Thomas Young (1773-1829)

Text by Andrew Robinson

A mezzotint of Thomas Young by Charles Turner,  after a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1826.
Image: Wellcome Collection, Public Domain; Wellcome Collection CC by 4.0

The blue plaque on Thomas Young’s house in central London, close to Harley Street, labels him simply ‘Man of Science’. There was no space to mention that Young was an Egyptologist, philologist, physician, physicist, physiologist, and writer – one of the greatest polymaths ever known. He took the first successful steps in deciphering the Rosetta Stone and the Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1814-1819. He compared 400 languages and coined the term ‘Indo-European’. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, who practised medicine for three decades. He proved – contra Isaac Newton’s theory of light as a stream of particles – that light is a wave, and also explained elasticity: the ratio between stress and strain in materials. His investigations of the human eye led him to explain how it focuses, perceives colour, and suffers from astigmatism. His numerous articles and books on all of these subjects included an amazing number of contributions to the Encyclopaedia Britannica – more than any other writer.

Young’s family and early upbringing provide little clue to the source of his adult brilliance. Born into a Quaker family in rural Somerset, his father was an unremarkable cloth merchant and banker, and his mother the daughter of a merchant. None of their ten children, apart from Thomas, is remembered today. In fact, the only noteworthy family member was a distant great-uncle, a physician who encouraged Thomas to study medicine. Nor did he have a remarkable education: he generally disliked school. Instead, he trained his mind through self-study in many fields, having taught himself to read fluently by the age of two. In his 20s, he advised a younger brother: ‘Masters and mistresses are very necessary to compensate for want of inclination and exertion: but whoever would arrive at excellence must be self-taught.’

His French rival in hieroglyphic decipherment, Jean-François Champollion, would have agreed – having trained himself to study ancient Egypt. In every other respect, however, the two men were polar opposites. For example, Champollion dreamt from childhood of visiting Egypt, was fascinated by the pharaohs, and devoted his entire adult life to this ancient civilisation. Young had zero desire to visit Egypt, felt no attraction to its ancient superstitions, and was much distracted from decipherment by many other interests.

As well as taking the first successful steps in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, the polymath Young is known more generally as a ‘Man of Science’. In this 1802 caricature by James Gillray, Young conducts an explosive experiment on politician Sir John Coxe Hippisley in a lecture on the powers of air at the Royal Institution. Image: Wellcome Collection, Public Domain; Wellcome Collection CC by 4.0

Yet it was Young’s broad range that laid the foundation for the specialist Champollion to apply his tunnel vision and become a celebrity in 1822 – unlike Young. Not surprisingly, Young had mixed feelings about polymathy, long before our modern urge to specialise. In conclusion, he wrote not long before his death: ‘It is probably best for mankind that the researches of some investigators should be conceived within a narrow compass, while others pass more rapidly through a more extensive sphere of research.’

Andrew Robinson’s biography The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young has recently been published in a revised edition. See  He will talk on Young at the British Library on 28 September.