Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/May 1901/A Study of British Genius IV




IF we consider the time of birth of our group of British persons of preeminent ability we find that April shows the largest number of births and January the fewest number. In passing from January to February there is a marked and sudden rise, so that when we consider the total births, according to the quarter of the year, the first, second and fourth quarters are fairly equal, but there is a decided deficiency in the third quarter. This is not quite the result which we find on considering the birth-rate among the ordinary population of England and Wales during the nineteenth century. Here the birth-rate during the first and second quarters agrees in being very high, while the third and fourth quarters invariably show a low rate. The discrepancy is in the fourth quarter, persons of preeminent ability being born during that quarter in unduly high proportion. In order to reach the time of conception, and so consider the possible significance of these facts, we must, of course, push these periods three months forward.[1]

The first significant fact we encounter in studying the life-histories of these eminent persons is the frequency with which they have shown marked constitutional delicacy in infancy and early life.[2] A group of at least five—Joanna Baillie, Hobbes, Keats, Newton, Charles Wesley—were seven months children, or, at all events, notably premature in birth; it is a group of very varied and preeminent ability. Not including the above (who were necessarily weakly), at least eight are noted as having been very weak at birth, and not expected to live; in several cases they were, on this account, baptized on the same day. In addition to these, fifty-five are described as being of very delicate health in infancy or childhood. Further, we are told of sixty-nine others that throughout life they suffered more or less from chronic ill-health, so that we may assume that in most eases their feeble constitutions were congenital and existed at birth. Thus, at the lowest estimate—for we may be certain that the national biographer has very frequently overlooked the point—137 of the 902 British men and women of preeminent intellectual ability (or 15 per cent.) were congenitally of notably feeble physical constitution.

Although it may fairly be assumed that this proportion, at least, of our eminent persons showed signs of physical inferiority at the beginning of life, it must not be assumed that in all cases such inferiority was marked throughout life. The reverse of this is notably the case in many instances. This is not indeed absolutely proved by longevity, frequently noted in such cases, for men of genius have sometimes lived to an advanced age, though all their lives suffering from feeble health. But there is a large group of cases (probably much larger than actually appears), in which the delicate infant develops into a youth or a man of quite exceptional physical health and vigor. Bruce, the traveler, is a typical example. Very delicate in early life, he developed into a man of huge proportions, athletic power and iron constitution. Jeremy Bentham, very weak and delicate in childhood, became healthy and robust and lived to eighty-four; Burke, weak and always ailing in early life, was tall and vigorous at twenty-seven; Constable, not expected to live at birth, became a strong and healthy boy; Dickens, a puny and sickly child, was full of strength and energy by the age of twelve; Gait, a delicate, sensitive child, developed Herculean proportions and energy; Hobbes, very weak in early life, went on gaining strength throughout life and died at eighty-one; Lord Stowell, with a very feeble constitution in early life, became robust and died at ninety-one. It would be easy to multiply examples, though the early feebleness of the future man of robust constitution must often have been forgotten or ignored, but it is probable that this course of development is not without significance. I have noted those cases in which one or both parents have died soon after the birth of their eminent child. One small, but eminent, group—Blackstone, Chatterton, Cowley, Newton, Adam Smith, Swift—had lost their fathers before birth. By the age of five at least fifty-five of these eminent persons had lost their fathers and thirty-one their mothers. By the age of ten at least eighty-eight had lost their fathers and fifty their mothers. In fourteen of these cases both parents were dead. So that over 14 per cent, had lost one or both parents by the age of ten. It is difficult to estimate the real extent of this tendency on account of the imperfect nature of the data, nor have I any data at hand for normal families. In New Zealand a useful enactment requires the ages of living children to be inserted in the parent's death certificate. Full particulars are not given by the Registrar-General of New Zealand in any report in my possession, but it appears that at least 45 per cent, of New Zealand children whose fathers died under the age of sixty-five were under fifteen at the time. This, of course, does not tell us what proportion these children bear to the children of the same age whose fathers are living. In English reformatories, Douglas Morrison notes, as a very high proportion, that 33 per cent, of the children admitted under the age of sixteen had lost one or both parents.

The chief feature in the childhood of persons of eminent intellectual ability brought out by the present data is their precocity. This has indeed been emphasized by previous inquirers into the psychology of genius, but its prevalence is very clearly shown by the present investigation. It has certainly to be said that the definition of 'precocity' requires a little more careful consideration than it has sometimes received at the hands of those who have inquired into it, and that when we have carefully defined what we mean by 'precocity' it is its absence rather than its presence which ought to astonish us in men of genius.[3] Judging from the data before us, there are at least three courses open to a child who is destined eventually to display preeminent intellectual ability. He may (1) show extraordinary aptitude for acquiring the ordinary subjects of school study; he may (2), on the other hand, show only average, and even much less than average, aptitude for ordinary school studies, but be at the same time engrossed in following up his own preferred lines of study or thinking; he may, once more (3), be marked in early life solely by physical energy, by his activity in games or mischief, or even by his brutality, the physical energy being sooner or later transformed into intellectual energy. It is those of the first group, those who display an extraordinary aptitude for ordinary school learning, who create most astonishment and are chiefly referred to as proving the 'precocity' of genius. There can be no doubt whatever that even in the very highest genius such extraordinary aptitude at a very early age is not infrequently observed. It must also be said that it occurs in children who, after school or college life is over, or even earlier, display no independent intellectual energy whatever. It is probable that here we really have two classes of cases simulating uniformity. In one class we have an exquisitely organized and sensitive mental mechanism which assimilates whatever is presented to it, and with development ever seeks more complicated problems to grapple with. In the other class we merely have a sponge-like mental receptivity, without any corresponding degree of aptitude for intellectual organization, so that when the period of mental receptivity is over no further development takes place. The second group, comprising those children who are mostly indifferent to ordinary school learning but are absorbed in their own lines of thought, certainly contains a very large number of individuals destined to attain intellectual eminence. They by no means impress people by their 'precocity'; Scott, occupied in building up romances, was a 'dunce'; Hume, the youthful thinker, was described by his mother as 'uncommon weak-minded.' Yet the individuals of this group are often in reality far more 'precocious,' further advanced along the line of their future activities, than the children of the first group. It is true that they may be divided into two classes, those who from the first have divined the line of their later advance, and those who, like the youthful Diderot, are only restlessly searching and exploring; but both alike have really entered on the path of their future progress. The third group, including those children who are only noted for their physical energy, is the smallest. In these cases some powerful external impression—a severe illness, an emotional shock, contact with some person of intellectual eminence—serves to divert the physical energy into mental channels. In those fields of eminence in which moral qualities and force of character count for much, such as statesmanship and generalship, this course of development seems to be a favorable one, but in more purely intellectual fields it scarcely seems to lead very often to the finest results. On the whole, it is evident that 'precocity' is not a very valuable or precise conception as applied to persons of intellectual eminence. The conception of physical precocity is fairly exact and definite. It indicates an earlier than average attainment of the ultimate growth and maturity. But we are by no means warranted in asserting that the man of intellectual ability reaches his full growth and maturity earlier than the average man. And even when as a child he is compared with other children, his marked superiority along certain lines may be apparently more than balanced by his apparent inferiority along other lines. It is no doubt true that, in a vague use of the word, genius is very often indeed 'precocious'; but it is evident that this statement is almost meaningless unless we use the word 'precocity' in a carefully defined manner. It would be better if we asserted that genius is in a large number of eases mentally abnormal from the first, and if we were to seek to inquire precisely wherein that mental abnormality consisted. With these preliminary remarks we may proceed to note the prevalence among British persons of genius of the undefined conditions commonly termed 'precocity.'

It is certainly very considerable. Although we have to make allowance for ignorance in a large proportion of cases, and for neglect to mention the fact in many more cases, the national biographers note that 223 of the 902 eminent persons in our list may in one sense or another be termed precocious, and only thirty-seven are mentioned as not precocious. Many of the latter belong to the second group, as defined above—those who are already absorbed in their own lines of mental activity—and are really just as 'precocious' as the others; thus Cardinal Wiseman as a boy was 'dull and stupid, always reading and thinking;' Byron showed no aptitude for school work, but was absorbed in romance, and Landor, though not regarded as precocious, was already preparing for his future literary career. In a small but interesting group of cases, which must be mentioned separately, the mental development is first retarded and then accelerated; thus Chatterton up to the age of 61/2 was, said his mother, 'little better than an absolute fool,' then he fell in love with the illuminated capitals of an old folio, at seven was remarkable for brightness and at ten was writing poems; Goldsmith, again, was a stupid child, but before he could write legibly he was fond of poetry and rhyming, and a little later he was regarded as a clever boy, while Fanny Burney did not know her letters at eight, but at ten was writing stories and poems.

Probably the greatest prodigies of infant precocity among these eminent persons were Cowley, Sir W. E. Hamilton, Wren and Thomas Young, three of these, it will seem, being men of the first order of genius. Barry and Thirlwall were also notable prodigies, and it would be easy to name a large number of others whose youthful proficiency in learning was of extremely unusual character. While, however, this is undoubtedly the case, it scarcely appears that any actual achievements of note date from early youth. It is only in mathematics, and to some extent in poetry, that originality may be attained at an early age, but even then it is very rare (Newton and Keats are examples), and is not notable until adolescence is completed.

The very marked prevalence of an early bent towards those lines of achievement in which success is eventually to be won is indicated by the fact that in those fields in which such bent is most easily perceived it is most frequently found. It is marked among the musicians, and would doubtless be still more evident if it were not that our knowledge concerning British composers is very incomplete. It is specially notable in the case of artists. It is reported of not less than thirty-five (or in the proportion of over 50 per cent.) that in art they were 'precocious.'

A certain proportion of the eminent persons on our list have followed the third course of early development as defined above, that is to say, they have been merely noted for physical energy in youth. Sir Joseph Banks was very fond of play till fourteen, when he was suddenly struck by the beauty of a lane; Isaac Barrow was chiefly noted for fighting at school; Chalmers was full of physical activity. but his intellect awoke late; Thomas Cromwell was a ruffian in youth; Thurlow, even at college, was idle and insubordinate; Murchison was a mischievous boy, full of animal spirits, and was not interested in science till the age of thirty-two; Perkins was reckless and drunken till his conversion. It can scarcely be said that any of these remarkable men, not even Barrow, achieved very great original distinction in purely intellectual fields. In order to go far, it is evidently desirable to start early.

The influence of education on men of genius is an interesting subject for investigation. It is, however, best studied by considering in detail the history of individual cases; generalized statements cannot be expected to throw much light on it. I have made no exact notes concerning the school education of the eminent persons at present under consideration; it is evident that as a rule they received the ordinary school education of children of their class, and very few were, on account of poverty or social class, shut out from school education. A small but notable proportion were educated at home, being debarred from school-life by feeble health; a few, also (like J. S. Mill), were specially educated by an intellectual father or mother.

The fact of university education has been very carefully noted by the national biographers, and it is possible to form a fairly exact notion of the proportion of eminent British men who have enjoyed this advantage. This proportion is decidedly large. The majority (53 per cent.) have, in fact, been at some university. Oxford stands easily at the head; 40 per cent, of those who have had a university education received it at Oxford, and only 33 per cent, at Cambridge. An interesting point is observed here; the respective influences of Oxford and Cambridge are due to geographical considerations; there is a kind of educational watershed between Oxford and Cambridge, running north and south, and so placed that Northamptonshire is on the eastern side. Cambridge drains the east coast, including the highly important East Anglian district and the greater part of Yorkshire, whilst Oxford drains the whole of the rest of England as well as Wales. This at once accounts both for the greater number of eminent men who have been at Oxford and for the special characteristics of the two universities, due to the districts that have fed them, the more literary character of Oxford, the more scientific character of Cambridge. The Scotch universities are responsible for 15 per cent, of our eminent men, Edinburgh being at the head, Glasgow and St. Andrews following at some little distance. Trinity College, Dublin, shows 3 per cent. The remaining S per cent, have studied at one or more foreign universities, sometimes in addition to study at a British university, Paris (the Sorbonne) stands at the head of the foreign universities, having attracted as many English students as all the other European universities put together. This is doubtless mainly due to the fact that Paris was the unquestioned intellectual center of Europe throughout the long period of the Middle Ages, though the intimate relations between England and France may also have had their influence. With the revival of learning Italian universities became attractive, and Padua long retained its preeminence as a center of medical study. During the seventeenth century the Dutch universities, Leyden and Utrecht, began to attract English students, and continued to do so to some extent throughout the greater part of the eighteenth century. It was not until the nineteenth century that English students sought out the German universities. Douai might perhaps have been included in the list as the chief substitute for university education for the eminent English Catholics who have appeared since the Reformation.[4]

While the fact of university education is easily ascertained, it is less easy to define its precise significance. The majority of our men of preeminent intellectual ability have been at a university; but it would be surprising were it otherwise, considering that the majority of these men belong to the class which in ordinary course receives a university education. It would be more to the point if we knew exactly what influence the universities had exerted, but on this our present investigation throws little light. In a considerable number of cases, at least, the university exerted no favorable influence whatever, the eminent man subsequently declaring that the years he spent there were the most unprofitable of his life; this was so even in the case of Gibbon, whose residence at Oxford might have been supposed to be very beneficial, for at the age of fourteen he had already been drawn toward the subject of his life-task. In a large number of cases, again, the eminent man left the university without a degree, and in not a few cases he was expelled. It is evident, however, on the whole, that university life has not been unfavorable to the development of intellectual ability, and that while our eminent men do not appear to have been usually subjected to any severe educational discipline, they have been in a good position to enjoy the best educational advantages of their land and time.

If this is not a very decisive result to reach, there is another less recognized method of educational development which occurs so frequently that I am disposed to attach very decided significance to it. I refer to residence in a foreign country during early life. The eminent persons under consideration have indeed spent a very large portion of their whole lives abroad, whether from inclination, duty or necessity (persecution or exile), and it might be interesting to note the average period of life spent by a British man of genius in his own country. I have not attempted to do this, but I have invariably noted the eases in which a lengthened stay abroad has occurred during the formative years of childhood or youth. I have seldom knowingly included any period of less than a year; in a few cases I have included lengthened stays abroad which were made about the age of thirty, but in these cases those periods of foreign residence exerted an unquestionable formative influence. I have excluded soldiers and sailors altogether, for in their case absence from England at a very early age has been an almost invariable and inevitable incident of their lives, and has not always been of a kind conducive to intellectual development. Nor have I included the very numerous cases in which transference from one part of the British Islands to another has sufficed to exert a stimulating influence of the greatest importance. With these exceptions, we find that as many as 322 of the eminent persons on our list (or about 40 per cent.) during early life, and in all but a few cases before the age of thirty, have spent abroad periods which range from about a year, and in very many cases have extended over seven years, up to extreme cases, like that of Caxton, who went to Bruges in early life and stayed there for thirty years; or Buchanan, who went to France at the age of fourteen and was abroad for nearly forty years. It is natural that France should be the country most frequently mentioned as the place of residence, but France is closely followed by other countries, and a familiarity with many lands, including even very remote and scarcely accessible countries, is often indicated. It may further be noted that this tendency to an association between high intellectual ability and early familiarity with foreign lands is by no means a comparatively recent tendency. It exists from the first; the earliest personage on our list, St. Patrick, was kidnapped in Scotland at the age of sixteen, and conveyed over to Ireland; it seems, indeed, that in the nineteenth century the tendency became less marked, in face of the average modern Englishman's hasty and unprofitable method of traveling. In any case, however, it is evident that there has been a very marked tendency among these men of preeminent ability to familiarize themselves in the most serious spirit with every aspect of nature and life. It is equally marked among the men of every group, among poets and statesmen, artists and divines. It is not least marked in the case of men of science from the days of Ray onwards; if it had not been for the five years on the Beagle we should scarcely have had a Darwin, and Lyell's work was avowedly founded on his constant foreign tours. In a notable number of cases this element comes in at the earliest period of life, the eminent person having been born abroad and spent his childhood there. The presence of so large a number of our eminent men at a university may be in considerable measure merely the accident of their social position. The persistence with which men of the first order of intellect have sought out and studied unfamiliar aspects of life and nature, or have profited by such aspects when presented by circumstances, indicates a more active and personal factor in the evolution of genius.

  1. For a discussion of the normal phenomena, see H. Ellis, 'Studies in the Psychology of Sex,' 'The Phenomena of Sexual Periodicity.'
  2. Mr. A. H. Yoder ('Pedagogical Seminary,' October, 1894) stumbled across this fact in the course of his interesting study of the early life of a group of men of genius, but failed to realize its significance. He put it aside as due to a desire on the part of biographers to magnify the mental at the expense of the physical qualities of their subjects. There is no evidence whatever for this gratuitous assumption.
  3. For a summary of investigations into the precocity of genius, see A. F. Chamberlain, 'The Child,' pp. 42-6.
  4. It may be interesting to compare these results with those obtained by Mr. Maclean in his study of nineteenth century British men of ability. He found, that among some 3,000 eminent men, 1,132, or 37 per cent., are recorded as having had an English, Scotch or Irish university education. Of these 1,132, 37 per cent, were at Oxford, 33 per cent, at Cambridge, 21 per cent, at Scotch universities, 7 per cent, at Dublin, and the small remainder were scattered among various modern institutions. It will be seen that university education plays a comparatively small part in this group. This may be in part due to the lower standard of eminence, but it may also be due to the wide dissemination of the sources of knowledge. In no previous century would so encyclopædic a thinker:as Herbert Spencer have been able to ignore absolutely the advantages of university centers.