Eliza Young owns some scientists (1816)

This is a belated post for the International Day of Women & Girls in Science, which was on February 11. In this post, I honor those women who never had a chance to get into science due to societal and cultural restrictions, even though they were capable. This anecdote will appear in my upcoming book on the history of invisibility.

Thomas Young is rightly regarded as one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, and one of the greatest of all time. In the early 1800s, he argued, against the scientific consensus, that light has wave properties, and he was of course absolutely correct.

Portrait of Young by Henry Perronet Briggs, 1822

As I’ve blogged about previously, however, in the short term Young was attacked for his work by a bitter rival, and this caused him to withdraw completely from scientific research in 1804 to focus on his medical work, with the exception of publishing in 1807 his massive work, A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts.

That same year was not completely bad, however; on June 4 of 1804 he married Eliza Maxwell, who was related to the Scottish aristocracy through the family of Sir William Maxwell of Calderwood.

Though Young was no longer working in the scientific community, he remained connected, especially as other researchers realized that he was correct. Some of those researchers brought Young news of the latest discoveries related to the wave properties of light. This leads to what is perhaps my favorite anecdote ever in the history of science. As was later described by the famed researcher Francois Arago,

In the year 1816 I visited England, in company with my learned friend Gay Lussac. Fresnel had recently made his debut in the career of the sciences, in the most brilliant manner, by his Memoir on Diffraction. This work, which, in our opinion, contained a capital experiment irreconcileable with the Newtonian theory of light, became naturally the first subject of our conversation with Dr. Young. We were astonished at the number of restrictions which he imposed upon our commendations of it, when at last he declared that the experiment which we valued so highly was to be found, since 1807, in his Lectures on Natural Philosophy. This assertion appeared to us unfounded, and a long and very minute discussion followed. Mrs. Young was present at it, without offering to take any part in it – as the fear of being designated by the ridicule implied in the sobriquet of bas bleus makes English ladies reserved in the presence of strangers; our neglect of propriety never struck us until the moment when Mrs. Young quitted the room somewhat precipitately. We were beginning to make our apologies to her husband, when we saw her return with an enormous quarto under her arm. It was the first volume of the Treatise on Natural Philosophy. She placed it on the table, opened the book, without saying a word, at page 387, and showed with her finger a figure where the curvilinear course of the diffracted bands, which were the subject of the discussion, is found to be established theoretically.

From George Peacock, The Life of Thomas Young (1855)

I suspect that Arago remembered the page number wrong, but this seems to be the figure in question:

I find this quote, and Eliza Young’s role in it, remarkable. There is no record of what sort of education she received, but in fact there is no way she was formally educated in the wave theory of light, which wasn’t being taught! But she was so familiar with the work of her husband that she was able to immediately recognize the point of argument and find exactly the correct figure. There’s no way she would have been able to do that without some genuine understanding of the work.

Eliza Young is no doubt one of many women who had exceptional intelligence and a good understanding of science but no opportunity to pursue it, whether she wanted to or not. Note the reference to “bas bleus” in the quote, which literally refers to a “bluestocking.” This term is used to describe a literary or intellectual woman, and originates from the English Blue Stockings Society of the 18th century, led by Elizabeth Montagu. The term eventually took on a negative connotation, as there was evidently a lot of pressure for women to not be too outspoken or educated.

Mezzotint of Elizabeth Montagu, from 1776.

But I’m going to raise a glass to Eliza Young, who flabbergasted and owned two of the greatest physicists of the 19th century!

This entry was posted in History of science, Optics, Women in science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Eliza Young owns some scientists (1816)

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    That’s just a darn lovely story.

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