Many people are accustomed to think that, after the spirit that came into the world with the French Revolution, men were less prone to listen to authority or cling to old-fashioned notions, and that liberalism of mind is to be found written large on many pages of nineteenth century scientific history. One of the great scientists of the first part of the last century was Dr. Thomas Young, to whom we owe so much with regard to the theory of light waves and the existence of the ether to carry them. Men absolutely refused to listen to this idea at all at the beginning, though now it is the groundwork of most of our thinking and of nearly all of our mathematical demonstrations with regard to the movement of light. They not only refused, however, but they expressed their scorn of the man who invented such a cumbrous theory. Dr. George M. Gould, in one of the volumes of his Biographic Clinics, has told the story of Dr. Young’s career, and I prefer to present it in his words rather than my own.
“A practicing physician, Young, as early as 1801, hit upon the true theory of the luminiferous ether, and of light and color, which nearly a century before had been discovered by Robert Hooke. But his scientific contemporaries would not see it, and to avoid persecution and deprivation of practice, Dr. Young was compelled to publish his grand discoveries and papers anonymously. Published finally by the Royal Society (one can imagine the editor’s smile of superior wisdom over such trash), they were as utterly ignored as were those of Mitchell, Thompson and Martin as to eyestrain, two or three generations later. Arago finally championed Dr. Young’s theory in the French Academy, but the leaders, LaPlace, Poissin, Biot, etc., denounced and conquered, and not until 1823 would the Academy allow the publication of Fresnel’s papers on the subject; in about twenty-five years the silencers were themselves silenced. But Young had been silenced too; his disgust was so great that he resigned from the Royal Society, and devoted himself to his poor medical practice and to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
(In which, by the way, as might be expected I suppose, he made a distinguished name for himself.)
James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)