Lives of the fellows

Thomas Young

b.13 June 1773 d.10 May 1829
FRS(1794) MD Gottingen(1796) MB Cantab(1803) MD(1808) FRCP(1809)

Thomas Young, M.D., the marvel of his age, was born of Quaker parents at Milverton, in Somersetshire, on the 13th June, 1773. His school education was conducted on no definite plan, and to it he was but little indebted. His untiring industry, quickness, and keenness of perception and very retentive memory were early manifested. While yet a mere lad, his acquirements had begun to excite considerable attention among his relatives and others, and his parents had already begun to think seriously of the line of life which might be most advantageously taken by a youth of such uncommon promise. Nothing definite however, was decided on, and he passed five years in the house of Mr. David Barclay, of Youngsbury, as companion and classical tutor to his grandson, Mr. Hudson Gurney. The period spent at Youngsbury, from 1787 to 1792, was considered by Dr. Young as the most profitable in his life with respect both to mental and moral cultivation and improvement. Even at this early age his attainments as a linguist and philologist were remarkable. To a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew was added Chaldee, Arabic, Syriac, Persian, and Samaritan; French, Italian, and Spanish, and somewhat later German.

In 1791, when but eighteen years of age, he was admitted to the society of Porson, Dr. Burney, and our own Sir George Baker, and even then was able to enter the lists with these distinguished scholars on the niceties of Greek composition and to contend with them on no unequal terms. He had also applied with success to mathematics, natural philosophy, botany, and entomology. The mastership he obtained of such a multiplicity of subjects seems in part due to the fact that he studied nothing hastily or cursorily. His memory both of facts and of words was singularly tenacious, and whatever he had once mastered he never forgot. Whatever book he began to read he read completely and deliberately through, whatever study he commenced he never abandoned, and it was by steadily keeping to this principle—a most important one in education—that he was accustomed in after life to attribute a great part of his success both as a scholar and man of science.

In 1792, on the recommendation of his uncle, Dr. Richard Brocklesby, who had given him reason to expect the reversion of such a portion of his fortune as would secure him a moderate independence, he applied himself to the study of medicine. He attended the lectures of John Hunter, Mr. Cruikshanks, and Dr. Baillie on anatomy, and somewhat later those of Sir Alexander Crichton, Dr. John Latham, Dr. John Clarke, and Sir J. E. Smith. In May, 1793, a paper from his pen on Vision was read at the Royal Society and published in the Transactions for that year; and on the 19th June, 1794, being then just twenty-one years of age,he was elected a fellow of the society.

In the autumn of 1794 he went to Edinburgh to continue his medical studies, and there he abandoned his connection with the Society of Friends. The following year he went to Gottingen, where, after a six months’ residence, he graduated doctor of medicine 16th July, 1796 (D.M.I. de Corporis Humani Viri-bus Conservatricibus). Dr. Young then returned to England and almost immediately afterwards was admitted a fellow commoner of Emmanuel college, Cambridge. His reputation as a scholar and philosopher had preceded him, and from the first he was exempted from the common duties of the college. He associated but little with the young men there, who called him, with a mixture of derision and respect, "Phenomenon Young;" but he lived on familiar terms with the fellows in the common room.

In 1801 he was appointed professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, and as such delivered those remarkable lectures, which he published in two volumes quarto with the title "A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts." "They form altogether," says Dr. Peacock, "the most comprehensive system of natural philosophy, and of what the French call physics, that has ever been published in this country; 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."

But Young, by his own admission, was not adapted for a popular lecturer, and he resigned his professorship at the end of two years. His style was too compressed and laconic, and he had not sufficient knowledge of the intellectual habits of other men to address himself prominently to those points of a subject where their difficulties were likely to occur.

In the year 1802 he was appointed Foreign Secretary to the Royal Society, an office which he held for the remainder of his life, and for which he was well qualified by his knowledge of the principal European languages.

He proceeded M.B. at Cambridge in 1803, M.D. 2nd July, 1808, was admitted a Candidate of the College of Physicians 30th September, 1808, and a Fellow 22nd December, 1809. He was Censor in 1813, 1823, and Croonian lecturer in 1822 and 1823. On the 24th January, 1811, Dr. Young was elected physician to St. George’s hospital, an office which he only vacated by death. He did not shine at the bed-side or in the practical work of his profession, and was but little followed by pupils in the wards. His colleagues and contemporaries failed to discover that success and excellence in his treatment of disease which his biographer, Dr. Peacock, would claim for him. "The truth is," as Sir Benjamin Brodie observes, "that either his mind, from it having been so long trained by the study of the more exact sciences, was not fitted for the profession which he had chosen, or that it was so much engrossed by other and, to him, more interesting pursuits, that he never bestowed on it that constant and patient attention without which no one can be a great physician."(1)

Dr. Young was deeply read in the literature of his profession, as his two medical works, the Introduction to Medical Literature and the Treatise on Consumptive Diseases, sufficiently testify; but these are little more than compilations from books, without any indications of original research. But of Dr. Young's extraordinary attainments in literature and science there can be no doubt: his name stands prominently forward as a philosopher of almost universal attainments.

The researches by which he first distinguished himself were those on physical optics, which were communicated to the Royal Society in 1801, 2, and 3, and led to the undulatory theory of light. "This theory for a long time," writes Dr. Whewell, "made few proselytes, and several years afterwards, Auguste Fresnel, an eminent French mathematician, took up similar views, proved their truth and traced their consequences by a series of labours almost independent of Dr. Young. It was not till the theory was thus reechoed from another land that it was able to take any strong hold on the attention of the countrymen of its earliest promulgator."(2)

His contributions to our knowledge of the cohesion of fluids, of chromatics, and of the theory of the tides followed, and are only less important than his contributions to the science of light and optics. Dr. Young's philological attainments were no less remarkable. His contributions to the Quarterly Review on this subject were numerous and important. Those on the Herculanensia; the Mithridates of Ade-lung ; the Hermes Scythicus of Jameison; and on the Rev. J. Townshend’s work on the veracity of Moses as a Historian ; are especially noteworthy. The varied information contained in them was subsequently incorporated with much original matter into the essay under the title of "Languages," contributed by him in the Supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica. Herein Dr. Young’s characteristics fully appeared. He loved to grapple with difficult problems in literature not less than in science. A corrupt passage to be restored, a mutilated, rude, or badly spelt inscription to be completed, or corrected or interpreted; an alphabet or a 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 more or less labours of predilection with him where his nice perception, and accurate transcription of forms, his intimate knowledge of the principles of grammar, his patient labour and uncommon sagacity had full scope for their exercise.

This was preeminently the case when he applied in 1814 to the study of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Dr. Young’s attention was first called to them in the spring of that year, and before the end of it he had subjected the three inscriptions on the well-known Rosetta stone to a laborious analysis, and had arrived at some conclusions of so much importance as to warrant his being regarded as the parent of our present knowledge of Egyptian antiquities. The article "Egypt," in the Supplement of the Encyclopædia Britannica contained a general view of the results of both his critical and historical labours in this department, and has been pronounced to be "the greatest effort of scholarship and ingenuity of which modern literature can boast." His interest and labours in this difficult inquiry continued to the last; and at the time of Dr. Young’s death he had no superior as an Egyptologist, and but one equal (if indeed he was so), M. Champollion.

In 1818 Dr. Young’s eminent services to science and literature were acknowledged by his appointment to the secretaryship of the Board of Longitude, charged with the supervision of the Nautical Almanac, which was published by the Admiralty. His salary was 300l. per annum in the first of these capacities, and the second. The appointment did not add to his peace of mind. It led him into controversy, and much ill feeling was engendered on either side; and Dr. Peacock admits it to be "difficult for the warmest admirers of Dr. Young altogether to justify the line of conduct which he pursued."

Dr. Young from the month of February, 1829, had suffered from what he considered repeated attacks of asthma, and was evidently uneasy at the state of his health. This gradually deteriorated. He had in the beginning of April great difficulty in breathing, with some discharge of blood habitually from the lungs, and was in a state of great weakness. 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 be able to finish. It was then in the hands of the lithographers, and he not only continued to give directions concerning it, but laboured at it with a pencil when confined to bed, and unable to hold a pen.

His last anxiety concerning the proceedings of one or two persons who had made him the object of reiterated attacks in consequence of being dissatisfied with the arrangements of the Nautical Almanac, was that nothing should go forth on his part to increase irritation, and when papers were sent him which went to enumerate and prove the errors into which these individuals had fallen, his desire was that they should be suppressed. His illness continued with some slight variations, but he was gradually sinking into greater and greater weakness until the morning of the 10th May, 1829, when he expired without a struggle, having hardly completed his fifty-sixth year. The disease proved to be ossification of the aorta. His remains were deposited in the vault of his wife’s family at Farnborough in Kent.

A monument by Chantrey was erected by his widow in Westminster Abbey, with the following inscription from the pen of Mr. Hudson Gurney:—
Sacred to the memory of
Thomas Young, M.D.,
Fellow and Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society,
Member of the National Institute of France :
A man alike eminent
in almost every department of human learning.
Patient of unintermitted labour,
Endowed with the faculty of intuitive perception,
Who, bringing an equal mastery
to the most abstruse investigations
of letters and of science,
first established the undulatory theory of light,
and first penetrated the obscurity
which had veiled for ages
the Hieroglyphics of Egypt.
Endeared to his friends by his domestic virtues,
Honoured by the world for his unrivalled acquirements,
He died in the hopes of the resurrection of the just.
Born at Milverton in Somersetshire June 13th, 1773;
Died in Park-square London May 10th, 1829,
in the 56th year of his age.

To delineate adequately the character of Dr. Young(3) would require an ability in some proportion to his own, and must be ill supplied by one incompetent to judge the talents of a man, who as a physician, a linguist, an antiquary, a mathematician, scholar, and philosopher in their most difficult and abstruse investigations, has added to almost every department of human knowledge that which will be remembered to after times ; "who (as was observed by Mr. Davies Gilbert) came into the world with a confidence in his own talents growing out of an expectation of excellence entertained in common by all his friends, which expectation was more than realised in the progress of his future life.

The multiplied objects which he pursued were carried to such an extent, that each might have been supposed to have exclusively occupied the full powers of his mind; knowledge in the abstract, the most enlarged generalisations, and the most minute and intricate details, were equally affected by him; but he had most pleasure in that which appeared to be most difficult of investigation." Mr. Davies Gilbert added wisely that "the example is only to be followed by those of equal capacity and equal perseverance, and rather recommends the concentration of research within the limits of some defined portion of science than the endeavour to embrace the whole."

To sum up with that which passeth all acquirement, Dr. Young was a man in all the relations of life upright, kind hearted, blameless. His domestic virtues were as exemplary as his talents were great. He was entirely free from either envy or jealousy, and the assistance which he gave to others engaged in the same lines of research with himself, was constant and unbounded. His morality through life had been pure though unostentatious. His religious sentiments were by himself stated to be liberal though orthodox. He had extensively studied the Scriptures, of which the precepts were deeply impressed upon his mind from his earliest years; and he evidenced the faith which he professed in an unbending course of usefulness and rectitude.(4) Dr. Young’s portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence was engraved by G. R. Ward.

William Munk

[(1) Autobiography of Sir Benjamin Brodie, Bart., prefixed to his Works, in three vols., 8vo., by Charles Hawkins. Vol. i, p. 92.
(2) Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences. Vol ii, p.402
(3) "Vir, omnigena Scientia atque eruditione pollens, qui nullum fere doctrinæ genus non tetigit neque ullum, sive materie ab omni parte collata, sive inventis sibi propriis, non locupletavit, Matheseos Astronomiæ, Chemiæ, Historiæ Naturalis, Linguarum tam veterum quam recentiorum, Artis Musicae, Medicinæ, idem sagacissimus excultor. Sed nobis in tam lato campo spatiantibus, si non patientia vestra, Socii, at certe vires nostræ deficerent; quis enim de tali viro digna loquetur, qui non acie mentis totum Scientiarum orbem complecti possit? Qualem igitur se Naturae interpretem praestiterit, Physicos; Antiquitatis, Philologos; Medicinae, vosmetipsos testes adhibedo. In Optica scilicet quæ vocatur scientia, ut vel adversarios ejus antester, probabilem certe de natura Luminis doctrinam excogitavit, et invitis at que praeoccupatis suorum auribus ausus est committere. Inesse quidem rebus, præter quatuor ista genitalia corpora, quæ vulgo elementa appellantur, quintam quandam essentiam, universo naturæ corpori immistam, et summam cæli partem amplectentem, quam Æthera Græci nominabant, vel ab ultima antiquitate innotuit. Sic enim Empedoclem cecinisse accepimus—

Ταίά τε, καί πόντος πολυκύμων, ήδ ύγρος άήρ,
Τίτάν, ήό' αίθήρ, σφίγγων' πϵρί κύκλον άπαντα.

Hic autem principiis fultus noster, quid sit Lumen, quo subtilissimo istius Ætheris motu propagetur, quaque fiat ratione, et Undæ istæ Æthereæ, si discordes sint, tenebras, si concordes, lucem efficiant, ipse mira sagacitate atque astutia ingenii præmonstravit. Nec minori solertia monumenta veterum exquisivit, quippe qui notas atque symbola saxis incisa, quæ ad mysteria annalesque suos posteris mandanda, usurpassent Ægyptii, cum jam per tot sæcula oblivione obruta jacuissent, atque vetustatis situ penitus abolevissent, felicissima conjectura e tenebris tandem in lucem revocaverit. Rem nostram etiam, Socii, quantum auxerit atque illustraverit, indicio sunt scripta quæ de Literatura Medica et de Phthisi Pulmonali effudit, in quibus tanta industria et labore opiniones omnium, quotquot a priscis temporibus ad nostrum usque aevum de morbis et medendi ratione disseruerint, evolvit, ut quæ in hac materie posteris mandavit, Thesauros potius quam Libros jure et merito nominare liceat.’’ Oratio ex Harveii Instituto habita die Junii 25. 1845. Authorc Carolo G. B. Daubeny, M.D.
(4) Life of Thomas Young, M.D., F.R.S., by George Peacock, D.D., Dean of Ely. 8vo. Lond. 1855.]

(Volume III, page 80)

<< Back to List