof of his moral excellence.”

He should not be remembered merely as a man who thought deeply, but one who felt deeply as well.


Works Cited:

Capaldi, Nicholas. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Glassman, Peter J. J.S. Mill: The Evolution of a Genius. Gainesville: U of Florida, 1985. Print.

Mill, John Stuart, and David Spitz. On Liberty. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

Mill, John Stuart, and Jack Stillinger. John Stuart Mill: Autobiography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Mill, John Stuart, and Oskar Piest. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957. Print.

Mill, John Stuart, and W. J. Ashley. Principles of Political Economy, with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. New York: A.M. Kelley, eller, 1965. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1971. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive. London: Longmans, Green, 1949. Print.

Strathern, Paul. J.S. Mill in 90 Minutes. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002. Print.

Transcript of Thomas Young Documentary



“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.”