Christmas Trilogy 2014 Part I: Was he or wasn’t he and does it matter?

Isaac Newton supposedly boasted on his deathbed that he had never known a woman. That’s known in the Biblical sense meaning to have sexual intercourse. Most people interpret this to mean that Newton died a virgin but is this true? Had he perhaps known a man?

Anybody setting out to write a biography of Isaac Newton has a problem, what can you do to make your biography stand out from all the ones that have already been written and there are a lot of them out there. Even Richard Westfall, whose Never at Rest[1] is without doubt king of the pack, has written three different Newton biographies! Michael White who could be described as a profession writer of intellectual biographies decided to go the shock, horror, did you know?, route with his biography from 1997, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer[2], in which he reveals “the extraordinary influence of alchemy on the greatest mind of the modern world”. Unfortunately for White this is very much stale news as was pointed out four years ago by my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky Higgitt in a blog post entitled Newton and alchemy: a constant surprise? To quote the good Dr Higgitt:

However, the thing that bugs me most is the fact that Newton has been ‘revealed’ as an alchemist, or as a magician, over and over again. In recent years the major popular interest in Newton has related to alchemy and prophecy, and such presentations tend to be accompanied by the suggestion that this is a surprising and novel revelation. This process goes back at least as far as John Maynard Keynes and his 1946 essay ‘Newton the Man’, which presented Newton as ‘the last of the magicians’. Keynes had acquired a significant portion of the ‘non-scientific’ part of Newton’s archive (as judged by the scientists who catalogued and divided them in the late 19th century), and he was undoubtedly struck by what he found. But, as I have said in my book, he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he evidently was.

White was of course aiming for the general lay public with his popular biography so he might have surprised some of his readers with his alchemical revelations, however he definitely did cause quite a stir with another revelation in his book, the claim that Newton was homosexual. In this post I want to examine the evidence that White puts forward for this claim and give my views on the question, was Isaac Newton a homosexual? Equally important in my opinion is the question; does it matter?

There is no actual solid evidence that Newton was homosexual that is, he never outed himself, as we would say today, and none of friend acquaintances or enemies ever outed or denounced him as being so. Newton acquired enough enemies throughout his long and cantankerous life, several of whom would happily have wished him to the devil so I think if there had been even a hint that he was homosexual one of them would have made the information public with malicious glee. This being the actually situation as far as our biographical knowledge of Newton goes White is reduced to circumstantial evidence and plausible assumption. He thinks he has found two separate pieces of evidence that point to Newton’s homosexuality and as they are unrelated I shall deal with them independently.

White’s first scenario concerns John Wickins, a fellow Cambridge student and later fellow of Trinity College who shared a chamber with Newton for twenty years from 1663 to 1683. We know next to nothing about Wickins one of the few sources being a brief note written by his son Nicolas Wickins to Robert Smith in 1728.

My Father’s intimacy with him came by mere accident. My Father’s first Chamber-fellow being very disagreeable to him he retired one day into the walks where he found Mr Newton solitary & dejected; Upon entering into discourse they found their cause of Retirement the same &thereupon agreed to shake off their present disorderly Companions & Chum together, which they did as soon as conveniently they could &and so continued as long as my Father stayed at College.[3]

During their time together Wickins functioned as Newton’s amanuensis copying up notes for him and acting as his assistant during alchemical experiments. White can offer no evidence that their relationship was anything other than just roommates but believes there is a smoking gun. He writes:

There is no hard evidence of their relationship being sexual in nature, only speculation surrounding the intensity of their bond as indicated by the absolute and clinical manner of its breaking.[4]

He and Newton separated in 1683 under a cloud and, despite Wickins living for another thirty-six years, the two men never met again.[5]

This is the full extent of White’s evidence and even as it stands it is mighty thin. There is nothing unusual in people who have been friends for long periods of time after they part, for whatever reasons, completely losing contact with each other. Having moved around quite a bit in my life I could quote quite a few examples out of my own life. However White’s argument is further weakened if we turn to Westfall’s account of their relationship.

With John Wickins, the young pensioner he met on a solitary walk in the college, he continued to share a chamber until Wickins resigned his fellowship in 1683 for the vicarage of Stoke Edith. Wickins was frequently absent for extended periods, and during the final five years he was hardly there at all.[6]

This added information doesn’t quite tie in with White’s “intensity of their bond” and “absolute and clinical manner of its breaking”. It appears more likely that their friendship simply drifted apart as many similar friendships do.

Interestingly White doesn’t try to conjure up a homosexual relationship between Newton and Humphrey Newton (a young man from Grantham who was no relation) who following Wickins’ final departure lived in Newton’s chambers for five years functioning as his amanuensis.

With his second piece of evidence White is on much firmer ground and describes a friendship of Newton’s that does appear to have been a love relationship with another man, the young Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier (1664-1753).

Fatio c. 1700 Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia commons

Fatio c. 1700 Artist unknown
Source: Wikimedia commons

Fatio, as he is known, having previously studied with Cassini in Paris and becoming friends with Huygens and Jakob Bernoulli, travelled to London in 1687, where he met many of the leading scholars including John Wallis and was elected a member of the Royal Society. It was probably at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1689, where “Huygens discoursed on light and gravity” that he first met Isaac Newton. “The attraction between the two was instantaneous”[7] There then followed very close intellectual and personal relationship between the two men, well documented in a series of very intimate letters that can, without a very great stretch of the imagination, be described as love letters. This relationship lasted about four years with Newton offering to lend his young friend money and at times entreating him to come and share his chambers with him so that he can care for the health and wellbeing of the young scholar. There is no evidence that their relationship was ever physical but there is little doubt of the affection that it entailed. Was it a homosexual love affair? It seems very likely on the evidence of the correspondence however it could also be explained with a father son relationship; Newton having perhaps seen something of himself in the young Fatio and having adopted him like a mother hen. The tone of some of Newton’s letters would certainly support such an interpretation.

I personally think there was at least a non-physical love relationship between Newton and Fatio and one could be justified in including Newton in the very small number of known homosexual scientists. This of course raises the question included in my title, does it matter? In an ideal world, at least in my vision of one, a scientist’s gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, political opinions or any other personal traits should not play any role whatsoever in how we view their scientific work; however we a very far from living in such an ideal world. People are discriminated because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their religion etc. etc. We even recently had the unappetising spectacle of a self-proclaimed champion of free thought ridiculing Islam because of the lack of Islamic Nobel Prize laureates.

Since a number of years many people, including myself, have been pushing to raise the general awareness of female scientists, both in the history of science and in the current world, as role models to encourage young women to consider science as a possible career and to try to reduce the prejudice against those that do make this their career choice. Whilst female scientists are thin on the ground in the history of science before the twentieth century, homosexual scientists are almost non-existent. In several recent articles in the Internet provoked by the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation, young homosexual scientists have emphasised the importance of Turing as a role model for them when choosing their careers. I feel it would be good if young homosexuals could also point to Newton, often presented as the greatest of all scientists, as a role model when contemplating a career in science.

[1] Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge etc., 1980

[2] Michael White, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, Fourth Estate, London, 1998.

[3] Westfall, p. 74

[4] White, p. 235

[5] White, p. 52

[6] Westfall, p. 194

[7] Westfall, p. 493


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23 responses to “Christmas Trilogy 2014 Part I: Was he or wasn’t he and does it matter?

  1. While I don’t have problems with Newton potentially being homosexual, or of historians’ endeavour to uncover as much of the past as possible, I’m not really sure about the motives behind it. It sound too much like the bickering between the modern states of Germany and Poland over whether Copernicus was German or Polish. It feels like a fight over who has the right to “own” a person (hero?) of the past. Newton might have been homosexual, so now at last modern homosexuals can view him as a model! couldn’t they before? Are heterosexuals no longer allowed to take pride in him anymore? Maybe the history of science (and other histories) should try to focus a bit on trying to get the public to understand that noone can lay claim to the past?

  2. Neeraj Kumar

    Can anyone point out to me who was referenced in the line “We even recently had the unappetising spectacle of a self-proclaimed champion of free thought ridiculing Islam because of the lack of Islamic Nobel Prize laureates.”? I can but guess that it is about Bill Maher.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

      It is the usual unsolicited kicking of Dawkins, at a guess. Never mind that he has never proclaimed himself a champion (what i know of and why would he)? Or that it is an old plaint, that people have written books about. [ ]

      Baffling in the light of that “a scientists gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, political opinions or any other personal traits should not play any role whatsoever in how we view their scientific work;” and the correlation is factual. (So not pointed out because the scientists are muhammedanist, but because the muhammedanist history on science is atrocious). And the off topic kicking marred, for me, an interesting piece on the first modern (as it were) scientist. (Worse, I expect the Happy Holiday to be minimized personal attack and maximized humanist joy. :-/)

      • Jeb

        Wither the toilet seat is left lowered or raised in my house is a simple observational fact that seems to become part of a wider political negotiation.

        Baffling to think that such statements are not viewed in the wider political context of which they certainly are a part and instead justified as some form of empirical whistling in the dark.

        That Rome conquered the west due to its moral might, more complex urban development and technical prowess has long been a simple ‘factual correlation.’

        Such is the ecology of conquest.

  3. jimhexis

    “Homosexual” is a a little bit like “scientist” since both terms are frequently used as if they have an obvious, unchanging meaning. In fact, both scientific and homosexual identities were under construction in the late 17th Century—the Royal Society wasn’t the only club in town—but these roles were very much in flux as they continue to be to this day and whatever else you can say about Newton, he certainly didn’t cut much of a figure as a rake. Of course you can try to avoid anachronism by resorting to operational definitions, i.e., by talking about overt behaviors; but data are certainly lacking for that approach. Anyhow, focusing on who did what to whom is a rather fetishistic methodology that reduces same gender love to same gender sex. That’s why gay writers often complain about it.

    • There is a danger in viewing Newton through 20th Century eyes. Also, translating the Greek word transliterated as arsenokoites into homosexual, ignores the Greek practice that St Paul was fulminating against was actually the dressing up of pre-pubescent boys in women’s clothing and sodomising them, what we would call paedophilia or pederasty. Professor Joan Taylor (KCL) talked about this briefly in her AKC lecture on the Historical Jesus last term, as an example of the danger of ignoring the context in which words were used in the 1st Century.

  4. I also have a couple of problems with this. We appear to be confusing different feelings with each other. C.S.Lewis wrote his Four Loves to explain these. In the past it was quite normal for men to live with another man (and women with another woman) and to have feelings towards each other than sexual. I see no reason for him to be potentially classed as a homosexual.

    I also find this business of role models confusing. This may be because I am race and sex blind (and find sexuality an irrelevance) as far as finding aspects of people suitable to emulate. Diversity has a lot to answer for. To say that an homosexual white male with certain interests needs to seek out another homosexual white male to emulate is just bunkum and it reduces options. Of my role models for science three are women, one a white spinster (although I doubt if she was a lesbian – if she was it would not matter), another a white wife and mother and the third an Indian.

    Off my hobby-horse to wish you a Merry Christmas and thank you for a good blog.

  5. This would seem like the ideal opportunity to ask whether there is a convention for marking ‘anniversaries’ that span the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Given that Newton was born on 25th December, 1642 (OS), should we mark his birthday on Christmas Day (NS), or on 4th January (NS)? Or perhaps he could be like the Queen, and have two birthdays.

    Personally, I’d always go with Christmas Day, but I’m not sure whether I should—nor, indeed, whether it matters.

  6. As far as I know there is no convention, although it is a highly contentious topic. Our colonial cousins across the big pond seem to have completely banned the fact that Newton was born on Christmas Day from their reference books.

    In my case my argumentation is as follows. Newton was born on Christmas Day, which even for a seventeenth-century puritan was something rather special. For all of his eighty-four years he celebrated that birthday on Christmas Day. It seems somehow wrong to me to celebrate his birthday instead on 4 January, even if it’s calendarically correct. Celebrating Newton’s birthday symbolically on Christmas Day it seems to me only consequential to celebrate all other pre-calendar reform birthdays old style (os) on the same date new style (ns).

    I shall be doing this later today with Johannes Kepler who was born 27 December 1571 (os).

  7. Phillip Helbig

    loosing —> losing
    scientists —> scientist’s

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