The untold tale of Eliza Youmans, the daring educator in PopSci’s founding family
The annals of science journalism were not always as inclusive as they should have been. So PopSci is working to correct the record with In Hindsight, a series profiling some of the figures whose contributions we missed. Read their stories and explore the rest of our 150th anniversary coverage here.
History left with a sketch of Eliza Ann Youmans. A February 1889 passport application paints her, at age 62, as an average-height woman with graying hair, black eyes, a wide mouth, medium forehead and chin, and a light, sallow complexion. Public records do not contain any photos of her. Even most written references to Eliza focus on her brother, Edward Livingston Youmans, who founded Popular Science (as The Popular Science Monthly) in 1872.
The two of them were something of a package deal: At the age of 13, Edward began suffering from bouts of ophthalmia–an inflammation of the eyes which doctors would now diagnose as conjunctivitis–that caused near-total blindness within a few years. Eliza was Edward’s amanuensis during this period, reading and writing for him while he studied the sciences. Although he would eventually be able to read and recognize his friends from a distance, he would remain severely blind for the rest of their lives.
Because of this, Edward was not able to pursue a successful career as a lecturer or editor on his own. Edward was supported by a small group, including Kitty Jay and William Jay, who were visual impaired in the nineteenth century.
Despite his cadre of collaborators, Eliza’s particularly robust role in Edward’s early work, including the publication of his first educational tome, 1852’s A Class-book of Chemistry, has spurred speculation that hers was the mind that forged our 150-year-old brand. This is a question PopSci editors have been wrestling with for years. While a woman-behind the man narrative is certainly appealing (and perfectly plausible), it’s fundamentally flawed in this instance.
To conclude that Eliza was the beating heart of PopSci–hinting that she carried more weight than she got credit for because her brother was a person with a disability–is as reductive as the assumption that a woman in the 19th century couldn’t possibly have been more than a secretary.
Each narrative could be true if we only know the main points of the story. Even I, who was the editor closest to Popular Science and its legacy was torn. As the brand’s second female editor-in chief, I felt drawn towards Team Eliza. But, as a person with a severe visual impairment, I was also Team Edward. Both of us wanted to be the protagonists in the Popular Science story.
As I dug into their writings and letters–many of which were transcribed in an 1894 biography of Edward, while others remained in their original 19th century scrawl at the New-York Historical Society–I found something far from a one-sided tale. Instead, I discovered an intellectual partnership in which each party challenged assumptions about their abilities. Eliza helped her brother finish his education, and she also developed her own education. However, she also accumulated a substantial body of work in botany and early childhood education that is unique.
Edward, the oldest child of seven children, was born to Vincent Youmans (a farmer and mechanic) and Catherine Scofield (a former school teacher) who made Saratoga County, NY their home. Eliza was their only child. Edward was the firstborn and helped his mother care for his siblings. This meant that he introduced his siblings to literature. Eliza told John Fiske that Edward was an amusing and entertaining friend. “He was full of interesting explanations and kindly warnings. He also shared merry stories and songs.” He kept us in a tolerable order,” I believe. Edward devoured the classics and loaned Eliza the very first book she read, a Revolutionary War romance called Alonzo, and Melissa , which he had borrowed from a Black farm worker.
In the winter of 1833 to 1834, an illness swept through the family, inflaming Edward’s eyes. In the years following, he experienced repeated relapses until, in 1839, he lost sight entirely after a series of failed treatments with an oculist in Upstate New York. Edward was forced to stop his own studies at a preparatory school.
His siblings and sister started reading to him for comfort. They began to take an interest in the subjects that drew his attention. His focus had shifted to literature and sciences by this time. They borrowed books from a friend’s small library. Fiske wrote that Eliza would turn to Don Quixote when all other methods of distraction failed to alleviate the gloom over Edward.
With no improvement in his vision, Edward hitched a ride with a neighbor to New York City in 1840 in search of a better oculist. He was eventually referred to Samuel Elliot, who saw him over several weeks. He soon learned to navigate the city, and he had sharp senses of touch and hearing. He also developed a strong memory.
Edward was able to work odd jobs as a writer to help him sustain his sight. Even though he had a cold, he was still prone to relapses. He devised a machine that fed paper through a roller to hold it steady, while a bar guided his pen in straight lines. This contraption gave his script that sharp, jagged look for which he would be famous.
He brought books with him to Saratoga from time to time. They explored subjects from botany and astronomy, but they couldn’t understand chemistry. Eliza eventually enrolled in a course in the summer of 1843 and recounted her lessons to him. Sometimes progress was slow. Fiske wrote that Edward would never understand a term or definition. Therefore, the pair often paused to consult reference books.
In 1846 Edward’s sight failed him almost entirely. Eliza was invited to New York to assist him in ongoing literary projects. The first was an exhaustive history of humankind’s inventions and discoveries. The siblings set about compiling the sources. They visited libraries and bookstores around the city, including D. Appleton & Co. which would eventually publish their works and The Popular Science Monthly HTML1. The publication of a similar book caused a halt to progress in the review of inventions and discoveries. The same fate was dealt to a book on arithmetic.
Eliza got a job as a teacher after a long search for a school that would accept women. She began studying chemistry in a Saturday lab. She was able to spend her evenings explaining her lab experiments to Edward, as she had plenty of time to teach.
During these second-hand lessons Edward realized that many students had learned chemistry the same way he did: through rote memorization rather than observation and experimentation. It was difficult to grasp concepts when you think about abstract reactions, such as the interactions between tiny atoms and molecules. Edward realized that students were not as well off as he was. Edward devised a way to help students visualize chemistry. The “Chemical Chart” is a basic infographic that shows elements represented by blocks of color and common compounds such as salts and minerals.
Teachers quickly adopted this chart and requested that Edward write a textbook to go with it. His Class-book of Chemistry, published in 1852, sold 144,000 copies by 1887 and was swiftly followed by the Chemical Atlas in 1854, which expanded the visualization schema Edward had developed in his mind’s eye to basic concepts like combustion and fermentation.
Success brings you renewed health. Edward’s vision improved and he started to travel as a lecturer. He gave talks all over the country about topics such as the chemistry and effects of alcohol on the human body. Eliza was often contacted by Edward while he was on the road, asking for her assistance in preparing new material and sketching ideas. He would sometimes improvise his talks to save having to read them on stage, even though he was meticulous about planning. Eliza tried to write a script in large letters that he could recite but it didn’t work with people who were used to his off-the-cuff style. Fiske wrote that Eliza could communicate with the general public in a persuasive and stimulating manner that was unmatched.
While Edward’s vision was greatly improved throughout his life, Fiske says that Edward needed a coadjutor to help him. In time, other people would take over Eliza’s daily work. In 1861, he married Katherine (Kitty) Lee, who became his constant companion and helped manage his correspondences. William Jay meanwhile earned an M.D., which, by design, would help in his future collaborations with his oldest brother, including the founding of Popular Science in 1872.
Edward and Kitty embarked on a series of trips to Europe, where he’d meet many of the era’s scientific thinkers, including biologist Thomas Huxley and physicist John Tyndall, secure their works for publication in the US, and build the network of PopSci‘s earliest expert contributors. Eliza returned to Saratoga to continue her research into a new approach for childhood education.
Details of her work during that period are only available in scanty references in faded letters between Edward and Kitty. She met Wilbur, an Upstate New York doctor whom she refers to as Wilbur. We can only guess that Wilbur was Hervey B. Wilbur who founded a school for children with disabilities in Syracuse. She wrote that “he has much practical knowledge about childhood and the various processes involved in infant development.” Her letters reveal two goals for these visits. First, to understand what teachers need to be trained; second, to argue for the removal of textbooks from classrooms and for more tactile lessons.
Her pursuits were often halted by her ill health. Although her condition is often mentioned in letters between siblings and parents, they do not reveal the diagnosis. She is often described as slow-moving, tired, and depressed. This refers to her “biliousness”, an old-timey catchall term for digestive problems, from stomach pains and extreme flatulence. One could say Eliza suffered from a fragile constitution.
Despite her ailments–whatever they may have been–she was able to join Edward and Kitty on their second trip to Europe in 1865. The trio visited London’s Royal Botanic Gardens on their journey. Edward wrote to William Jay, “Eliza had the to travel slowly over large grounds.” They met George Henslow at the local grammar school. He was the son of John Henslow who was a professor of botany from the University of Cambridge.
Eliza found friends in the Henslows. John had been active in popularizing botany at grammar schools and had developed educational tools to help with the discipline before his death. George taught Eliza, and she stayed in London even after Edward and Kitty returned to England. Edward wrote that Eliza would probably Americanize Henslow’s method and copy his text-book if she is strong enough. (Her US adaptation published in 1873).
Eliza was not only interested in flora, but also had an educational mission. She believed that the study and classification of plants was a way to teach students skills in analysis, reasoning, vocabulary, and logic. Edward agreed with her desire to include botany in the primary branches of education, along with reading, writing, math. “There rests no doubt in my mind that it is a very big thing educationally, and that the public is quite ripe for it,” he wrote to his sister in 1868.
In 1870, Eliza laid out these ideas in the The First Book of Botany, a textbook that put forth a system that both taught students to classify plants and imparted a new way of thinking. She believed that children learn better when they study objects and put them in categories. It is a sign of a child’s natural ability to classify objects, such as the ability to identify cake and fruit as “sweet” when they are young. Eliza had an ideal platform to test this idea: Plants provided endless detail, varied structure, and ample opportunities to compare and examine.
Her works, which include 1873’s Second Book of Botany, cast the approach as a salve for “carelessness in observation, looseness in the application of words, hasty inferences from partial data, and lack of method in the contents of the mind.” And she did succeed in spurring a change in the conversation about the ideal methods for educating young children. “Hers was one of the first books which pursued object teaching as the true method,” commented Louisa Parsons Hopkins, an educational theorist, in an 1893 collection of essays. The ideas spread in popularity in late 19th-century pedagogy; today, teachers continue to tap the technique in early elementary education. This is what you refer to if you’ve ever heard the expression “an object lesson”. )
Eliza saw opportunities to use similar approaches in adult education. In her 1879 American adaptation of Lessons in Cookery, the handbook of the national culinary school in London where she studied for several weeks, she casts recipes as something beyond foodstuffs: “each receipt [sic] in the volume is not only the formula for a dish, but it is also a lesson in a practical process, so that in the preparation of every article of food something is gained towards greater proficiency in the art of cooking well.”
Her commitment to that line of thought also manifests in her contributions to Popular Science, which total 13 between 1875 and 1894. In March 1876, for example, she penned a treatise on the science and history of lace, teasing out the intricate knotwork as akin to complex networks and patterns and recounting the mechanical innovations necessary to achieve such work.
In their passion for science and celebrating it in every aspect of life, Eliza was unassisted until the end. In the early 1880s, Edward contracted severe pneumonia, and frequent relapses left his lungs irreparably damaged. He died at the age of 65 in 1887.
Eliza only wrote one article for the magazine after she had written her brother’s epitaph. After that, her story is over. Census records from 1900 and 1910 find her at a home in Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. In 1914, she died of pneumonia at the age of 87 at the Minnesota home of her brother Addison Beckwith Youmans, where, according to her obituary, she’d relocated to “pass the remainder of her days…once more among her kindred.”