A historical interlude Thomas Young

Thomas Young was born in Somerset, England in 1773, into an affluent Quaker family. He was an infant prodigy, able to read fluently at the age of two. By the time he was six years old, he had read the Bible twice. A year later, he was sent to boarding school, where he studied mathematics and languages. He developed a good reading knowledge of French, Italian, Greek and Latin. He independently studied physics and natural history and learned to make telescopes and microscopes. After leaving school, he began to study languages such as Arabic and Turkish, and by the time he entered university he was an accomplished Greek and Latin scholar and had read the works of Isaac Newton. Towards the end of his life he stated, apparently with great satisfaction, that he had never spent an idle day in his life.

Young studied medicine at the universities of London, Edinburgh, Göttingen and Cambridge. During his university years, he drifted away from the Quakerism of his youth and enjoyed social pursuits such as music, dancing and the theatre. In effect he had all the external attributes of a 'gentleman scholar'. Young inherited

£10,000 and a house in London on the death of his uncle Sir Richard Brocklesby in 1797, a year after his graduation from Göttingen. Three years later Young moved to London and began to practise medicine. He failed to establish a really successful practice, owing to an apparent inability to gain the confidence of his patients.

Being a man of independent means, Young was able to pursue other interests and regularly attended meetings of the Royal Society of London, where he came to the attention of Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, and Benjamin Thompson, founder of the Royal Institution. On their recommendation he was appointed 'Professor of Natural Philosophy, Editor of the Journals and Superintendent of the House' in 1801. He lectured on a wide range of topics, such as optics, animal life, vegetation and techniques of measurement.Young was required to give 'popular' lectures to a more general audience. These were often difficult to understand and had limited appeal, in sharp contrast to the popular lectures in chemistry given by Humphry Davy. A year later, Rumford left England and Young subsequently resigned and returned to the practice of medicine.

Young had a passion for languages and in 1813 he began to study hieroglyphic script on the Rosetta stone, a black basalt slab discovered near the Egyptian town of Rosetta at the mouth of the river Nile. The stone was unearthed by a group of Napoleonic

Rosetta stone. Courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandria, Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage.

soldiers digging to build a fort.Young's work, published anonymously in a supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, laid the foundation for later, more comprehensive, work on deciphering hieroglyphics. It was established that the Rosetta stone was set up to commemorate the first anniversary of the Egyptian king Ptolemy V in 196 BC.

The name of Thomas Young is synonymous with the experiment which unambiguously established the wave nature of light, but he could also be considered to be the founder of physiological optics. Young explained how the eye focuses objects at different distances by changing the curvature of the lens, he described and measured astigmatism, and he presented a theory of colour vision in terms of three different colour receptors on the basis of experiments with different mixes of primary colours. His scientific work gained international recognition in 1827, when he was elected a foreign associate of the French Academy of Sciences.

Young was physician to the Royal College of Surgeons from 1811 to his death. He was, at various times, foreign secretary of the Royal Society, secretary to the Board of Longitude, editor of the Nautical Almanac, and inspector of calculations and physician to the Royal Palladium Insurance Company.

Young had such a wide range of interests that he was probably not sufficiently focused to make a consistent contribution in any one area. He was a true scholar, with a love for knowledge of any subject, no matter how obscure.

The following words are taken from his epitaph in Westminster Abbey:

'a man alike eminent in almost every department of human learning.'

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