The First Full Biography of Isaac Newton

August 03, 2015

The First Full Biography of Isaac Newton

This beautiful little volume, published in 1831, is the first full biography of the great Isaac Newton, written by David Brewster, a fellow scientist who would eventually uncover Newton's deep interest in alchemy and his unorthodox religious views.

When Newton died in 1727 his papers were bequeathed to his niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, and were examined by Thomas Pellet and other members of the Royal Society in preparation for their publication. "Other than The chronology of ancient kingdoms, which was published immediately, Pellet labelled the bulk of the manuscripts—particularly those on alchemy and those revealing Newton's heretical theology—‘Not fit to be printed’" (Osler, A Hero For Their Times: Early Biographies of Newton). Passed down in the Conduitt family, the papers lay unseen by historians, and no complete biography was published during the 18th century.

Despite the lack of concrete information about Newton, speculations regarding his dark personal life and possible bouts of madness made their way into the public sphere, particularly in J. B. Biot's Biographie Universelle (1822) and in Francis Baily's Life of Flamsteed (1835) . Around the time these books appeared David Brewster was a well-regarded scientist specialising in optics, as well an administrator at the University of St. Andrews. He was particularly involved with the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the movement to professionalise science and promote government investment in research. Newton was not only a personal hero of Brewester's, but "as the paragon of British science, Newton was a crucial resource in the fight for support from state and industry. Brewster felt that it was incumbent upon him to defend the spirit of Newton - and the spirit of British science itself" (Dry, The Newton Papers, p. 41).

Brewester undertook to write Newton's biography, and sought out new material to prove that the great man had not succumbed to mental illness. While he wasn't allowed access to the Conduitt manuscripts (now known as the Portsmouth papers after their owner, the Earl of Portsmouth), he did obtain some new material, letters between Newton, Samuel Pepys, and a doctor, that he published here for the first time. The resulting biography, depicted above, was published in 1831 in an inexpensive edition that cost just five shillings. It was well-received and went through several editions and translations. Brewster built on this success by continuing his research. 

In 1837 Brewster was finally able to access the tightly-controlled Portsmouth manuscripts, which revealed for the first time Newton's deep interest in alchemy and his scandalous, unorthodox religious views. "Despite these traumatic discoveries—which essentially negated the purpose behind his historical biography—Brewster attempted to synthesize his findings" and he made public this material, which he personally found distasteful, in his second book on Newton. Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, published in 1855, "remained the best available until 1980", "managed to include all the problems of the enigmatic figure of Newton for the first time", and "attempted to solve them in the light of Brewster's own times. The work is remarkable as much for the insights it gives about Brewster, as it is for information about Newton" (ODNB).

Brewster's work is important not only for the information it revealed about Newton, but also as an example of the new "scientific" biographies of the 19th century, which, for the first time, used contemporary sources to make original, scholarly arguments about history. This is a beautifully bound copy of the first edition of this important biography.