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Thomas Young was an English polymath and physician.


Young belonged to a Quaker family of Milverton, Somerset, where he was born in 1773, the eldest of ten children.


A child prodigy, he had read through the Bible twice by the age of four and was reading and writing Latin at six. At the age of fourteen Young had learned Greek and Latin and was acquainted with French, Italian, Hebrew, German, Aramaic, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Amharic. Young chose medicine as a career and trained at the universities of London, Edinburgh, Göttingen, and finally Cambridge (1797 - 1799).


In 1808 he began practice in London, but because of his blunt truthfulness and his distrust of the practices of purging and bleeding then common he was not popular with his patients.

In 1811 he joined the staff of St. George's Hospital. In 1793 Young explained the process of accommodation in the human eye. In 1801 he presented a paper on the nature of visual astigmatism and gave the constants of the eye; this paper is considered by ophthalmologists to be his most brilliant contribution.

The following year he gave his theory of color vision, a notable advance in physiological optics. In a lecture on the proper construction of arches Young casually pointed out that within wide limits the ratio of stress to strain was for most materials a constant.

This characteristic constant for stretching is called Young's modulus of the substance. Turning to a completely different field, he "penetrated the obscurity that had veiled for ages the hieroglyphics of Egypt" through his deciphering of the Rosetta Stone.

Young's famous two-volume Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1807) contained the 60 lectures he gave at the Royal Institution while he was professor of natural philosophy there (1801 - 1803).

The first volume contains the lectures and almost 600 drawings; the second volume includes several of his papers and about 20, 000 references to the literature, many annotated.

He died in his London home on May 10, 1829.


  • Young made notable scientific contributions to the fields of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony, and Egyptology. He "made a number of original and insightful innovations" in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs (specifically the Rosetta Stone) before Jean-François Champollion eventually expanded on his work. He was mentioned by, among others, William Herschel, Hermann von Helmholtz, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein. Young has been described as "The Last Man Who Knew Everything".

    Young was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1822. A few years before his death he became interested in life insurance, and in 1827 he was chosen one of the eight foreign associates of the French Academy of Sciences. In 1828, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.



Quotations: "The experiments I am about to relate . .. may be repeated with great ease, whenever the sun shines, and without any other apparatus than is at hand to every one", is how Thomas Young, speaking on 24 November 1803, to the Royal Society of London, began his description of the historic experiment.


In 1802, he was appointed foreign secretary of the Royal Society, of which he had been elected a fellow in 1794.


Young was highly regarded by his friends and colleagues. He was said never to impose his knowledge, but if asked was able to answer even the most difficult scientific question with ease. Although very learned he had a reputation for sometimes having difficulty in communicating his knowledge.

Quotes from others about the person

  • “Concerning Thomas Young, the noted physicist Sir Humphry Davy wrote: "He was a most amiable and good tempered man . .. of universal erudition, and almost universal accomplishments. Had he limited himself to any one department of knowledge, he must have been the first in that department. But as a mathematician, a scholar, a hieroglyphist, he was eminent, and he knew so much it was difficult to say what he did not know. "”


A child prodigy, he had read through the Bible twice by the age of four and was reading and writing Latin at six.