Peter Mark Roget

Peter Mark Roget FRS (18 January 1779 – 12 September 1869) was a British physician, natural theologian and lexicographer. He is best known for publishing, in 1852, the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (Roget’s Thesaurus), a classified collection of related words.

Peter Mark Roget was born in London. His obsession with list-making as a coping mechanism was well established by the time he was eight years old. The son of a Swiss clergyman, Roget studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His life was marked by several incidents of sadness. His father and his wife died young. His beloved uncle Samuel Romilly committed suicide in Roget’s presence. Roget struggled with depression for most of his life. His work on the thesaurus arose partly from an effort to battle depression.

Roget retired from professional life in 1840 and about 1848 began preparing for publication the one work that was to perpetuate his memory. This was the catalogue of words organized by their meanings, the compilation of which had been an avocation since 1805. Its first printed edition, in 1852, was called Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. During his lifetime the work had twenty-eight printings; after his death it was revised and expanded by his son, John Lewis Roget (1828–1908), and later by John’s son, Samuel Romilly Roget (1875-?). The first secretary of the Portico Library, Manchester, was Dr Roget who began his famous Thesaurus here.

Roget died while on holiday in West Malvern, Worcestershire, aged 90, and is buried there in the cemetery of St James’s Church.

Roget in science and technology

Roget was much concerned with medical education but the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester was only established in 1874. He was also one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine, and he was a secretary of the Royal Society. In 1815, he invented the log-log slide rule, allowing a person to perform exponential and root calculations simply. This was especially helpful for calculations involving fractional powers and roots. In 1834 he became the first Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution. He was examiner in physiology in the University of London.

On 9 December 1824, Roget presented a paper entitled Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel when seen through vertical apertures. This article is often incorrectly referenced as either On the Persistence of Vision with Regard to Human Motion or Persistence of Vision with regard to Moving Objects, likely due to erroneous citations by film historians Terry Ramsaye and Arthur Knight.

While Roget’s explanation of the illusion was probably wrong, his consideration of the illusion of motion was an important point in the history of film, and probably influenced the development of the Thaumatrope, the Phenakistiscope and the Zoetrope.

He wrote numerous papers on physiology and health, among them the fifth Bridgewater Treatise, Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered with reference to Natural Theology (1834), a two-volume work on phrenology (1838), and articles for several editions of Encyclopædia Britannica.

He played an important role in the establishment of the University of London; he was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge and wrote for it a series of popular manuals. He showed remarkable ingenuity in inventing and solving chess problems and designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard.

Roget in art and culture

Canadian writer Keath Fraser published a story, “Roget’s Thesaurus,” in 1982 which is narrated in Roget’s voice. Minimalist in style, Fraser’s story manages to capture both the associative power of language and many of the salient facts of Roget’s life in a text that occupies less than two full pages.

Roget was the focus of the play “Synonymy” by Randy Wyatt. It tells the story of a graduate student named Gordon who rents out the last known residence of Roget to inspire him as he works on his dissertation regarding the English language and Roget’s Thesaurus. The building, which was soon to be torn down, created a gateway in which Gordon found himself traveling back in time and meeting Roget and his daughter, Kate. “Synonymy” premiered at Minnesota State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance in December 2005.

He is also a character in the play “An Experiment with an Air Pump” by Shelagh Stephenson, which concerns scientific ethics. The play takes place in the household of Joseph Fenwick in 1799 – Roget appears as one of Fenwick’s assistants.

via Peter Mark Roget

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