Born in 1821, Edward Livingston Youmans was an American science writer, scholar, lecturer and polymath whose life’s mission was to make science... popular. A tireless evangelist for knowledge and the scientific method, Youmans can be credited with helping to draw Americans out of the provincialism of the pre-Civil War years. There is the quality of the all-American fable in the accounts of his upbringing: raised in a family of hard working farmers who were early abolitionists, Youmans had a precocious intellect and was an avid reader who put any meager earnings towards books. The sort of 12-year-old who, according to his sister Eliza, purchases a copy of the Illiad with 'proceeds from a patch of potatoes, planted by himself for this purpose.'
Plagued with weak eyesight as a child, by age seventeen Youmans' vision had deteriorated so much that he was nearly blind. During a two year period, he was forced to ‘quiet his eyes’ and stay indoors. Fortunately for him, his sister and brother were keen students themselves (his sister actually went on to become an agricultural chemist), and they assisted him in his studies. It was in his twenties, while he was studying chemistry and physics, that he had an epiphany: When it came to studying atomic particles, other students were effectively as blind as he was. The existing chemistry textbooks were dry and unappealing, and Youmans was convinced there must be a means to teach the discipline in a more attractive and more effective way. The result was the ‘Chemical Chart,’ a series of diagrams that radically re-presented principles of chemistry using illustration and color rather than the staid, monochromatic style of the time. To the contemporary eye, it is a stunningly modern interpretation of complex scientific principles, and can be viewed as a seminal piece of information design. The marketing material of the time is demure: “Its plan is to represent chemical composition to the eye by colored diagrams, so that the numerous facts of proportion, structure, and relation, which are the most difficult in the science, are presented to the mind through the medium of vision, and may be thus easily acquired and long retained.”
The success of the chart led to the more comprehensive ‘Chemical Atlas’ published three years later. The full title leaves nothing to the imagination: ‘Chemical Atlas; or, the Chemistry of Familiar Objects: Exhibiting the General Principles of the Science in a Series of Beautifully Colored Diagrams, and Accompanied by Explanatory Essays, Embracing the Latest View of the Subjects Illustrated.’ Indeed.
A promoter of the concept of mental discipline achieved through the study of science, Youmans believed the American public should be exposed to the latest scientific theories developing in Europe. He was an avid follower of the works of Herbert Spencer (who is credited with the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’), Thomas Huxley (who coined the term ‘agnosticism’) and a certain Charles Darwin. At that time there was no way for these radical secular scientists to disseminate their ideas to America, so Youmans developed an equally radical concept to give them a wider platform.
Using his affiliation with New York publisher D. A. Appleton, Youmans established the “International Scientific Series,” in 1871. Dissatisfied with existing general science publications that were either too dull or too rudimentary for the general reader, Youmans commissioned articles by leading men of science in both Europe and the U.S. that were curated and distributed on both sides of the Atlantic. This was an important advance: at the time, international copyright laws did not yet exist and authors had few means to distribute their work. Youmans brokered deals with publishers in England, Germany, France, Russia and Italy to coordinate simultaneous publication, earning the authors royalties and circulation they would not be able to obtain otherwise. (‘I’m the man to do the work; nobody else can,’ he wrote his sister.) The series published nearly 70 volumes but the original editorial team headed by Youmans left after a decade.
In 1872, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its doors, Ulysses S. Grant was president, Reconstruction was underway, and Edward Youmans established the first issue of ‘Popular Science Monthly’ magazine. The publication was first met with curiosity as well as skepticism especially from religious factions, but the publication continued and gradually gained popularity. After the publication had been going for over a year, Youmans’ wrote “There can be no doubt that the Monthly is doing an important work in this country…We have, however, worked up a very deep feeling of hostility, and hear constantly of people who ‘won’t have it in the house.’”
His health failing due to consistent overwork, Youmans died in 1888 after a bout with double pneumonia at age 67. After a lifetime of learning and dissemination of applied science to the general public, Youmans never failed to believe there was always more work to be done. In his own words, "the work of creating science has been organized for centuries….the work of diffusing science is clearly the next great task of civilization."