In 1707, a group of Cambridge students arrive at their mathematics lecture. They await the new lecturer. There is talk that he has no degree, as well as some other unattractive rumours. The gossiping students are silenced when a young, distinguished-looking man enters the lecture theatre in an academic gown and cap. His eyes are closed. His name is Nicholas Saunderson, and he is completely blind.
Saunderson was born in 1682 in a small village in the south of Yorkshire. He lost his sight to smallpox when he was a year old. Despite being blind, he still attended the local school where he learnt French, Latin, Greek and the classics. He grew to have an exceptional memory. He learnt to read through touch and legend has it that he learnt to read by tracing his fingers along gravestones. However, his true passion and skill was mathematics, which he learnt from his father. Learning through touch, he was able to use a slate with small sticks tied together with wire attached. Each number, from 0 to 9, had a different shape which he memorized. He used this device and this method of touch for the rest of his life.
Saunderson looked up to Isaac Newton, who at this time was – and remains – one of the most influential minds of science. He had attended Cambridge and the budding mathematician wanted to follow in his footsteps. However, Cambridge fees, which could be up to £150 a year (bearing in mind £100 in the 18th century would be worth roughly £6,000 today*), were out of the question for Saunderson’s modest family. In 1707, still determined and recognising their son’s talent, his family made the radical decision of sending him to university not as a student, but as a teacher. This was a risky move. Not only was it practically unheard of, but because the chances of success were slim, especially for someone like Saunderson, and for someone with no university degree. Also, he was only twenty-five. The odds were stacked against him.
Isaac Newton had stepped down as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1703 and was succeeded by William Whiston. It was Whiston who recognised Saunderson’s talent. He, as well as the rest of Cambridge, was curious about this young, blind mathematician who, despite having no degree, seemed to possess a great understanding of numbers. Intrigued, Whiston enabled Saunderson’s entry into Christ’s College as a lecturer. His lectures were easy for students to follow, earning him respect and impressing the college. Whiston remained a personal adviser to Saunderson and as their friendship progressed, Whiston arranged for the young mathematician to finally meet his hero, Isaac Newton. They discussed everything from simple algebra to the Principia. They discussed how to make the complicated text – and trust me, it is a complicated text – accessible to students. Newton’s advice remained with Saunderson, and he worked it into his lectures. When Whiston was removed from his position (a long story about religion), Queen Anne personally awarded Saunderson an MA so he could succeed him as the fourth Lucasian Professor in 1711. Seven years later, he was elected into the Royal Society.
In a century where many – but not all – disabled people were destitute and left to beg on the streets, children were abandoned at foundling hospitals and disabled cadavers were used for surgeons’ fascination and for medical students’ learning, their bodies having been dug up by ‘resurrectionists’ (graverobbers), Saunderson was lucky. Though born into a modest family, he had the encouraging support of those around him. Even when Saunderson was struck with a violent fever that might have killed him, his friends stayed by his side and nursed him back to health. How different his story might have been were it not for this support. This highlights how important it is for any disabled person to be supported by their community.
Even after his death in 1739, Saunderson was a celebrity and probably the most famous blind man in Europe. In 1749, the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who we will meet later, wrote a fictionalised account of Saunderson’s deathbed in which he denounced the existence of God. This was Diderot’s way of proclaiming his atheism, which upset the Church and the authorities, landing him in prison. This is a story for another blog.
The Royal Society motto is Nullius in Verba, which is Latin for ‘take nobody’s word for it’. The motto emulates the Society’s determination to look for scientific data and experience as opposed to doctrine. In the context of the Society’s formation in 1660, this refers to the debate of the relation with faith and reason, one of the many debates of the Enlightenment.
However, in Saunderson’s story, I believe the motto has a different meaning. You should take nobody’s word that a visually impaired, blind – or even disabled – person cannot achieve greatness. For any budding mathematicians, professors and scientists, remember Saunderson.
And remember, Nullius in Verba. Believe nobody if they tell you that you cannot succeed.
Nicholas Saunderson FRS - Scientists with disabilities | Royal Society
O’Connor, J. J. and Robertson, E. F. (2003) Nicholas Saunderson
Nicholas Saunderson (1682 - 1739) - Biography - MacTutor History of Mathematics (st-andrews.ac.uk)
*Converting 18th century money to 21st century money is not easy. It often results in rough estimations. I calculated a rough estimation from a footnote in:
Moore, Wendy (2006) The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching and the bird of modern surgery. Broadway Books, USA