The term “polymath” refers to an individual who excels in multiple fields of study. Be it in botany and biology, philosophy and poetry, or diplomacy and dermatology, polymaths tend to loom large owing to the astonishing volume and variety of their intellectual achievements. These six well-versed individuals have left indelible marks on the pages of history.
Hypatia of Alexandria
Hypatia of Alexandria was a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. Born between 350 and 370 CE in Alexandria (then part of the Byzantine Empire), she is the first female mathematician in history whose life and studies are well documented.
Hypatia edited part of Ptolemy’s Almagest, a book on the movement of stars and planets that established the geocentric model of the universe. She also wrote a commentary on Diophantus’ Arithmetica, a collection of 130 algebraic problems and their solutions, and one on Apollonius of Perga’s geometric work. She knew how to construct plane astrolabes and hydrometers, devices used to calculate time and dates and the relative density of liquids.
However, Hypatia is mainly known for her work as a teacher of philosophy. As the daughter of Theon, head of a Neoplatonist school, Hypatia interpreted the works of Plato and Aristotle for students from the empire over. Many of her students were early Christians, and appreciated her tolerant viewpoint.
However, Hypatia’s life was tragically cut short in 415 CE, when she was attacked by a mob of Christians. Her contemporary, historian Socrates Scholasticus, proposed a political motive: Hypatia was a rival to the bishop Cyril, who was vying for the approval of a Roman prefect—Hypatia’s friend Orestes.
Even after Hypatia’s death, Neoplatonist philosophy persisted. Much of her work survives to this day, and her editing of and commentary on the works of Ptolemy, Diophantus, and Apollonius were instrumental in ensuring the survival of those works.
Jagadish Chandra Bose
Jagadish Chandra Bose is known as the father of Bengali science fiction; his Abyakta, a collection of short stories, was published in 1921. However, his experience with the sciences was not limited to fantasy. Bose himself made great advances in botany, biology, and physics.
Born in British-occupied Bangladesh in 1858, Bose would go on to study at St. Xavier’s College in Kolkata. He then moved to England, studying medicine at the University of London, but had to drop out owing to poor health.
Bose later began researching the emerging field of radio at Cambridge. Although he was primarily interested in observing it as a natural phenomenon, he did take note of its potential to be used for long-range communication.
With his own invention, the crescograph, Bose was able to observe the effects of various stimuli on plant growth, and to demonstrate that the plants’ response was of an electrical nature (not chemical, as had been previously thought).
Due to racism, Bose was undervalued while working as a professor; his European fellows were paid significantly more than professors of Indian and Bengali origin. However, his achievements have been retroactively recognized, and his role in preempting radio communications and pioneering biophysics is now acknowledged. The Bose Institute, which he established in 1917, is one of the foremost public research institutes in India today.
Shen Kuo was an extremely prolific Song Dynasty scholar and statesman who made contributions to over 30 different fields of study. Born in 1031 in Qiantang, China, Shen passed the Imperial Examinations with flying colors and was on the fast track to an illustrious career under Emperor Shenzong. Among other positions, he served as a financial administrator, ambassador, and chancellor of the Hanlin Academy (a higher learning school in Chang’an).
As the head of the Bureau of Astronomy, Shen began working on creating an accurate calendar based on his own observations. He found the tools provided to be inadequate, and developed improved versions. Shen corrected an earlier calculation of the position of the pole star, and offered theories to explain the phases of the moon and variations in planetary motion.
In 1080, Shen was made a military commander. His defense of the Yanzhou District was so successful it caught the attention of the emperor, who wrote 273 letters to him. However, Shen butted heads with an officer who disobeyed his strategic advice. The officer’s forces were defeated, with some estimates claiming as many as 60,000 died. A chancellor blamed Shen for the crushing blow and kicked him out of court, placing him under probation.
Shen regained the emperor’s favor after creating two extensive atlases of Chinese territory. He was pardoned, and allowed to retire to his own residence. It was there that he wrote his masterwork Dream Pool Essays, a collection of writings on various topics ranging from botany to fashion to UFOs. Shen’s careful documentation of the invention of drydocks, early use of the magnetic compass for navigation, and tornadoes in China have proved an invaluable tool for historians.
Mikhail Lomonosov was born in 1711 to a wealthy family in the Russian village of Mishaninskaya—now named Lomonosovo after him. His father wanted him to take over the shipping business, but young Mikhail loved to learn and was constantly reading. At the age of 19, he walked to Moscow, where he gained admission to the Slavic Greek Latin Academy by pretending to be of noble birth. He took an interest in what would later become known as geology, studying mining, minerals, and metallurgy in addition to German literature.
Lomonosov disproved the popular phlogiston theory, which held that combustible material contained fire-like particles. He theorized that matter was composed of atoms, and approached a theory of light as a wave. He was also able to discover and catalog the atmosphere of Venus in 1761.
However, his greatest achievement was in the field of geology. He demonstrated the organic origin of soil, coal, and petroleum, and in 1745 published a catalog of over 3,000 different minerals.
Lomonosov was a highly influential scientist whose ideas were well ahead of his time, but he was also a poet. His writings helped establish modern literary Russian by combining Old Church Slavonic with the modern vernacular.
Pursuant to his wish to improve the educational system in Russia, Lomonosov founded the Lomonosov State University of Moscow, which still bears his name.
Born in London in 1861, Edward Heron-Allen was a polymathic personality mostly known for his translation of fellow polymath Omar Khayyam’s quatrains from Persian to English. Heron-Allen could also speak Turkish, as well as the Luri language of Southwestern Iran.
Heron-Allen was also a prolific writer himself, having written a number of books on a broad variety of subjects. His friendship with luthier Georges Chanot III inspired him to pen Violin-Making, As It Was and Is, which was still read today, over 100 years after its 1884 publication. His science fiction and horror novels are some of the earliest examples of their respective genres. He was also apparently something of a foodie, as much of his writing deals with the cultivation and cooking of the asparagus.
As an expert on palm reading, Heron-Allen was often called upon to give talks on the art, and to read palms for the rich and famous. He cast horoscopes for Cyril Wilde, the son of author Oscar Wilde.
Heron-Allen’s studies on chalk foraminifera, a type of single-cell organism, are still on display at London’s Natural History Museum. They reside in a library of books written and donated by Heron-Allen himself, which also bears his name.
Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen, born in 1098 in the Holy Roman Empire, reported that she began receiving divine visions at the age of 3. Perhaps as a result of this, her family offered her as a nun to a Benedictine monastery by the age of 14, where she learned how to read and write, tended the garden, and helped the sick. Her visions continued all throughout her life, but it was not until the age of 43 that she began to document them.
Hildegard completed three works of visionary theology, documenting the “egg-like” structure of the universe and God’s relationship to people. Her foremost work, Scivias, includes 35 evocative illustrations.
Hildegard is also known for her musical work, having composed at least 73 original works of music with her own poetic text. She wrote a musical morality play, Ordo Virtuum, in which vices and virtues are personified.
Also notable is Hildegard’s medical writing. Physica is a catalog of scientific, practical, and medicinal properties of plants, stones, and animals; Causa et Curae explains causes and cures for various diseases.
Hildegard’s focus on holistic remedies has been highly influential on New Age healing movements. Her writing is also of interest to modern feminist scholars, who have commented on how the legitimacy she earned from her divine visions allowed her to break from social and academic restrictions on women of her time. After several failed attempts, Hildegard was officially canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, and he also named her a Doctor of the Church.