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Youmans, Dr Edward Livingstone

Category: Scientist

Edward Livingston Youmans (June 3, 1821 in Coeymans, New York – January 18, 1887 in New York City) was an American scientific writer, editor, and lecturer and founder of the Popular Science Monthly magazine.  

At 13 years old, he was afflicted with ophthalmia from which he suffered during the remainder of his life. When he was 17, he became practically blind, and remained so until he was about 30. He very rarely had vision enough to read ordinary type.

A Memoir of Edward Livingstone Youmans - John Fiske

In the fall of 1835 and the succeeding winter he was attacked by inflammation of the eyes. This was the prelude to those long painful years of blindness that were to defeat all his plans of study and largely determine his career. His persistence in reading and writing when his eyes needed rest did much to aggravate their malady. He had always a newspaper, pamphlet, or book in his pocket to read at every spare moment. At the noon dinner hour he would hurry through his meal so as to have the more time to write in his chamber. Imprudence and neglect prevented his recovery.

About this time, in his sixteenth year, his father's house was extended and substantially rebuilt. Edward mixed mortar, and fetched and carried generally. The master mason, Ephraim Child, liked the bright, willing lad, and in the evenings taught him to play the fife. Years afterward, when blind, he became proficient on the violin also, and his musical capacity brought him both recreation and solace.

His brother, William Jay Youmans, helped him found and edit Popular Science Monthly, and on Edward's death his brother became editor-in-chief. His sister Eliza Ann Youmans, in addition to being of great help to Edward in dealing with his blindness, was a science writer herself, chiefly on botanical subjects.

Letter March 8, 1878.

As for myself, I am just now pretty well, but have not been worth much for some time back. I am fortunate in one thing : my brother is very efficient ; and as he acquires experience and confidence, he gives me great relief. He takes the brunt of the Monthly, and is helping vigorously on the Cyclopaedia, which goes slowly, but is still moving.

He is on the site because of one extraordinary observation attributed to him – we caution here that the attribution may be wrong, but the secrecy was needed because of his position in the world of science.  The clue and link is his friendship with the philosopher Herbert Spencer as well as the role music played in his life

Letter March 8, 1878.

I have recently taken up my violin for the first time in a systematic way. I got a teacher — a young German- American — a trained and skilful player, who knows the thing through and through, and is as stupid as a brute in all that pertains to teaching! So I have the double absorption of mechanical practice and picking explanations out ! 

As his biographer John Fiske remarked – ‘Mr. Spencer, in his anxiety for his friend's health some time previous to this, had sought out and presented to Mr. Youmans an excellent old English fiddle, believed to be the work of the famous maker the elder Foster. It did, indeed, afford him some diversion, and revived pleasant early associations’.

Early life and beliefs

Youmans was the son of Vincent Youmans and Catherine (Scofield) Youmans.  Catherine had Irish ancestry and Vincent had English ancestry – the name was originally yeomans.  He grew up in Saratoga County where his parents had moved during his early years. His father was a mechanic and a farmer; his mother was a teacher.  Despite his blindness, he managed to acquire a good education in his early years.

Sketch Of Edward L. Youmans by  His Sister.

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. ….. 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.

Youmans’ parents were church goers, but the preacher appeared to have a very literal view of the Bible and eventually at around age 13, the young Yeomans started to question the preaching

A Memoir of Edward Livingstone Youmans - John Fiske

It is clear that from early youth Edward's mind was inhospitably disposed, not indeed to religion or to Christianity, but to the form of it that was offered him for acceptance. He was wont to bring forward Quaker arguments with regard to Sunday observances and Calvinistic symbolism generally.

In 1840, he went to New York City for treatment of his eye problem.  After some time in an infirmary, he boarded with printers who read to him from the latest works. Finally he found a home with a Quaker family, where he resided happily for many years. 

Yeomans came to believe that it was the role of the scientist to explore the works of God.  In his mind there was no antagonistic division between scientists and religion:

The Religious Work of Science - Edward Livingston Youmans

Science has long been regarded and is still widely believed to be the antagonist of religion ; the time is not distant when it will be accepted as its most powerful ally and best friend.

By science I understand that knowledge which is gained by the intellect of the order of things around us, of which we form a part, and of the laws by which that order is governed. Religion I understand essentially to be the feeling entertained toward that Infinite Being, Power, or Cause, by whatever name called, of which all things are the manifestation, and which is regarded and worshipped as the Creator and Ruler of the Universe.

It is the office of science to explore the works of God ; of religion to deal with the sentiments and emotions which go out toward the Divine Author of these works.

But if praise and adoration are due to the Creator because of the harmony and grandeur displayed in the creation, are not they working to distinctly religious ends who reveal to us these grand characteristics of Divine achievement ? To whom are we indebted for a knowledge of the order that God has instituted in the universe ? It is to the men whose appreciation of it has been so high that they have given their lives to the discovery of its truths ; and if these truths are divine, is not the research in a pre-eminent sense a religious work ?


Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography

During these years of suffering and deprivation he was a constant worker and an assiduous student of books and events. He studied elementary chemistry and physics with the aid of his sister, and when he was left to himself his leisure was spent in writing with a pocket-machine of his own contrivance. In 1851, while studying agricultural chemistry, he prepared a chemical chart that made clear by means of colored diagrams the laws of chemical science as they were then expounded (revised and enlarged, 1856). He studied medicine during this period and received the degree of M. D. from the University of Vermont.

Helping to spread the word

Whilst in New York, he was also able to pursue his writing interests and his interests in spiritualism [in its widest sense].  He became friends with Horace Greeley author and statesman who was the founder and editor of the New-York Tribune,  Walt Whitman the poet and William Henry Appleton.  Appleton’s firm published works by a range of noteworthy authors, including Hall Caine, Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and John Stuart Mill, as well as leading American scientists and philosophers of his era.

Youmans started lecturing on science in 1852, and for the next 17 years he gave courses of lectures in connection with the lyceum system in many towns and cities, awakening deep interest in scientific subjects. In his lectures on the "Chemistry of the Sunbeam" and the "Dynamics of Life", he was the first to expound popularly the doctrines of the conservation of energy and the mutual relation of forces.

Early on Youmans became deeply interested in the diffusion of standard scientific works in the United States. He republished such works in the United States, and did all he could through the newspaper and periodical press to make them known to the public. Herbert Spencer's books alone, on behalf of which he spared no effort, reached a sale of 132,000 copies by 1890, and the foreign authors whose works he used for years enjoyed, by voluntary arrangement with the D. Appleton & Company, the benefits of international copyright, of the justice and need of which Youmans was from the beginning of his literary life an ardent advocate.

Youmans started the "International Scientific Series" in 1871, by means of which works by the greatest scientists of all nations were published simultaneously in the principal modern languages. Arrangements were made for the publication of works in New York, London, Paris, and Leipzig, and afterward in St. Petersburg and Milan. The project was based on the idea of payment to authors from the sale in all countries. By 1888, the series had reached its 64th volume.

In 1872 Youmans founded Popular Science Monthly magazine, which he edited until his death. The 28 volumes issued under his care show a devotion to the spread of scientific thought upon the chief topics of the time.  In 1882 Youmans organized the New York banquet at the end of Herbert Spencer's U.S. tour. All told, Spencer wrote 91 articles for Popular Science Monthly.

A Memoir of Edward Livingstone Youmans - John Fiske

Youmans, ….never allowed himself to be diverted from his original purpose. If timid and narrow-minded people were thrown into a flutter by things said now and then in the Monthly, he had the satisfaction of getting little else but praise from the men whose esteem was worth having…………….
“I must take this opportunity to tell you how much I depend on The Popular Science Monthly. It comes to me like the air they send down to the people in a diving bell. I seem to get a fresh breath with every new number. Believe me, dear Dr. Youmans, Very truly yours, O. W. Holmes.


Youmans  had married Catherine Newton "Kate" Lee (c. 1819–1894), widow of William Little Lee, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of Hawaii on November 4, 1861 [aged 40], in Saratoga, New York. They didn't have any children. Her literary abilities were put to use in Youmans' editorial and promotional activities.

But his enthusiastic nature led to constant overdoing, and the strain affected his strength years before his death. From 1882, his lungs were seriously affected, but he worked on persistently until early in 1886.

Sketch Of Edward L. Youmans by His Sister.

…..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.

He died January 18, 1887 in New York.


John Fiske, Edward Livingston Youmans, 1894.


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