Ten brilliant polymaths

1. Christopher Wren (1632-1723)

In London, it is in the most literal sense hard to escape Wren’s shadow, as he designed 52 churches across the city after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But he was not a professional architect; indeed, not many people were in the 17th century, as there were no recognized qualifications for architecture in Britain until the end of the 19th century. Wren began his life as an astronomer, receiving his MA from Oxford in 1653 and becoming a professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London, in 1657. His weekly lectures in Latin and English were said to be so popular that he would start them in the early hours of the morning to keep the crowds down to a manageable size.
His expertise was not only in astronomy, however. While at Oxford he had also studied biology, and became the first person to inject something into the bloodstream of a living creature (a dog), paving the way for the later science of vaccination. Through a study of mathematics and mechanics, he discovered the length of the arc of a cycloid, and tackled the vital issue of determining longitude at sea. He also made important advances in ballistics, optics and agriculture. It was not until 1663 that he turned to architecture when he was asked by his uncle to design a chapel for Pembroke College, Oxford, but his talents shone here too, and just three years later he was appointed by King Charles II to design the new St. Paul’s Cathedral. He lived to see it completed thirty-five years later at the ripe old age of 82. Not content with seeing it from the outside, he then designed a kind of pulley and basket system that would allow him to be hoisted to the top of the building, and finally enjoy the view he had waited so long to enjoy.

2. C.B. Fry (1872-1956)

C.B. Fry was called “probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age” by cricket commentator John Arlott. It is hard to disagree; this is a man who played soccer in the FA Cup at the age of sixteen and went on to win the Southern League with Southampton and represent England, a man who played cricket for England for 18 years, a man who once held the long jump world record, and a man who also represented Oxford University at the shot put, the hammer, ice skating, cross country running, and golf. Finally, he was also able to jump backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing position until well into his seventies, though how this talent was discovered seems likely to remain forever a mystery.
Later in life, after his sporting career came to an end in the 1920s, he turned his hand to a number of other disciplines. One of his few unsuccessful forays was into politics, where he was three times defeated in by-elections in 1922, 1923 and 1924. In the 1930’s he turned out newspaper columns for the Evening Standard, and launched two boys’ magazines, one with the brilliantly straightforward title C.B. Fry’s Magazine. He also branched out into radio and television, becoming a well regarded cricket commentator from 1936 until his death twenty years later.
Perhaps the most remarkable incident in a remarkable life came as a result of playing cricket for Surrey in 1920, when Fry’s teammate Ranjit Sinhji was chosen as one of India’s three representatives at the League of Nations. Sinhji asked Fry to accompany him as an assistant. Fry performed well in the role, and used the experience to write the “Key-Book of the League of Nations” in 1921. While there, Fry claims he was offered the throne of Albania, an extraordinary twist even in this man’s brilliantly unconventional life.

3. Mori Ogai (1862-1962)

The Japanese author Mori Ogai is not much known in the west, but in Japan he is often considered one of the finest writers and most important modernizers the country has ever produced.
A prodigy from childhood, Ogai learned the basics of medicine from his doctor father, and then lied about his age in order to get into the medical department of Tokyo University at the age of 13. He graduated at age 18, a record which stands to this day. To further his study of medicine, he travelled to Germany from 1884 to 1888, studying under such great names as the Nobel Prize Winner Robert Koch. On his return, he entered the army as a doctor and oversaw the introduction of Western hygiene into the Japanese army, causing the number of deaths from disease in combat to halve during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, leading to his promotion to Surgeon General of the Army in 1902.
This would have kept most people quite busy enough, but Ogai simultaneously pursued a glittering literary career. In 1890 he published his first novel, The Dancing Girl, based on a love affair from his time in Berlin, and continued to publish novels, plays, poems, translations and criticism for the next twenty years, and left his stamp on the Japanese language itself when he started to use colloquial spoken Japanese in his writing, paving the way for all future vernacular literature. He also lectured on Western Art and Aesthetics at Tokyo Arts University.
His success in rising to the peak of two entirely different fields, literature and medicine, is astonishing; as if Shakespeare had found time to discover the circulation of the blood between writing sonnets, or if Alexander Fleming had picked up a Nobel Prize for literature before turning to biology and discovering penicillin.
Deeply affected by the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, Ogai turned to writing historical biographies, but also took on new responsibilities as the director of Tokyo’s new Museum of Art, and continued to lecture at various Tokyo Universities until his death from kidney failure in 1922.

4. Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

You might think Joan of Arc died too young to be considered a true polymath, merely famous for having been burned at the stake after a briefly successful campaign against the English. However, her brief span on Earth, and her very humble origins, only serve to illustrate how remarkable her breadth and speed of learning must have been.
At the age of twelve, Joan was working in the fields owned by her parents in eastern France when she experienced her first vision, of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. The saints ordered her to drive out the English and bring the Dauphin to Reims so he could be crowned. Reims was then firmly under English control.
At sixteen, she visited the royal court at Chinon, using male disguise to pass through hostile territory. She impressed Charles VII during a private meeting, and was allowed to travel with an army bound on a relief expedition to Orleans, though she had to borrow all her equipment from other members of the entourage. Perhaps nothing says more about the desperate state of the French forces at this time than that a sixteen-year-old peasant girl who claimed to be guided by voices was given an important military role.
She lost little time after arriving, and despite being excluded from decision making by the local commander, attacked and captured two fortresses with a tiny force. Two days later she disobeyed direct orders to lead the army in an attack on the main English force, which she won despite sustaining an arrow to the neck during the battle. She achieved in nine days what the established army leadership had not been able to in five months.
This success led her to be promoted to co-commander of the army, and her bold strategy continued with the recovery of Jargeau, Meung-sur-Loire and Beaugency in quick succession. Reims, which just two months earlier had been 100 miles inside enemy territory, was captured in July 1429, where Joan led fighting all day despite being struck by a crossbow bolt in the early afternoon.

In 1430, after a truce with the English disintegrated, Joan travelled to Compiegne to defend the city against an English and Burgundian siege. The attack went poorly, and she was captured and imprisoned. In a political move to bolster the Burgundian claim to the French throne, Joan was not ransomed or imprisoned, but put on trial for heresy by Bishop Cauchon of Beavuais, despite a commission not being able to find evidence against her. Joan was denied a legal adviser, and while under public examination not a single supporter was allowed into court. The assembled bishops and nobles must have thought it would be no hard matter to outwit this illiterate girl and put her to death, but the trial demonstrated a remarkable intellect. After several weeks in which she ably defended herself against religious accusations from Bishop Cauchon and legal accusations from Jean LeMaitre, the exasperated accusers were forced to doctor court records against her in order to convict her. Even then, heresy was only a capital crime if it was a second offence; nonetheless, Joan was sentenced to burn at the stake on May 30 1431. She maintained her belief that she was guided by God until the end.

So, in a mere five years the young Joan showed military skill that bested the finest commanders in the army, theological knowledge that stunned the highest religious figures in the land, and legal knowledge that flummoxed the most learned lawyers of the age, despite her upbringing as an illiterate peasant. Add to this an almost inconceivable level of bravery and grace under pressure, and we can readily agree with historian Stephen Richey that “her achievements leave anyone who knows her story shaking his head in amazed wonder.”

5. Tom Lehrer (1928-)

Tom Lehrer is rightly regarded as the finest musical satirist of the 20th century, but this barely hints at the breadth and depth of his pursuits. His brilliance is easily summed up in a single sentence; after retiring from the musical world, he taught math, physics, political science and musical theatre at the University of California. His path through life has been as unconventional as it has been brilliant; after gaining a masters degree in mathematics from Harvard at the age of 20, he entered its doctoral program. During this time, he would write comic songs to entertain his friends, and some of these, such as “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” would later be released on his first album, The Physical Revue.

Lehrer’s doctoral work was interrupted by a spell working as a researcher in the Los Alamos nuclear project, which became the inspiration for “The Wild West is Where I Wanna Be”, and another between 1955 and 1957 when he served in the US Army, leading to the song “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier”.
Encouraged by friends, in 1954 he released an album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, which he sold himself on campus and in college stores; the often controversial subject matter he tackled meant local radio would not give him airtime. Through word of mouth his popularity spread to the extent that in 1959 he was able to embark on a series of concert tours and promote a second album.
Touring tired him, however, and after just one year, which led to one studio and one live album, he retired from the circuit and moved to the post of resident songwriter on the US edition of That Was The Week That Was. Here his output became more directly political and topical, lampooning religion (“The Vatican Rag”), nuclear proliferation (“Who’s Next”), and race relations (“National Brotherhood Week”). These were later released as an album, That Was the Year That Was.
However, Lehrer was never a great by touring, and would generally only embark on a tour to visit a new part of the world, as with his tours of Australia in 1960 and Scandinavia in 1967, or to promote a new albums. He performed and wrote songs only sporadically after 1964, but it is perhaps a mark of the timeless brilliance of his work that he is still so popular despite recording just 37 songs over 20 years and performing a little over 100 live shows.
After 1973, he returned to the world of academia at the University of California; he stated that the award of the Nobel Peace Price to Henry Kissinger was so absurd it made political satire obsolete. He continued to use music in his math and physics lectures, and his work was celebrated in a long running Broadway musical, Tom Foolery. His last original composition nicely sums up his dedication to music and mathematics; it was a 1993 update to “That’s Mathematics” celebrating Andrew Wiles’ solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem. Ever self-deprecating, he commented in the 1997 liner notes to Songs and More Songs that “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

6. Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Paul Robeson’s achievements in the fields of athletics, acting, singing, law, social activism and languages (he learned to speak 20 in his lifetime) would be remarkable in any country in any age. To achieve this as a black man in the first 75 years of the 20th century in the United States, facing discrimination and ostracism throughout his life, can be considered truly amazing.
Born in 1898, Robeson’s talents became apparent at Rutgers University, where he was only the third African-American student ever to attend. He succeeded both on the football field, where his success won him first-team All-American selection, and in class, where he was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and was elected valedictorian by his classmates. He moved to Columbia Law School in 1919, where it is surprising he had time for any study at all; while there he played for the Milwaukee Badgers and Akron Pros NFL teams, worked as football coach at Lincoln University, and began such a successful singing career that in 1921 he went to Britain with a tour of the hit musical Taboo. Somehow he found time to graduate in 1922 and embarked on a law career that, in a familiar pattern, would be cut short because of entrenched prejudice against a black man in the overwhelmingly white legal profession.
Supported by his wife Essie, he entered the theatre, and achieved critical acclaim in a number of plays that catapulted him to unexpected fame; by 1926 he was spending holidays on the French Riviera with Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay.
In 1933 he became the first black man to have a starring role in a Hollywood film, as Brutus in The Emperor Jones. This coincided with a period of political and ideological awakening, and his wish to understand his heritage and history led to his enrolment in the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1934, where his talent for languages soon became apparent. During this time he also visited the Soviet Union and Germany, which led him to espouse the former as a place of liberating racial equality and the latter as a great threat to the world order. In 1938 he went to Spain to see and participate directly in the fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
During World War Two, Robeson returned to his entertainment roots, becoming a familiar face as an actor and singer on US television, and receiving widespread acclaim for his 1943 portrayal of Othello on Broadway. However, after the war he became caught up in the purge of suspected communist sympathizers in the entertainment world; he was a natural target as someone who had previously visited and praised the USSR. After refusing to renounce his affiliation with the Communist party, he was condemned, and he was stopped from working in film or television, and from travelling abroad.
After the furor of McCarthyism died down in the late 1950s, Robeson embarked on a world tour from London, taking up causes as diverse as the equality of Australian Aborigines and the preservation of Welsh culture in the United Kingdom. However after a visit to Moscow in 1961, his mental health suffered a rapid breakdown; he attempted suicide twice and treated for some time at the Priory Clinic in London and the Buch Clinic in East Berlin. Robeson later confessed to his son he believed he had been drugged and subjected to mental conditioning by the CIA and MI5; whether this is true or not, both organizations were certainly monitoring him closely.
After 1963 he recovered somewhat, but ceased to play an active role in public life. He lived quietly with his son until his death from a stroke in 1976. His life had been lived on the grandest scale, across continents and languages, he counted among his acquaintances Nikita Khrushchev, Harry Truman, Jawarhalal Nehru and Aneurin Bevan. Few could claim a life lived more fully.
As a sad postscript, it was only after his death in 1978 that the US ban on his works was fully lifted, and his films could again be shown on television.

7. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo Da Vinci is the original Renaissance Man, and no list of polymaths would be complete without him. We know more than you might expect about Leonardo’s life and times, because unlike so many geniuses he was recognized as such during his lifetime, so a conscious effort was made to record the facts of his life.
Born in 1452 to a wealthy notary in Vinci, near Florence, Leonardo was apprenticed at 14 to the famed painter Verrocchio; in this 16th century biography Vasari claims that when Leonardo painted an angel in a picture he was helping with, his skill was so great that Verrocchio put down his brush and vowed never to paint again.
Great as Leonardo’s skill as a painter undoubtedly was, it is in his 13000 pages of notebooks that his genius is truly revealed. His curiosity was unbounded, and he committed to paper every observation and thought about science, technology and invention; “the most complete records of a human mind ever committed to paper” in the words of John Lloyd.
His devotion to research was unbounded; he dissected cadavers at a time when this was illegal, not for profit or gain but simply to understand how the body worked. His diagrams depict devices ranging from the fantastical (the human powered flight machine) to the eminently practical (the parachute and the aqualung) and the mundane (the egg slicer, the mixer tap). While our image of him is often as in his one authenticated self-portrait, a stern, bald, bearded sage, in his youth Vasari tells us he was both unnaturally strong (“he could bend horseshoes of iron as if it was nothing”) and charming, and we know that at the age of 24 he was accused but acquitted of sodomy in Florence.
As his fame grew, he was sought out across Europe for assistance in the most diverse matters. In 1502 he designed a 220 meter long bridge for the Ottoman Sultan of Constantinople, though it was not built because the Sultan did not believe it possible. In the same year Cesare Borgia hired him as his chief military engineer after he displayed his prowess in mapmaking, and a few years later he was hired by the city of Venice to devise a scheme for diverting the flow of the Arno River. His work on anatomy was centuries ahead of its time, but his idiosyncratic style and habit of writing in mirror image meant that no-one felt able to put the notes into manuscript form after his death; had they done so it would have undoubtedly brought the study of anatomy forward by at least a century. Leonardo’s renown was such that Kind Francis I of France himself is said to have nursed him in his dying hours.
To quote the marvelously named Hippolyte Taine, “”There may not be in the world an example of another genius so universal, so incapable of fulfillment, so full of yearning for the infinite, so naturally refined, so far ahead of his own century and the following centuries.” Hear, hear.

8. Hildegard of Bingen (1098?-1179)

The only saint in this list, Hildegard of Bingen was from a very early age destined for a life in the Church. At a young but unknown age, she was offered as an oblate to Disibodenberg Monastery in the Palatinate Forest, in the care of an elder nun named Jutta. She must have impressed the monastic community, for on Jutta’s death in 1136 Hildegard was made magistra of the community, a kind of spiritual adviser and leader.
Hildegard had visions throughout her life, later claiming that they started at the age of three, but it was in 1141 that her polymath skills began to develop when she saw a vision instructing her to write down what she saw and heard in her visions. This led to an outpouring of works of all kinds, most significantly three volumes of visionary theology which outlined her interpretation of her visions encompassing a history of Christianity through to the End of Days, an instruction manual for a moral and pious existence, and the nature of and relationship between God and man.
Hildegard was also an early exponent of music in promoting the message of the Church. Her most famous work, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), may well be the earliest surviving morality play, but sixty-nine other musical compositions also survive. This gives her one of the largest repertoires of any medieval composer, and she profoundly influenced the development of Church music for centuries to come.
These were not the only strings to her bow. Her fame as a healer was known throughout the Palatinate region, and her expertise was eventually funneled into a book of medicine, Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures) and a book of natural philosophy, Physica. Her belief in the healing properties of plants and animals was backed up by the theological idea that everything on Earth was put there for man’s benefit; thus, plants that could not be eaten or otherwise usefully used must have a medicinal application. Finally, she also invented a modified Latin alphabet that she used in her artificial language Lingua Ignota, prefacing the Esperanto of Louis Zamenhof by over 700 years.
All this may give the impression that while intellectually inspired, Hildegard was a reclusive figure, dedicated to solitary thought. This is very far from the truth; she was an active campaigner, preacher and speaker who founded two monasteries at Rupertsburg and Eibingen, and conducted four preaching tours of Germany, speaking to clergy and laity alike to encourage Church reform, a highly unusual activity for a woman in the 11th century. She also kept up lively correspondence with Popes (Anastasius IV, Eugene III), statesmen (Abbot Suger) and Emperors (Frederick I Barbarossa). Through these networks her interpretation of scripture and views on reform were known and acted upon throughout Germany; indeed, by her death in September 1179 she was arguably the most influential woman in the Church of the entire medieval period. More than nine centuries later, her fellow German Pope Benedict XVI made her a Doctor of the Church, a title given to those saints recognized as having made a specific contribution to theology or doctrine. She became only the fourth woman in two thousand years to be accorded such an honour.

9. Jose Rizal (1861-1896)

Without Jose Rizal, the Philippines as we know it would not exist today. Not only was he the intellectual firepower behind the Philippine independence movement, he also created some of its finest and most venerable works of literature. He was primarily an ophthalmologist, author and revolutionary, but also dabbled in fields as unrelated as martial arts, cartography, architecture and Freemasonry, and spoke 22 languages into the bargain; a fact that has long hampered his biographers, as he often switched between languages numerous times even within a single document. All this was achieved in a mere 35 years before his execution in 1896 by the Spanish colonizers he was working against.
Rizal’s intended degree subject was law, but on discovering that his mother was going blind he secretly switched to medicine, supported by his brother Paciano. After two years of study in Manila, he enrolled at Madrid University, achieving a medical degree in 1885. He then moved to Heidelberg to complete a specialization in ophthalmology; here he also delivered an address in German to the Anthropological Society on the orthography and structure of Tagalog. He also managed to complete his first and perhaps greatest novel, Noli me Tangere (Latin for “Don’t Touch Me”), a social commentary on Spanish colonization that inspired armed fanatics and peaceful revolutionaries alike in their fight against Spanish mastery.
He returned to the Philippines in 1887, where he was able to operate on his mother’s eye problem using the newly invented ophthalmoscope that he had brought from Berlin. His visit was cut short, however, as he was persecuted by the authorities who had learned of the publication of Noli me Tangere in Berlin. He returned to Europe later that year, this time to Paris, Brussels and Spain, continuing to write and campaign for equality for Filipinos and representation in parliament, but his impact was limited and he decided to return to the Philippines in 1892 to take a more active role in the movement. He founded the Philippine League, which advocated non-violent action, and was rapidly exiled internally to Dapitan, on the island of Mindanao. During this period he continued to practice medicine and take on students. He also used his facility with languages to infuriate the Spanish censors, exchanging correspondence in German, French, Dutch and English with his European friends.
In 1896, Rizal applied for and received leave to visit Cuba, to help treat victims of a yellow fever outbreak. However, when in 1896 a violent rebel group called Kaputinan launched a revolt, Rizal was arrested for treason in the ensuing chaos, despite not being affiliated to the group and disavowing their violent methods. After a show trial in Manila, a Filipino execution squad blew his brains out on December 30th, 1896. His life was at an end, but his life and works would continue to inspire the cause of Philippine independence well into the 20th century.

10. Omar Khayyam (1048-1131?)

Omar Khayyam is best known to us today largely through an intermediary, Edward Fitzgerald, who translated his poems from Persian into English in the 18th century in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Were this the only thing that he produced, he would still be rightly celebrated. His poems have a joie de vivre that carries effortlessly across centuries and continents; anyone tired by the rat race will surely appreciate this exhortation to stop trying so hard and have a drink instead.

How long, how long in infinite pursuit
Of this or that endeavour or dispute
Better be merry with the fruitful grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter fruit.

Poetry, though, was merely a hobby for Khayyam, and it may be that some of his scientific and mathematical work is of greater importance. Born in Nishapur, Iran, in 1048, little is known of his early life, but his education must have been first rate, as by 1068 he was in attendance at the court of the Seljuk Sultan Malik-Shah I as an adviser and teacher. In common with all our polymaths, he was an incredibly hard worker; by day he would teach algebra and geometry by day, advise the Sultan in the evening and return to his quarters at night to complete astronomical observations, for at this time most court mathematicians were simultaneously employed as astronomers. From 1070 to 1090, he made huge leaps forward in both disciplines. In mathematics he made important advances in Euclidian geometry, and applied these advances to the study of algebra, allowing him to develop the first exact method of solving cubic equations by intersecting a circle with a parabola. His belief that it was impossible to solve cubic equations using only ruler and compass methods was proved correct 750 years after his death, while his work on quadrilaterals was not surpassed until the work of Giordano Vitale 600 years later. Finally, he is also considered to be the first to conceive of binomial theorem.
As an astronomer, he was in charge of calendar reform in Persia, and the Jalali calendar that he developed, with an error of just one day in 3770 years is still the most accurate solar calendar in use today; more accurate than our Gregorian calendar, and more accurate than the calendar currently used in Iran which sacrificed Khayyam’s accuracy for standardized month lengths. He may also have demonstrated that the Earth rotates on its axis, but the evidence for this is disputed.
In 1092, Sultan Malik-Shah died, and his widow was less favorably disposed towards Khayyam, who wisely decided it would be a good time to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are expected to undertake once in their lifetime. On his return some years later, he was allowed back to court as an astronomer, and as a teacher again of geometry and algebra, but also of medicine. It is not known where he came across this knowledge, but it seems likely he somehow studied while on the journey to Mecca. He also devoted himself to the arts, writing revolutionary theses on the philosophy of mathematics and religion, as well as starting to compose the short quatrains that he is now most famous for.
His later life is unknown; perhaps he was simply taking a well-earned retirement, or he may even have died; his date of death is not certain. What is clear is that his contributions to the sum of human knowledge, as mathematician, astronomer, poet and philosopher are greater than all but a handful of individuals in the history of the world.


About takaihana

I live in Tokyo and sometimes write quizzes and crosswords in between running around after two small children
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