The untold tale of Eliza Youmans, the daring educator in PopSci’s founding family
Often a footnote in PopSci's origin story, our founder's sister amassed a body of work that stands on its own.
The annals of science journalism weren’t always as inclusive as they could 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 has left only a vague 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 hold no 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. During this time, Eliza served as Edward’s amanuensis, reading to and writing for him as he studied the sciences. Though he’d eventually recover enough sight to read and recognize friends at a close distance, he’d remain severely visually impaired for the rest of his life.
Because of this, even as he pursued a prolific career as a lecturer and editor, Edward would not go it alone. Nineteenth-century society had little support in place for people with visual impairments, so a small group of confidants assisted Edward in his endeavors—including his wife Kitty and brother William Jay.
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. It’s a question that PopSci editors have batted about for years. But, while a woman-behind-the-man narrative is certainly tempting (and perfectly plausible), in this case it’s a presumption that’s also fundamentally flawed.
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.
Knowing only the broad strokes of the story, either narrative could be true. Even I, the editor currently closest to Popular Science and its legacy, was torn. As only the second female editor-in-chief of the brand, I felt pulled towards Team Eliza. But, as a person with a severe visual impairment, I was also Team Edward. I equally wanted both to be the protagonist 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 unwove an intellectual partnership where each party defied assumptions about their capabilities. Eliza advanced her own education while helping her brother complete his, but she also amassed a body of work in the study of botany and in early childhood education that stands on its own.
Edward was the eldest of seven children of Vincent Youmans, a farmer and mechanic, and Catherine Scofield, a former school teacher, who made their family home in Saratoga County, NY. Eliza was their only daughter. As the firstborn, Edward helped his mother tend his siblings, which, in his case, meant introducing them to literature. “He was an amusing and entertaining companion,” Eliza recounted to biographer John Fiske, “full of interesting explanations, kindly warnings, merry stories, and lively songs. I think he kept us in tolerable order.” Edward devoured the classics, and loaned Eliza the first book she ever read from cover to cover, a Revolutionary War romance called Alonzo and Melissa that he himself 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 end his own studies at a local preparatory academy.
For comfort, his brothers and sister began reading to him. They showed interest in the subjects that attracted his attention, which by this point had shifted from literature to the sciences, and borrowed books from the small library of a family friend. However, “when all other means of diversion failed to relieve the gloom that settled so deep and thick over poor Edward,” Fiske wrote, Eliza would fall back on Don Quixote.
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. Eventually, he came into the care of a doctor named Samuel Elliot and, over several weeks, began to show improvement. He was soon able to find his way around the city and had developed keen senses of touch and hearing, as well as a robust memory.
Though even a simple cold would still trigger relapses, as his sight improved, Edward was able to take on odd writing jobs to sustain himself. He devised a machine that fed paper through a roller to hold it steady, while a bar guided his pen in straight lines. The contraption gave his script the sharp jagged look he would become known for.
From time to time, he returned home to Saratoga laden with books for Eliza to read to him. They’d explore subjects from botany to astronomy, but the pair struggled to decipher chemistry. Eliza eventually enrolled in a course in the summer of 1843 and recounted her lessons to him. Progress was, at times, slow. “Edward would never pass a definition or term he didn’t not understand,” wrote Fiske, so the pair frequently paused to consult reference books.
In 1846 Edward’s sight failed him almost entirely. He sent for Eliza to join him in New York and aid him in ongoing literary projects, the first of which was to be an exhaustive history of humankind’s discoveries and inventions. The siblings began the task of compiling sources. They visited libraries and bookstores throughout the city, including, fatefully, the shop of D. Appleton & Co., the house that would eventually publish both their works and The Popular Science Monthly. Progress on the review of discoveries and inventions abruptly halted when someone else published a similar tome. A book on arithmetic met the same fate.
Eliza found work as a teacher, and after a years-long search for a school in the city that would admit women, began studying chemistry in a lab on Saturdays. Teaching left her ample time to serve as Edward’s amanuensis, and she’d explain her lab experiments to him in the evenings.
In the course of these second-hand lessons, it occurred to Edward that many students learned chemistry as he had: by rote memorization instead of observation and experimentation. Thinking about reactions in the abstract—about the interactions between miniscule atoms and molecules—made the concepts hard to grasp. Students, Edward realized, were no better off than he was. So he devised a means to help them visualize chemistry. The resulting “Chemical Chart” presents itself as a rudimentary infographic, with elements represented by different blocks of color and common compounds like salts and minerals made up of mixtures of those blocks.
Teachers quickly adopted the chart, and many requested Edward pen a textbook to accompany 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.
With success also came renewed health. Edward’s vision improved, and he began work as a traveling lecturer, giving talks across the country on topics like the chemistry of the sun and the impact of alcohol on the body. He wrote to Eliza frequently from the road, often asking for her help sketching out ideas and preparing new material. But even with all the planning, he would ad-lib his talks, presumably to avoid reading on stage. Eliza once tried writing out a script in large letters for him to recite, but it didn’t land with those who were accustomed to his off-the-cuff style. “He could speak to the general public in a convincing and stimulating way that had no parallel,” wrote Fiske.
While Edward’s vision remained greatly improved for the rest of his life, Fiske notes that “an incapacity for enduring protracted desk work made a coadjutor necessary for him.” In time, others would take up Eliza’s day-to-day place in Edward’s 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, meanwhile, returned home to Saratoga where she pursued her own research into a new approach to childhood education.
Details of her work during this period exist only in scant references in faded letters between her, Edward, and Kitty. She met with an Upstate New York doctor she refers to as Wilbur—who we can only assume was Hervey B. Wilbur, the founder of a school for disabled children in Syracuse. “He has much practical knowledge of childhood and the various processes of infant development,” she wrote. Parsing her letters points to dual goals for these visits: first, to build an understanding of what teachers need in terms of training; second, to form a case for banishing textbooks from classrooms in favor of more tactile lessons.
Her pursuits, however, were often interrupted by ill health. Letters between siblings and parents often mention her weakened state, though they never reveal a diagnosis. She’s often cast as tired, slow-moving, and depressed, and refers to her own “biliousness”—an old-timey catchall for digestive issues, from stomach pains to extreme flatulence. One might say Eliza was plagued by a delicate 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. On that journey, the trio visited the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. “Eliza had to travel slowly over the extensive grounds,” Edward wrote to their brother William Jay. There, they met George Henslow, who taught at a local grammar school and was the son of John Henslow, a professor of botany at the University of Cambridge.
In the Henslows, Eliza found kindred spirits. Before his death, John had pursued popularizing botany in grammar schools, and developed educational tools for the discipline. Eliza began studying with George, and remained in London after Edward and Kitty returned home. “If her strength holds out, she will probably Americanize Henslow’s method and reproduce his text-book,” Edward wrote. (Her US adaptation published in 1873).
Eliza’s educational mission, however, extended beyond flora. She believed that the practice of studying and classifying plants was a means to teach students skills relating to analysis, reasoning, and vocabulary. She wanted botany added to the primary branches of education alongside reading, writing, and math—efforts that Edward supported. “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 argued that children were better able to learn by studying objects and putting them into categories, rather than just memorizing their names. A little one’s ability to identify both cake and fruit as “sweet,” for example, speaks to a natural instinct to classify objects. Plants offered Eliza an ideal avenue to put this idea to the test: They boasted endless detail, varying structure, and ample opportunities for comparison and examination.
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. (If you’ve ever heard the phrase “an object lesson,” this is what that’s a reference to.)
In her own time, Eliza even saw windows to apply 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 zeal for surfacing and celebrating the science woven into every facet of life, Eliza and Edward remained irrevocably aligned 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.
After composing her brother’s epitaph, Eliza only wrote one more article for the magazine, and, beyond that, her story fades once more. 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.”