With thanks to Daniel Barker – Deskarati –
Thomas Young (born June 13, 1773, Milverton, Somerset, Eng. — died May 10, 1829, London) was a famous English polymath whose scientific investigations helped unravel the mysteries of sight, light, mechanics, energy, physiology and Egyptology.
In his recent biography, Andrew Robinson described Thomas Young as “the last man who knew everything” and this is certainly no outlandish claim. Although a modest man who cared more about learning than about gaining fame through his discoveries, Thomas Young was arguably the great ever English polymath (a person with encyclopaedic, broad or varied knowledge), a man who, as Robinson says, proved Newton wrong, explained how we see, cured the sick and deciphered the Rosetta Stone, among other feats of genius.
The Early Years of Thomas Young
Thomas Young was into a Quaker family in Milverton, Somerset in 1773. The youngest of ten children, Young was a precocious and exceptionally quick-witted child who was fluent in Greek and Latin by the age of fourteen and had also made strides into learning French, Italian, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Amharic. Having initially been educated at exclusive boarding schools, in 1786 Young was removed from school so that he might continue his phenomenal studies privately with friends of his father.
A Career in Medicine
In 1793 Young began to study medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London although he was to leave in 1794 to continue his medical studies in Edinburgh. It was during this time that Young began to distance himself from his Quaker roots. After completing his studies in Edinburgh in 1795, Young travelled to Gottingen in Germany where he was awarded a Doctor of Physics degree in 1796.After obtaining his doctorate, Young moved to Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he taught and also began to research scientific matters outside the scope of medicine.
Having received a substantial inheritance on the death of his uncle, Young moved to London in 1799 and established himself as a physician at 48 Welbeck Street. Although his medical practice was never particularly successful, Young maintained that medicine was his primary occupation and so often published his academic articles anonymously to avoid damaging his reputation as a physician.
An Extraordinary Breadth of Knowledge
Despite the important impact on medical scholarship of his work on haemodynamics and his Young’s Rule for determining drug dosages for children, Thomas Young is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work in numerous other fields:
- Wave Theory of Light – in Young’s own estimation, his discovery that light travelled in waves from is double slit experiment (thereby disproving Newton’s light particle theory) was his greatest achievement.
- Young’s Modulus – the characterisation of elasticity.
- Vision and Colour Theory – Young was a founder of physiological optics and demonstrated that the eye accommodates itself to vision at different distances by changing the curvature of the lens.
- Egyptology – towards the end of his life, Young turned his attention back to languages and became one of the first people to try and decipher hieroglyphics. Although the final translation is often credited to Jean Francois Champollion, Young made significant advances towards the translation of the Rosetta Stone.
- Languages – as well as his translations and mastery of numerous languages, Young also proposed a universal phonetic alphabet and wrote the exhaustive Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on ‘Language’.
- Young Temperament – a new way of tuning musical instruments.
- Although he was certainly not immune to mistakes, Thomas Young was a great scientist, linguist and innovator and, without his considerable discoveries, many distinct disciplines would have been disadvantaged.
Via Thomas Young