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reproach. A young engineer of high distinction, M. Du-
leau, found, in the lively friendship which united him to
our colleague, an irresistible impulse to take part in the
melancholy kind offices of which he was the object ; and
he also established himself at Ville d'Avray. M. Duleau
was the first who informed us how little Fresnel was
under any delusion as to his condition. " I could have
wished," lie exclaimed sometimes (when the presence of
a mother and a brother, who were agitated by poignant
disquietude, did not impose upon him a reserve which his
tender feelings for them would not infringe), "I could
have wished to live longer, because T perceive that there


are in the inexhaustible range of science, a great number
of questions of public utility, of which, perhaps, I might
have had the happiness of finding the solution." Fresnel
was still in the country Avhen the Royal Society of Lon-
don charged me with the office of presenting to him the
Ruraford Medal. His powers, then almost exhausted,
scarcely permitted him to cast a glance of his eye over
this testimony, so rarely bestowed, of the estimation of
that illustrious society. All his thoughts were directed
towards his approaching end : all were concentrated on
that object. " I thank you," he said to me, in a feeble
voice, "for having undertaken this mission. I guess how
much it must have cost you, for you have perceived, is it
not so ? that the most beautiful crown is worth little when
it is only to be deposited on the tomb of a friend ! "

Alas ! these melancholy anticipations were not long in
being accomplished. Eight days more had hardly elapsed
when our country lost one of its most virtuous citizens ;
the Academy one of its most illustrious members ; and
the scientific world, a genius of the highest order.

Newton, on learning the premature death of Cotes, a
young geometer whose first labours had led to great ex-
pectations, pronounced those words, so simple, so expres-
sive, that the history of science has treasured them up :
« If Cotes had lived we should have known something ! "
From the mouth of Newton this short eulogy might pass
without comment ; it belongs to genius to pronounce such
sentences, and we shall always believe its word. For
myself, Gentlemen, devoid of all such authority I have
felt myself bound laboriously to go through so many de-
tails, not to affirm, but to prove to you, that we know
some things although Fresnel lived so short a time.


A Biography read at a Public Sitting of the Acad-
emy OF Sciences the 26th of November, 1832.

Gentlemen, — It seems as if death, who is incessantly
thinning our ranks, directed his stroke with a fatal pre-
dilection, against that class of our body so limited in num-
ber, our foreign associates. In a short space of time the
Academy has lost from the list of its members, Herschel,
whose bold ideas on the structure of the universe have
acquired every year more of probability ; Piazzi, who on
the first day of the present century presented our solar
system with a new planet ; Watt, who, if not the in-
ventor of the steam-engine, the inventor having been a
Frenchman,* was at least the creator of so many admi-
rable contrivances, by the aid of which the little instru-
ment of Papin has become the most ingenious, the most
useful, the most powerful means of applying industry;

* This is not the place to enter on the controversy respecting the
invention of the steam-engine. It may, however, be remarked, that
we may be well content to allow it to remain a question of degree.
Every tea-kettle is a steam-engine. A verj' slight and obvious con-
trivance will enable steam to raise a piston. Let any one define what
tiiey mean precisely by the term steam-engine, and the question of
prioritj"- of invention will be easily settled. — Translator.


Volta, who has been immortalized by his electric pile ;
Davy, equally celebrated for the decomposition of the
alkalies and for the invaluable safety lamp of the miner ;
Wollaston, whom the English called the pope, because he
never proved follible in any of his numerous experiments,
or of his subtile theoretical speculations ; Jenner, lastly,
whose discovery I have no need to extol in the presence
of fathers of families. To pay to such of its distin-
guished oi-naments the legitimate tribute of the regret, of
the admiration, and the gratitude of all men devoted to
study, is one of the principal duties which the Academy
imposes on those whom it invests with the responsible
honour of speaking in its name in these solemn meetings.
To pay this grand debt with the least possible delay,
seems an obligation not less imperative. Gentlemen, the
native academician always leaves behind him, among the
colleagues with whom he has been united by the election
of the Academy, many confidants of his secret thoughts,
of the origin and course of his researches, of the vicissi-
tudes which he has gone through. The foreign associate
on the contrary resides far away from us ; he rarely joins
in our meetings ; we know nothing of his life, his habits,
his character, unless from the reports of travellers. When
several years have passed over such fugitive documents,
if we still find any traces of them, we cannot reckon on
their accuracy. Literary intelligence which has not found
a recoi'd in print is a sort of coin, the circulation of which
alters at -the same time the impression, the weight, and
the inscription.

These reflections tend to show why the names of such
men as Herschel, Davy, or Volta ought to be mentioned
in our assemblies before those of many celebrated acade-
micians whom death has snatched fiom our more imme-


diate circle. Moreover, I hope that after what I shall
be able to adduce, even in a few minutes, no one will be
able to deny that the man of universal science whose life
I am about to describe, and whose labours I shall ana-
lyze, has some real claims to preference.


Thomas Young was born at Milverton in the county
of Somerset, June 13, 1773, of parents who belonged to
the Society of Friends. He passed his earliest years at
the house of his maternal grandfather, Mr. Robert
Davies, of Minehead, whom the active business of com-
merce had not been able to divert from the cultivation of
classical literature. Young could read fluently at the
age of two years. His memory was extraordinary. In
the intervals of his attendance at the house of a village
schoolmistress in the neighbourhood of Minehead, at
four years old, he had learned by heart a number of
English authors, and even several Latin poems, which
he could repeat from beginning to end, although he did
not understand a word of the language. The example
of Young, like many others of celebrity recorded by
biographers, may then contribute to keep up the com-
mon prepossession of so many good fathers of families,
who see in certain lessons according as they may be
recited without faults, on the one hand, or are badly
learnt on the other, infallible indications of an eternal
mediocrity in the one case, or the beginning of a glorious
career in the other. It would indeed be far from our
object if these historical notices should tend to strengthen
such prejudices. Thus, without wishing to weaken the
vivid and pure emotions which every year the distribu-


tion of prizes excites, we may remind some, in order that
they may not abandon themselves to dreams which they
will not realize, and others, in order to fortify thera
against discouragement, that Picus de Mirandola, the
phoenix of learners of all ages and countries, became in
mature age an insignificant writer ; that Newton — that
powerful intellect of whom Voltaire, in some well known
lines, asks the angels whether they are not jealous, — the
great Newton, we observe, made but indifferent progress
in the classes of his school ; that study had for him no
attractions ; that the first time he felt the wish to labour
it was merely to take the place of a turbulent school-
fellow, who, by reason of his rank in the school was
seated on a form above him and annoyed him by kicks ;
that at the age of twenty-two he was a candidate for a
fellowship at Cambridge, and was beaten by one Robert
Uvedale, whose name but for this circumstance, would
have remained to this day perfectly unknown ; that
Fontenelle, lastly, was more ingenious than exact when
he applied to Newton the words of Lucan, " It is not
given to men to see the Nile feeble and at its source."

At the age of six years, Young entered under a teacher
at Bristol,* whose mediocrity was a fortunate circum-
stance for him. This, Gentlemen, is no paradox ; the
pupil, not being able to accommodate himself to the slow
and limited steps which his master took, became his own
instructor. It is thus that those brilliant qualities de-
veloped themselves which too much aid would certainly
have enervated.

* The master, whose name was King, at first kept school at Sta-
pleton, and thence removed to Townend, both near Bristol. Young's
acquaintance with the surveyor commenced after he quitted that
school. See Peacock's Life, p. 5. — Translator.


Young was only eight years of age, when chance,
whose influence in the events of man's life is more con-
siderable than our vanity often allows us to admit, took
him from studies exclusively literary, and revealed his
real vocation. A surveyor of much merit in the neigh-
bourhood took a great fancy for him ; he took him out
into the country sometimes on holidays, and permitted
him to amuse himself with his instruments of surveying
and natural philosophy. The operations, by whose aid
the young scholar saw the distances and elevations of
inaccessible objects determined, powerfully struck his
imagination. But soon several chapters of a mathe-
matical dictionary made all that seemed mysterious in
the matter disappear. From this moment, in his Sun-
day excursions, the quadrant took the place of the kite.
In the evening, by way of amusement, the engineering
novice calculated the heights measured in the morning.

From the age of nine to fourteen. Young went to a
school at Compton in Dorsetshire, kept by Mr. Thom-
son, whose memory he always cherished. During these
five years all the pupils of the school were occupied
exclusively, according to the practice of English Schools,
in a minute study of the principal writers of Greece and
Rome.* Young continually maintained his place at the
head of his class : and yet he learned at the same time
French, Italian, Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic : French
and Italian, from the chance object of satisfying the
curiosity of a schoolfellow who possessed some works

* It would appenr from Young's own account, that a far more
liberal system was really pursued in this school. Also, the praises
of the usher, Josiah Jetlery, should never be omitted, who initiated
Young at leisure hours into a variety of experimental and practical
subjects, which contributed materially to his future success. See
Peacock's Life, p. 6. — Translator.


printed at Paris, of wliicli he was desirous to know the
contents : — Hebrew, in order to read the Old Testament
in the original : Persian and Arabic, with the view of
deciding a question started at table, whether there were
as marked differences between the Oriental languages as
between those of Europe ?

I perceive the necessity of mentioning that I write
from authentic documents, before I add that during what
might appear so fabulous a progress in languages, Young,
during his walks at Compton, was seized with a violent
passion for botany : and that being destitute of the means
of magnifying objects of which naturalists make use when
they wish to examine the delicate parts of plants, he un-
dertook to construct a microscope himself, without any
other guide than a description of the instrument in a
work by Benjamin Martin : that to arrive at this difficult
result it was necessary to acquire some skill in the art of
turning: that the algebraic formulas of the optician
having presented to him symbols of which he had no
idea (those of Jiiixions),hG was for a moment in great
perplexity ; but not being willing at last to give up the
enlargement of his pistils and stamens, he found it more
simple to learn the differential calculus, in order to com-
prehend the unlucky formula, than to send to the neigh-
bouring town to buy a microscope. The ardent activity
of the juvenile Young had led him to exertions beyond the
strength of his constitution. At the age of fourteen his
health was sadly altered. Various indications excited
fears of a disease of the lungs ; but these menacing
symptoms at length yielded to the prescriptions of art,
and the anxious cares of which this malady made him
the object on the part of all his relations.

It is rai'e among our neighbours on the other side of


the Channel * that a rich person, entrusting his son to
the care of a private instructor, does not seek for iiim a
fellow-pupil of the same age among those who have been
remarkable for their success. It was in this capacity that
Young became, in 1787, the fellow-pupil of the grandson
of Mr. David Barclay, of Youngsbury, in Hertfordshire.
On the day of his first appearance there, Mr. Bai'clay,
who doubtless felt the right of showing himself some-
what exacting with a scholar of fourteen years of age,
gave him several phrases to copy, with the view of as-
certaining his skill in penmanship. Young, perhaps
somewhat humiliated by this kind of trial, demanded, in
order to satisfy him, permission to retire to another
room ; this absence being prolonged beyond the time
which the transcription would have required, Mr. Bar-
clay began to joke on the want of dexterity he must
evince, when at length he reentered tke room. The
copy was remarkably beautiful ; no writing-master could
have executed it better : as to the delay, there was no
longer any need to speak of it, for " the little qnaker," f
as Mr. Barclay called him, had not been content to tran-
scribe the English phrases set him ; he had also trans-
lated them into nine different languages.

The preceptor, or as they call him on the other side of
the Channel, the tutor, who had to direct the two scholars
at Youngsbury was a young man of much distinction, at
that time entirely occupied in perfecting himself in the
knowledge of the ancient languages ; he was the future

* The reader will of course make due allowance in this and many
other passages for the ideas of a foreigner as to English habits. The
anecdote of Young's penmanship which follows, is difterently given
by Dr. Peacock, p. 12. — Translator.

t This seems improbable, as Mr. Barclay's family were of the same
sect. — Translator.


author* of the Calligraphia Grgeca. He was not long,
however, in perceiving the immense superiority of one of
his pupils, and he recognized, with praiseworthy modesty,
that in their common studies the true tutor was not
always he who bore that title. At this period Young
drew up, continually referring to the original sources, a
detailed analysis of the numerous systems of philosophy
which were professed in the different schools of Greece.f
His friends spoke of this work with the most lively ad-
miration. I know not whether the public is destined
ever to see it. At all events it was not without influence
on the life of its author, for in giving himself up to an
attentive and minute examination of the singularities
(to use a mild term) with which the conceptions of the
Greek philosophers teemed, Young perceived the attach-
ment which he retained to the principles of the sect in
which he was born became weakened. However, he did
not separate entirely from it till some years afterwards,
during his sojourn in Edinburgh.

The little studious colony at Youngsbury quitted the
country during some months in the winter to reside in
London. During one of these excursions Young met
with a teacher worthy of him. He was initiated into
chemistry by Dr. Higgins, J whose name I can the less
dispense with mentioning since, in spite of his earnest and
frequent remonstrances, there was an obstinate disincli-
nation to acknowledge the share which legitimately be-
longed to him in the establishment of the theory of

* Mr. Hodgkin.

t This work is not mentioned by Dr. Peacock. — Translator.

J The share borne by Dr. Higgins in the suggestion or discovery of
the atomic theory has been variously estimated. For an apparently
perfectly fair view of the case, the reader is referred to Dr. Daubeny's
Atomic Theory, p. 33. — Translator.


definite proportions, one of the most valuable discoveries
of modern chemistry.

Dr. Brocklesby, the maternal uncle of Young, one of
the most popular physicians in London at the time, justly
confident of the distinguished success of the young
scholar, communicated occasionally his productions to
men of science and literature, and to men of the world,
whose approbation might have greatly flattered his van-
ity. Young thus found himself at an early period in
personal relation with those celebrated men Burke and
Wyndham, of the House of Commons, and the Duke of
Richmond. The last nobleman, then Master of the
Ordnance, offered him the place of private secretary.
The two other statesmen, although they wished him also
to follow a cai'eer connected with the public administra-
tion, yet advised him first to go through a course of law
at Cambridge.* With such powerful patrons Young
might reckon on one of those lucrative oflSces which
persons in power are not slow to bestow on those who
will spare them all study and application, and daily
furnish them with the means of shining at the court,
the council, the senate, without compromising their van-
ity by committing any indiscretion. Young happily had
a consciousness of his powers ; he perceived in himself ■
the germ of those brilliant discoveries which have since
adorned his name : he preferred the laborious, but inde-
pendent, career of the man of letters, to the golden
chains which they exhibited so temptingly to hi§ eyes.
Honour be to him for such a determination ! May his
example serve as a lesson to so many young men whom

* " Mr. Wyndham advised him not to accept the appointment, and
recommended him rather to proceed to Cambridge, and study the law."
Peacock's Life, p. 45. — Translator.


political ambition diverts from a more noble vocation, to
transform themselves into mere officials ; but who might
learn, like Young, to turn their eyes to the future, and
not sacrifice to the futile and transitory satisfaction of
being surrounded by persons soliciting favours, tlie solid
testimonies of esteem and gratitude which the public
rarely fails to otfer to intellectual labours of a high
order ; and if it happen in the illusions of inexperience,
that they should think too heavy a sacrifice imposed on
them, we would ask them to take a lesson of ambition
from the mouth of a great captain whose ambition knew
no bounds ; to meditate on the words which the First
Consul, the victor of Marengo, addressed to one of our
most honoured colleagues (M. Lemercier) on the day
when he, quite in accoi'dance with his character, had just
refused a place then of great importance, that of Coun-
cillor of State : —

" I understand, Sir, you love literature, and you wish to
belong altogether to it. I have nothing to oppose to this
resolution. Yes ! I, myself, if I had not become a
General-in-chief, and the instrument of the fate of a
great nation, do you think I would have gone through
the offices and the salons, to put myself in dependence
on whoever might happen to be in power in the position
of minister or ambassador ? No ! no ! I would have
taken to the exact sciences. I would have made my
way in the path of Galileo and Newton : and, since I
have succeeded constantly in my great enterprises, truly
I should have been equally distinguished by my scientific
labours. I should have left behind me the remembrance
of great discoveries. No other kind of glory would have
tempted my ambition."

Young made choice of the profession of medicine, in

fcEC. SF.R. 13


which he hoped to find fortune and independence. His
naedical studies were commenced in London under Baillie
and Cruikshank ; he continued them at Edinburgh, where
at that time Drs. Black, Munro, and Gi-egory were in the
height of tlieir celebrity. It was only at Gottingen, in
the following year (17'J5), that he took the degree of
Doctor.* Before going through this form, so empty, yet
always so imperatively exacted. Young, hardly beyond
the period of youth, had become known to the scientific
world by a note relative to the gum ladanum ; by the
controversy which he sustained against Dr. Beddoes on
the subject of Crawford's theory of heat ; by a memoir
on the habits of spiders, and the theory of Fabricius,
the whole enriched with erudite researches ; and lastly,
by an inquiry on which I will enlarge on account of its
great merit, the unusual favour with which it was re-
ceived at its first production, and the neglect into which
it has since fallen.

The Royal Society of London enjoys throughout the
whole kingdom a vast and deserved consideration. The
Philosophical Transactions which it publishes have been
for more than a century and a half the glorious archives
in which British genius holds it an honour to deposit its
titles to the recognition of posterity. The wish to see
his name inscribed in the list of fellow-labourers in this
truly national collection, beside the names of Newton,
Bradley, Priestley, and Cavendish has always been

* The author has omitted that, in 1797, Young entered as a fellow-
commoner at Emmanuel College, Cambridge ; and in due time gradu-
ated there regularly in medicine; a step at that time necessary for his
admission to the College of Physicians, in order to enable him to
practise as a physician in London. See Peacock's Life, p. 115. In
the university he was familiarly known by the name of" Phenomenon
Young." — Translator.


among the students of the celebrated universities of
Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, and Dublin,* the most
anxious as well as legitimate object of emulation. Here
is always the highest point of ambition of the man of
science ; he does not aspire to it unless on occasion of
some capital investigation ; and the first attempts of his
youth come before the public by a channel better suited
to their importance, by the aid of one of those numerous
periodicals which, among our neighbours, have contri-
buted so much to the progress of human knowled"-e.
Such is the ordinary coui'se ; such consequently ought
not to have been the course followed by Young ; at the
age of twenty he addressed a paper to the Royal Society.
The council, composed of the most eminent men of the
Society, honoured this paper with their suffrage, and it
soon after appeared in the Philosophical Transactions.
The author treated in it of the subject of vision.


The problem was any thing but new. Plato and his
disciples, four cehtuiies before our era, were occupied
with it ; but at the present day their conceptions can
hardly be cited but to justify the celebrated and little
flattering sentence of Cicero : " There is nothing so
absurd that it has not been said by some of the phi-

After passing over an interval of 2000 years, we must
from Greece transport ourselves to Italy, if we would find
any ideas on the wonderful subject of vision which merit
the remembrance of the historian. Where, without hav-

* And, it might be added, probably to a far more numerous class
not of those bodies. — Translator.


ing ever, like the philosopher of Egina, proudly closed
their school against all wlio were not geometers, careful
experimenters marked out the sole route by which it is
permitted to man to arrive without false steps at the con-
quest of unknown regions of truth ; there Maurolycus
and Porta proclaimed to their contemporaries that the
problem of discovering what is presents sufficient diffi-
culties to render it at least somewhat presumptuous to
cast ourselves upon the world of intelligences to search
after what ought to he ; there these two celebrated fellow
countrymen of Archimedes commenced the explanation

Online LibraryF. (François) AragoBiographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) → online text (page 22 of 38)