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Edward Youmans
Edward L. Youmans

Edward L Youmans, the founder of Popular Science magazine, strove to popularise chemistry.

A science communicator from an early age

Edward Youmans was born in Coeymans, New York, in 1821. His father was a mechanic and farmer; his mother a teacher. He was a keen student and was greatly influenced by one of his teachers who taught him that “the mind needed rather to be provoked than informed”.* At the age of 13, Edward was already an inquisitive scientist, and requested to be bought Comstock’s Natural Philosophy so that he could copy the experiments using his own homemade equipment. The explanations of these experiments he gave to his peers provided an early and promising start to his career as a science communiator. 

Unfortunately, at only 13 years old, Edward began to suffer from ophthalmia, an inflammation of the eyes. The condition was aggravated by his incessant desire to read but when this was commented on by friends, his reply was “I would rather be a blind man than an ignoramus”.* By the time he was 17, he was practically blind but continued to read with help from his sister, Eliza Ann Youmans. Not allowing his disability to inhibit his education, he studied chemistry, physics, agricultural chemistry and finally medicine.  Edward strived to make chemistry as popular as natural philosophy was at the time. He produced charts that described chemical theories using simple, easy to understand diagrams and went on to publish his first book, Class-Book of Chemistry, attempting to outshine the current text books by injecting some enthusiasm.

“At that time a spark of enthusiasm was no more expected in a text-book of chemistry than in a treatise on contingent remainders. But in Youmans’ pages the chemical elements were alive.”*

A public lecturer

At the age of 30, Edward began to recover his sight and this sparked the beginning of his public lecturing career, partially satiating his appetite to bring knowledge of science into the public domain. He covered a broad range of subjects in his talks: from the effect of alcohol on the human body to the chemistry of the sun and stars. He always included illustrations and demonstrations in his lectures, to draw his audiences in and open their minds to knowledge which was normally confined to the laboratory or university. 

Edward was keen to encourage international dissemination of scientific knowledge, especially during a period of emerging evolutionary philosophy. In collaboration with the publishing company D. Appleton and Co., he republished significant scientific works in the U.S., including Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and he paid royalties to the authors prior to the establishment of international copyright law. In 1871, Edward’s vision of greater international cooperation in the promotion of popular science was realised in the form of the International Scientific Series. He worked with publishers from France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the UK and the US to simultaneously publish the works of great scientists from Europe and North America. 

The founder of Popular Science Monthly

Popular Science Monthly

Edward’s crowning glory, and greatest legacy, was the founding of Popular Science Monthly in 1872 - a magazine which is still being published today. The inclusive and forward-thinking nature of this enterprise is best described in Edward’s own words:

“The Popular Science Monthly has been started to help on the work of sound public education, by supplying instructive articles on the leading subjects of scientific inquiry. It will contain papers, original and selected on a wide range of subjects, from the ablest scientific men of different countries, explaining their views to non-scientific people. A magazine is needed here which shall be devoted to this purpose, for, although much is done by the general press in scattering light articles and shreds of information, yet many scientific discussions of merit and moment are passed by.”*

*extracts from: J. Fiske, Edward Livingston Youmans, Interpreter of Science for the People, A Sketch of his life, 1893, D. Appleton and Co., New York

Words by Charlotte Still
Images courtesy of Popular Science Monthly
Published March 2015

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