Wessex Worthies: Thomas Young

Andrew Robinson’s biography of Milverton-born polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829) is entitled The Last Man Who Knew Everything. It seems like an apt description of a man who made notable contributions to the fields of medicine, physics, music theory and Egyptology.

Young was born to a Quaker family, the eldest of ten children, though he converted to the Church of England in 1804 in order to marry Eliza Maxwell. By the age of 15, he already knew Latin and Greek. He studied medicine in London and Edinburgh before finally obtaining his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony. He became both a Fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His achievements in medicine include deriving formulae for determining the wave speed of the pulse, and a child’s dose of medicine.

In physics, he was an early proponent of the wave theory of light, as opposed to the particle theory favoured by Isaac Newton and others.

Young was one of the translators of the Rosetta Stone, which constituted a major advance in the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Young died of complications from asthma at the age of just 55., and is buried at Westminster Abbey. His name lives on in the Thomas Young Centre at the University of London, and at Young Sound in Greenland.

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