Turning Ill-Fortune Into Good Fortune: The Story Of Peter Mark Roget

I am almost finished with listening to the audiobook of Joshua Kendall’s The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus.  Kendall’s book is a biography of Peter Mark Roget, the British scholar-magus who created the classic reference work Roget’s Thesaurus.  Here again it is proved that often the most inspiring stories can lie hidden in the most unlikely places.  I knew absolutely nothing about Roget before hearing this book, but was taught a lesson in how misfortune can be turned to our advantage, if the right approaches are taken.  It is a theme I’ve written about often, and one that continues to hold my fascination.

Roget was a man plagued by depression, anxiety, and family problems.  He was born in London in 1779 of French ancestry to a family that had had a history of mental illness and insanity.  His father died when he was young.  A shy, introverted boy, he found that his anxieties were best soothed by the compilation of lists on nearly everything:  animals, words, science, mathematics, grammar, and languages.  In an age before our modern practices of medicating children on nearly any pretext, the young Roget found scholarly activity to be a curative tonic for his frequently dark moods.

Roget’s primary interests were in science and medicine, surprisingly, and he enrolled in the University of Edinburgh, from which he graduated in 1798.  He was not particularly suited to the practice of clinical medicine; while possessing good social skills, he found his interests inclining more to solitary endeavors than to the daily meeting and treating of patients.  Mental illness ran in the family:  Roget’s mother battled with depression all her life, and eventually lost her mental faculties completely.

One horrific incident severely traumatized him:  the suicide of his uncle Samuel Romilly, a noted British legal scholar, to whom Roget was very much attached.  In 1818, Romilly’s wife died, and he was seized by an uncontrollable grief.  In Roget’s presence, he slashed his throat with a razor.  He bled to death in Roget’s arms, despite his frantic attempts to save him.  One can only imagine the cumulative weight that this experience would have had on the impressionable young man.  For someone who already had his own depression issues, the shock of this incident cannot be overstated.  Roget never spoke of it thereafter.

Roget actually had a successful career in science and medicine.  He most notably invented the log-log slide rule in 1818, and participated actively in the intellectual societies of his day.  He performed researches on nitrous oxide (an amusing account of which is found in the book) and on the treatment of tuberculosis.

For many years throughout the duration of his medical practice–and at least since 1805–Roget continued to work on his magnum opus, a “thesaurus” that would arrange words by common definition.  He was not the first to undertake such a project.  But his predecessors, such as they were, never conceived a work with the type of vision and expanse that Roget was planning.  Roget himself was an exhaustive reader, consuming nearly all the monuments of English literature as well those of the classical canon.

He was able to devote himself full-time to the thesaurus project after 1840.  His original conception of the book apparently was for it to be a personal tool for himself only; he never contemplated a general publication.  This seems to have changed as the years passed, and as the manuscript grew more impressive.  The first edition of his work appeared in 1852, and was entitled Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition.  The book was an instant success, and went through over two dozen printings in his lifetime.  After his death, the book was revised and enlarged by his son and grandson.  It has never been  out of print.


What emerges from Kendall’s biography is Roget’s ability to shut out the anguish and despair of his family life, and the depressive tendencies that he inherited from his parents, and instead focus single-mindedly on his projects.  For him, work was not so much a burden, but a way to find relief from the demons that always threatened to assail him.  To stay ahead of them, Roget was able to channel his energies into productive work.

One is struck by the incredible tenacity and willpower it must have taken for Roget to remain grounded and stable in the midst of so much family and personal tragedy.  It is not uncommon for men of great achievement to be haunted by personal demons, and Roget was no exception.  His maternal grandmother was chronically unstable; his mother disintegrated mentally after Roget attended medical school; and his sister and daughter both suffered breakdowns of varying intensity.  Under these circumstances, it is incredible that Roget was able simply to function, let alone achieve greatness as both a man of science and letters.

He was, of course, not perfect.  He displayed what would today be called obsessive-compulsive tendencies:  list-making, neurotic counting of unimportant things, and an inability to stop working.  But such behaviors are simply a troubled mind’s way of trying to impose order on the world.  It was Roget’s way of coping with terrible things that were beyond his control.

He surprised himself and nearly everyone else by dying in 1869 at the age of 90.  His place in the history of English lexicography is assured.  We must also respect him for what he has to teach us about focus, drive, and purpose in the face of overwhelming tragedy.  If we must grieve–and we all must–then let us do it in ways that help banish darkness.  When we are beset by ill-fortune, we must find ways to make something good come from it.  Men of substance and character do not wallow in self-pity, but fortify themselves for the roads that lie ahead.

I had never owned a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.  Last week I visited a bookstore, and bought one.

And is there anything more inspiring than this:  the figure of a lone, determined man, burdened with misfortunes, refusing to indulge himself in self-pity and negativity, and persisting, for many decades, in a task that would eventually bring order to a language and renown to himself?

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