“Words are the physicians of a mind diseased.” AESCHYLUS. Prometheus Bound
Joshua Kendall’s ‘The Man Who Made Lists’ is a refreshing break from the plethora of spiteful political exposés that have demanded our attention this election year. With a tutored eye, he introduces the reader to the life and times of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), physician, theologian, lexicographer and compiler of Roget’s Thesaurus.
Born in London while England fought America at the front door, and Spain at the back, Roget started what was to be for him a sad and humorless life. Nevertheless, Kendall’s light touch sails us through this ocean of misery and madness in a way that might otherwise try the reader’s endurance.
Disturbed people surrounded young Peter; indeed, he exhibited obsessive- compulsive behavior himself long before such a condition was recognized. However, he handled it by exercising his fertile brain to the exclusion of normal life.
Long before his thesaurus was published, Roget …
·Qualified as a physician at EdinburghUniversity.
·Developed a new laboratory test for arsenic poisoning.
·Published a paper on the slide rule, inventing the log- log scale.
·Discovered that the retina typically sees a series of still images as a continuous picture, with subsequent implications for film making in the future.
·Achieved success as an academic physiologist.
·Published a 250,000-word treatise on animal and vegetable physiology to international acclaim.
His day job was as a dedicated physician at industrial Manchester where he endured great hardship while tending to the poor. Not too many doctors do that these days – not in SW Florida anyway.
He was also involved in what could have been a life threatening adventure. One of Roget’s many activities was to accompany a family of young children on a grand tour of Europe to give them what would have been an intensive education. When they were in Switzerland, Napoleon demanded the arrest of all adult Englishmen. Swift and persistent action on his part allowed him to return to England with his charges; safe and sound.There is even a suggestion that his escape plan was suspended long enough for Madam de Stael to seduce him.
Madam de Stael was not the only ‘name’ to punctuate his life. Roget was no stranger to Jeremy Bentham and Humphrey Davy. He had more than a nodding acquaintance with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Erasmus Darwin, (Charles’s grandfather), and Benjamin Franklin’s son William were notable conversationalists. He was involved in a book club that Isaac D’Israeli, (Benjamin Disraeli’s father), was invited to join.
It was towards the end of his life that the Thesaurus was published. It had 28 printings before he died, and continued by his family. Roget died while on holiday in West Malvern, Worcestershire aged 90, and lies in the cemetery of St James's Church. Maybe the steep hills there had something to do with it.
Roget’s life was filled with sadness, but Kendall avoids melancholy and moves the biography on at fiction speed. The result is a well-written biography of a very interesting intellectual who prospered despite adversity. A pleasure to read – more than once.