Who first demonstrated experimentally the wave theory of light but left it to Fresnel to perfect? Who placed the study of tides on a sure footing? Who showed that the eye accommodates varying focus by modifying the lens? Who truly paved the way for Champillion to conquer the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs? Who had phenomenal knowledge of languages and their development and coined the term Indo-European languages? Who formulated the modulus of elasticity? Who advised the British Government as to the improved construction of wooden ships? Who definitively explained refraction and double refraction? Whose discoveries echoed long into the ground-breaking scientific era of the twentieth century? Who advised the British Government on the replacement if the 1190 London Bridge? Who related earthquakes to sound waves and applied elasticity to the measure of the Earth? And much more besides. Look no further. It was the acclaimed physician, Thomas Young.
Born in 1773, this contemporary of Davy, Faraday, Goethe, Beethoven and Gauss was the first successfully to challenge Newton’s corpuscular theory of light – we now know that light behaves as a mixture of both. Later, Maxwell was to deal comprehensively with light as electro-magnetic waves. Yet he challenged Newton with a subtlety and humility that did not detract from his reverence for the greatest scientist of all time. Indeed, both scientists gut-wrenchingly passed instruments behind their own eyeball, Newton, I recall, to see the colour effects, Young to measure its depth. I wonder where Young got the idea from.
Young lectured at the Royal Institution during the same period as Faraday and Davy and became Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society and a foreign associate of the elite French National Institute
Andrew Robinson’s biography, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, is a carefully researched work of scholarship that barely conceals admiration for his subject. He compares him to Leonardo da Vinci. While lamenting the time it took for Young’s achievements to be fully recognised, except by his immediate loyal friends, and to disprove the charge of dilletantism, he discerns a trace of intellectual detachment towards his most loyal supporter, his wife. The marriage was loving and successful but childless.
Intellectually detached, he may have been, but he was well travelled, he spent five months in Italy with his wife when the Napoleonic Wars came to an end. After Edinburgh and Cambridge, where his reputation had already preceded him, he was awarded his doctorate at Göttingen – his dissertation was in Latin, concerned the organs of the human voice and identified an alphabet of 47 letters to express the entire gamut of the sounds it can produce.
Unlike Newton, he possessed social grace and often by his tact and generosity defused potentially acrimonious dispute. Perhaps it was his pacifist Quaker upbringing: the Quakers cut him off when he spent two years at Cambridge, an institution requiring membership of the Anglican church, for going to the theatre and other such activities unacceptable to them. A Cambridge Master’s degree was required before he could be elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, so this was important if he was to have a successful medical practice. The former he achieved, the latter never quite, largely because of the other pursuits that engaged him, and despite his long service at St George’s Hospital.
For all Robinson’s scholarly excellence, which I am unable to judge and can only gather from others, it leaves me decidedly cold. There is no attempt to delve to any extent into the workings and motivations of this remarkable mind. His conclusion that, “We can safely say, with the endless expansion of knowledge, that no one will be able to stake this awesome claim [to be a polymath] ever again,” is a depressing one, especially in the light of science’s ambition to unify all things.
Young died at the age of 56 of – what is now seen to be – cardiac failure.