Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/March 1887/Sketch of Edward L. Youmans
EDWARD LIVINGSTON YOUMANS was born at Coeymans, Albany County, New York, June 3, 1821. His parents, Vincent Youmans and Catherine Scofield Youmans, were natives of the same county. Livingston, as he was then called, was the first-born of seven children. When he was six months old the family removed to Greenfield, Saratoga County, within a short distance of Saratoga Springs. His parents were in narrow circumstances, and belonged to the hardworking class. Vincent Youmans had worked on his father's farm when a boy, but, having some mechanical capacity, he resolved to learn a trade, and accordingly, at the age of sixteen, was indentured for five years as an apprentice to a carriage-maker in Sheffield, Massachusetts. He was to be taught the business, and have some schooling. But 'Boss' Burrill was a hard master, and his apprentice got neither the schooling nor any proper instruction in the business. In all the five years, he attended school not more than three months, and seldom on consecutive days, while most of his time was spent in slavish toil on the Burrill farm. The boy felt outraged by this treatment, and showed signs of restiveness, when the wily wagon-maker lost no time in having the indentures revised, making the father liable for damage if the son ran away. Filial affection made Vincent submit to his lot, but he can not speak of this period of his life without indignation. Although his means were limited, yet, feeling deeply his own lack of knowledge, he was full of sympathy with the mental aspirations of his children, and made extreme sacrifices in furtherance of their education. He was, moreover, a clear-headed man, of fearless, independent spirit, who took an earnest and intelligent interest in all public questions. Before her marriage Livingston's mother was a school-teacher. Well endowed in body and mind, her long life has been spent in unwearied devotion to her family, and never had mother a more loving and dutiful son than was the subject of this sketch. She made home duties paramount, but she had opinions of her own, was frank in their avowal and spirited in their defense; and the lively, good-tempered canvassing of differences between father and mother were not lost upon their little ones, who early learned to respect and to defend their own sentiments. Whatever else may be said of it, the family circle was certainly never dull.
Livingston was a vigorous, active-minded boy, remarkable from a very early age for his desire to know, and for his readiness in learning. He took to books from the first, and read everything he could find to read. He was also fond of play, and especially of hunting, when old enough to handle a gun; and he used often to refer, in his days of blindness, to his clearness of vision at long range when sighting game.
He began going to school at the age of three, and was steadily in his classes for the next half-dozen years. The district school he attended, and the Presbyterian church, of which his parents were members, were of the New England type of that period. The home-spirit was eminently favorable to the growth of individuality, and the nearest household in the neighborhood — where my brother was a great favorite — consisted of very decided characters, well calculated to produce a marked effect on the receptive mind of the boy. It was here that Livingston got his first idea of the classics. When not more than nine years old, he became interested in a copy of Homer's “Iliad,” which the eldest son was studying, and which contained a translation as well as the Greek verse. All his teachers at this period — the clergyman of the parish, an uncle just graduated, and the young men preparing for college who were winter teachers of the common school — helped incline him toward the classics. When about twelve years old, he prevailed upon his father, who then owned a little farm, and was going to Albany to market a small surplus of his crop of grain, to buy him some books. The list he prepared, beginning with those most desired, was a long one, but the proceeds of the sale of grain were only sufficient, after other indispensable purchases were made, to secure the first few volumes, among which were translations of Homer's “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” Virgil's “Æneid,” and Ovid's “Metamorphoses.” These were his earliest possessions, and were made the most of; other books were borrowed from neighboring clergymen or from citizens of Saratoga; and a year or two later, with the proceeds of a patch of potatoes, planted by himself for the purpose, joined with a small contribution from his father, he was enabled to buy a “share” in a circulating library recently established in the vicinity. This library contained three or four hundred standard works in history, biography, poetry, and fiction, with a set of the “Encyclopedia Americana”; but of science there was little or nothing, unless Buffon's “Natural History” might be ranked as science. With his fondness for books, no greater trouble could now come upon him than the disease of the eyes which, prevailing in the family during the winter of 1833-'34, attacked him when he was thirteen and a half years old. He could not let books alone long enough to permit a full recovery. Reckless of results, he persisted in reading whenever it was possible, in spite of protests and warnings. From this time until he was seventeen he was troubled with chronic weakness and frequent inflammations of the eyes, and when unable to read himself others read for him. During this period, the vigorous and abundant literature of the anti-slavery movement found its way into the home, his father being one of the earliest abolitionists in that part of the State. In the wide range of its discussions, the religious, ethical, political, economical, juridical, and ethnical aspects of slavery were treated by the ablest men of the nation. Livingston was familiar with every step of the controversy.
Having been interested in language-studies from early boyhood, he was in the habit, during these years, of practicing literary composition, and was also studying natural philosophy and chemistry in the district school. Despite his eye-trouble, he was still intent upon pursuing a regular course of study, and began his preparation for college in the spring of 1838, at the Galway Academy, under Professor Morgan. In the ensuing autumn he began to teach a common school, but his sight soon failed him, and from this time until he was thirty years old he was practically blind. The next two years were passed in the vain hope that time and rest would bring about a restoration of his vision. He was treated for a while by a local oculist of some reputation, but his eyes grew worse, and his general health became much impaired. This period, however, was not wasted. Much of it was spent in undisturbed reflection. His early habit of thinking for himself was now of great value. His excellent memory was stored with abundant material for thought, and perhaps nothing could have better promoted his solid education than those two years of quiet. But his habit of reading was also kept up; his brothers and sister, who had always been his loyal pupils, and were interested in everything that interested him, became his sympathetic co-workers in the study of any subject he chose. The classics, however, no longer occupied his attention; but he was already manifesting distinct tendencies toward scientific thought. Whatever taste or talent he may have had for experimental science, the state of his eyes prevented its pursuit. His love of science in its useful applications, and his enthusiasm for its popularization, were no doubt fostered by his blindness. Hence, while cut off from all part in the making of science, he was to find a most congenial field of labor in the work of its diffusion.
His eyes growing worse instead of better, in the fall of 1840 he came to New York for treatment in the eye infirmary. He remained there several weeks without improvement, when he was informed that the physician in charge regarded his case as hopeless. He left the institution at once, and visited other oculists in the city. Among these, Dr. Elliot gave him most encouragement, telling him that his eyes were by no means hopelessly ruined, and that he would undertake their cure for a fee of $150, to be paid in advance. The amount was at once obtained from home; and it may be added that this was the last money he would consent to accept from that source, ever after relying upon himself for support. The previous two years of indoor life, with occasional seasons of reducing medical treatment, had seriously impaired his vigor, and he was suffering under a constant liability to take cold on the most trifling exposure. After a few weeks of continuous but slow improvement, he began to see well enough to go about and help himself a little, and was encouraged to form plans for future work, when suddenly his eyes became again inflamed, and he was thrown back into his old condition of blindness. This state of health continually prevented his complete recovery of sight; and so for the next twelve years he very rarely had vision enough to read ordinary type.
On leaving the infirmary, Livingston boarded for a time in a house with several printers of the more intelligent class. Their society suited his tastes, and they took a strong personal interest in him. They brought the important new books of the day to his attention, and read them to him in the intervals of their work. After a year or two he had the good fortune to be received in a Quaker family, where he was treated quite as one of the household. His New York home continued to be with these excellent people for many years. The Quakers called him by his first name (Edward), as it was easier to speak, and the other was soon dropped, except in his family and among the friends of his youth.
During the early years of his life in New York, Edward sustained himself by literary labor, of a rather miscellaneous character, having devised a writing-machine which could be carried in the pocket, and by the aid of which he was able to work without assistance. In a few months, under Dr. Elliot's treatment, he became sufficiently familiar with its routine to carry it on, with my assistance only; and after this he often came home to Saratoga with a carpet-bag full of books, enough to occupy us for weeks, or until an unmanageable relapse compelled a return to his physician.
It must not be inferred that this self-education was a hap-hazard affair. On the contrary, it was carried out with a definite purpose, and with the utmost perseverance. Of course, all the early plans about going to college were now ended, and quite as much from choice as from necessity. His knowledge of science, and particularly of applied science, had been steadily growing, and he had studied with especial care all the important works on scientific agriculture. It was impossible for him to rest with half-knowledge, but his blindness made the chemical side of this subject especially difficult. This obstacle was partly overcome in the summer of 1843, when I had the advantage of attending a very full course of lectures and experiments in chemistry, given at Fairfield, New York, by Professor Mather. After this we could manage the subject fairly well together; but, unable as he was to observe the characteristic behavior of chemical substances, he could not readily individualize them. His ideas about them, therefore, were easily confused, and he was constantly striving to make them more definite.
In the fall of 1845 I was able to join my brother in New York, and give all my time to his assistance. When not occupied with tasks of immediate concern, he now gave his attention to the execution of a work already carefully thought out, which should give the synchronous progress of invention, discovery, and learning, from the beginning of recorded history. Many months and a great deal of labor were devoted to research in the various public libraries, and when the undertaking was far advanced toward completion it was forestalled by another work covering substantially the same ground. This was a bitter disappointment, but, wasting no time in regrets, Edward was soon at work on an arithmetic, in which the problems were made up from the constants of science. This enterprise also was anticipated by another book of similar character. But the labor thus bestowed was not wholly lost; for it helped to educate him in the line of his future work.
Although occupied most of the time as above stated, my brother kept up the study of agricultural chemistry, and, to this end, ever since my arrival in the city he had been seeking for a laboratory where I could enter as a pupil; but none was found that would admit a woman, until Dr. Antisell, one of the Irish exiles of 1848, consented to receive me. Here I at once began the studies preliminary to the analysis of soils. By the time I was able to make such analyses, my brother had become convinced that they were of no value in practical agriculture. But, in our talks over this laboratory experience, he was still hindered by the old difficulty of dealing with chemical phenomena at second-hand; and now an unexpected consequence followed. When he reflected that chemistry was fast becoming a popular branch of education, and that, so far as its processes were concerned, the youths who were studying it might be classed, along with himself, as blind, their situation naturally interested him. Occupied with this subject, there one day arose in his mind a scheme for picturing atoms and their combinations that would bring the eye of the student into more effectual service. Out of an impulse to help this unfortunate class came the “Chemical Chart,” in which he succeeded in making clear to the eye, and easily remembered, the most important principles and laws of the science as it was then understood. This “Chart” represented the principal elements, binary compounds, and salts, and the minerals of chief interest to geologists and agriculturists, together with the most important organic bodies. Atoms of the different elements were shown by diagrams of different colors, the relative sizes of which expressed their combining ratios, and the compounds exhibited the exact numbers of the respective atoms that unite to form them. The chart was at once accepted as a valuable assistance in teaching chemistry by many leading educators throughout the country, and its use led to frequent requests that its author would prepare a book to go with it. The text-books consulted in its preparation had left the impression that this science was not so attractively presented to the learner as it might be. He thought that chemistry could be made enticing as well as intelligible to learners who had not the help of experiments in its pursuit. When asked to make a book himself, however, he did not at first entertain the idea; but the thought grew upon him, and by degrees took definite shape. Acquainting himself with all the standard text-books, and, clearly perceiving what he wished to accomplish, he set about the preparation of the “Class-Book of Chemistry,” giving all his time to the work. When it became a question of finding a publisher, preceding events had much to do in deciding his course. He was already indebted to Mr. W. H. Appleton for many kindnesses in the loan of valuable books, and for sympathetic interest in his undertakings. It was, therefore, most natural that the manuscript of his book should first be offered to D. Appleton & Co. Their reader, Mr. Tenney, a stranger to the author and his circumstances, gave the work his unqualified approval, and used afterward to refer to the fact in proof of his good critical judgment. The “Class-Book” appeared in 1851, and its clear, lively style, its brevity, freedom from technicalities, and continual reference to the important practical applications of chemistry, soon made it a favorite with beginners in the science. It has been twice rewritten, and its enduring popularity is shown by the fact that the sale of its three editions has reached the number of 144,000 copies.
The “Chemical Atlas,” published in 1854, was an extension of the method employed in the “Chart.” The scale of illustration was much reduced, and it contained maps portraying elementary chemistry, the chemistry of geology, homologous series of compounds, nitrogenized and non-nitrogenized principles of food, and giving examples of isomerism, and the theory of compound radicals. The great natural processes of combustion, respiration, fermentation, and the chemistry of light or solar dynamics, were also pictorially presented. The accompanying text was carefully written, and marked by the same qualities of style as the “Class-Book.” But all these publications were based upon the binary theory of the composition of matter, and when this gave place to the new chemistry, the “Atlas” and “Chart” were no longer of use, but the “Class-Book” was rewritten.
After the publication of the “Class-Book,” Edward's health underwent a marked improvement. He gained in weight, his face became round and ruddy, and at thirty-five he looked much younger than at twenty-five. His countenance gradually lost the introverted expression of the blind, so marked in his portraits between the ages of twenty and thirty, and his eyes became so much stronger that he could now say farewell to the doctor. While his eyes would bear a great deal of use, he was often tempted to overwork them, when they would give out for a time, but by rest and other means they were soon at his service again. He was, however, distressingly near-sighted; so that except his familiar friends, whom he recognized by traits of form or movement, he did not know people unless they were within a foot or two of him. This circumstance was a great bar to his enjoyment of general society. It made him timid and hesitating, and often occasioned awkward and most embarrassing mistakes although he was by nature the most sociable and genial of men, and delighted in society where he felt at ease.
He published a book in 1853 entitled “Alcohol and the Constitution of Man,” which grew out of an article of his on the “license system,” covering a full page of the "New York Tribune.” His argument was based upon the view, put forth by eminent scientists, that alcohol is in all cases a brain-poison. The temperance people urged him to make a book of it, which he accordingly did; but further knowledge of the subject made him uncertain of his ground, and the work was allowed to pass out of print.
In illustration of his dependence upon others at every step of his life, it may be stated that in 1853 a younger brother returned from a four-years' residence in California, and, being unsettled as to his future, was persuaded to undertake the establishment of an experimental farm at Saratoga. But, before matters had taken shape, it became apparent that the young man could not be content with the quiet labors for which there had been neither emotional nor intellectual preparation, and the enterprise was abandoned. Feeling the importance, in the light of this experience, of early scientific culture, Edward did all in his power to promote the scientific education of a much younger brother, who many years later began with him the management of this magazine, and without whose co-operation it would not have been attempted.
In 1856 Edward read in a foreign periodical a review of Herbert Spencer's “Psychology,” which had been published the year before; and his interest was so aroused that he at once imported the book. This led to a correspondence with the author concerning the publication in this country in book form of his essays on education, with the result that D. Appleton & Co. brought out the work in 1858. Thus began my brother's acquaintance with Mr. Spencer, and co-operation in the publication of his writings, which was kept up to the end. In 1859 he accidentally got hold of a copy of the English programme of Spencer's “System of Philosophy,” which was to be issued in parts to yearly subscribers. Edward immediately wrote to Mr. Spencer, volunteering to aid the project in this country, and was informed that it would require two hundred and fifty more subscribers, in addition to those already secured in England, to justify the expense of an American edition. The needed names were soon secured; and an arrangement was also made with the Messrs. Appleton to reprint Mr. Spencer's earlier works. From the beginning of his acquaintance with these writings, my brother was convinced that they were destined to exercise great influence in this country, and this opinion has been fully confirmed.
Of my brother's experience as a lecturer, there is little room here to speak. He early showed an aptitude for making scientific subjects intelligible and attractive to the unscientific, and was an impressive public speaker. His first course of lectures was on “The Chemical Relations of the Living World to the Atmosphere,” and dealt with the geological history of the earth and with those large generalizations concerning the respiration of plants and animals that were shown to depend ultimately upon the forces of the sunbeam. These lectures were early examples of his fondness for broad scientific conceptions that bring together all departments of Nature, and his later lectures upon the “Chemistry of the Sunbeam,” the “Dynamics of Life,” etc., by which he was at one time widely known as a popular teacher of science, are also illustrations of this mental tendency.
The “Hand-Book of Household Science,” published in 1857, was designed as a text-book for girls, and is another illustration of ray brother's passion for applied science. He believed that the bearings of science upon the economy of the household was “first in the order of importance among things to be considered by rational and civilized people”; and that “it is the duty of popular education to communicate that information which can be reduced to daily practice and yield the largest amount of positive good.” The book was a most painstaking labor, and is a mine of useful knowledge concerning matters of constant interest to everybody.
Professor Youmans was married in 1861 to Mrs. William L. Lee, the widow of a distinguished lawyer and jurist, and a lady of culture, refinement, and much critical literary ability. That a wife of such nice perceptions and intellectual gifts should earnestly sympathize with the literary and scientific work of her husband was to be expected. As his amanuensis, and as an assistant and companion in the occupations, correspondence, and travel, by means of which he was brought into intimate relations with the leading thinkers of England and America, she rendered him valuable aid which he highly appreciated.
“The Correlation and Conservation of Forces” (1864) is a collection of essays and addresses by the most eminent leaders of science concerning the new theory of the relations of forces, with an introduction by the compiler, prepared in order to bring forward certain facts in the history of discovery concerning the correlation and conservation of forces in which we as Americans have a special interest; and also to indicate several applications of the principles not treated in the body of the volume. At one time my brother was strongly urged to take the presidency of Antioch College. He did not entertain this proposal, but when asked to take the chair of Chemistry in that institution as non-resident professor, he accepted the appointment provisionally, and gave a course of lectures there in 1866. Various circumstances, however, made it impossible to continue the arrangement.
“The Culture demanded by Modern Life” (1867) presented a series of addresses and arguments on the claims of scientific education by more than twenty English and American thinkers. The editor was represented in the list by a lecture on “The Scientific Study of Human Nature” and an introductory essay on “Mental Discipline in Education,” in which he attempted to show that a course of study mainly scientific not only meets the full requirements of mental training, but also affords the kind of culture or mental discipline especially needed in this country.
Besides his labors as a lecturer and in the preparation of his own works, and his efforts in behalf of Mr. Spencer's publications, Professor Youmans had all along been deeply interested in the reproduction here of the works published abroad by the leaders of modern scientific thought. Among the earliest which he urged the Appletons to republish were those of Whewell, Buckle, Darwin's “Origin of Species,” and the writings of Spencer and Tyndall. He went to England several times on this errand, and, as a result of his exertions, the works of Huxley, Lubbock, Darwin, Lyell, Bain, Tyndall, Maudsley, Sully, Hinton, Bastian, Roscoe, Simpson, Proctor, Helmholtz, Bagehot, Mill, Carpenter, Mattieu Williams, and many others, were reprinted by the Appletons, and have been very popular with thoughtful readers in this country. The arrangement with the publishers was that the authors should be paid a publisher's copyright at the customary American rate.
Chiefly interested in the works of scientific and philosophical authors, who suffer most from lack of international copyright because their productions are in comparatively small demand, Professor Youmans planned the “International Scientific Series,” and spent a year in Europe making arrangements for it with authors and publishers. After not a little hard labor, the series was finally organized on the basis of simultaneous publication in London, New York, Paris, Leipsic, Milan, and St. Petersburg, and of payment to the authors on the sales in all countries. The first volume, issued in 1872, was Tyndall's “Forms of Water,” and was followed by Bagehot's suggestive work on “Physics and Politics.” Other books that attracted attention to the merits of the series were Cooke's “New Chemistry,” Spencer's “Study of Sociology,” Draper's “History of the Conflict between Religion and Science," and Schmidt's “Doctrine of Descent and Darwinism.” The series has reached, in Mr. Angelo Heilprin's “Geographical and Geological Distribution of Animals,” its fifty-seventh number, and as a whole constitutes the most successful popular presentation of scientific and philosophical ideas ever attempted. None of the books have enjoyed a wider circulation than the “Study of Sociology” and the “Conflict between Religion and Science,” both of which are remarkable for the boldness of their statements of new ideas. It thus appears that the foreign authors whose works were in charge of Professor Youmans have been for years in practical enjoyment of international copyright at the hands of Messrs. Appleton by a systematic voluntary arrangement.
“The Popular Science Monthly” was started by the Appletons, at the suggestion of Professor Youmans, in 1872. The leaders of scientific thought in Europe were actively publishing their views in periodicals and in the transactions of learned societies, but the American public were without any means of keeping up with the drift of the new movement. Professor Youmans had persuaded Herbert Spencer to write the volume of “The Study of Sociology” for “The International Scientific Series,” and it had been arranged that the chapters should first appear serially in “The Contemporary Review” in London and in some American magazine. Professor Youmans made arrangements for its publication in “The Galaxy,” to which advance-sheets were to be sent. But the first installment came too late, it was said, for publication at the time agreed upon, and it was at this juncture that the necessity of establishing a new scientific journal in this country became apparent. In less than two weeks from the first conception of the project, and two days before “The Galaxy” appeared which was to have contained the delayed article, the first number of “The Popular Science Monthly” appeared. Considering that it was a scientific periodical, its success has been unprecedented.
But in the height of its usefulness the busy life is ended. Professor Youmans's constitution, originally robust, had been impaired by his sedentary habits. Want of sight left no inducement to out-of-door pursuits, while his chosen work always kept him in-doors; and it was not strange that, when exposure came, as it did in the winter of 1880-81, his system should yield to the strain. He suffered a severe attack of double pneumonia early in the season, and this was followed by a succession of relapses, which left his lungs in a state so diseased that they never recovered. He was told by his physician that his chance for long life lay in the country and in open-air occupations; but conformity to these requirements seemed to him impracticable, and he went on with his usual work, though failing gradually in strength. In the late winter of 1885 he went South, but derived little benefit, and the following season declined to repeat the journey. About a year ago he was overtaken with loss of appetite, and consequent loss of flesh and strength, and then realized that his days were nearly numbered. During the last six months he was very feeble and emaciated, but his long sickness was borne without complaint, and his unselfishness and care for others were conspicuous to the last.