16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton

Larry Holzwarth - September 21, 2018

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton’s manual dexterity allowed him to build the first reflecting microscope with his own hands. Wikimedia

10. The argument that Newton did not have Asperger’s syndrome

Isaac Newton was small and slightly built as a child, a target for bullying, without the support of parents or siblings. In one of his early notebooks, he wrote of his determination to be the best student in school, the King’s School at Grantham (which remains in operation as of 2018). As with many slight and scholarly boys, he was subject to being ostracized, teased, and bullied, which was the impetus for his being determined to outperform the other boys in schoolwork. No doubt his imperious and dominating nature also contributed to his lack of social acceptance. But there is another possible explanation rather than Aspergers, or some other form of developmental disorder.

Isaac Newton was a stutterer, an affliction with which he struggled for most of his life, which readily explains his lifelong avoidance of social conversation. Even as a Member of Parliament later in life, he avoided public speaking. The affliction could also explain his reluctance to tutor students while holding the Lucasian mathematics chair at Trinity College. His later expressed overreactions to criticism may have been because of an increased embarrassment over his stuttering. Another argument against Asperger’s syndrome was his deft use of his hands; as a student he designed and built working models of windmills and other machinery, demonstrating hand-eye coordination and the proper use of tools, self-taught.

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
Although many of his contemporaries described Newton as a difficult person to deal with, he was respected by Voltaire, who attended his funeral. Wikimedia

11. He was described as having a difficult personality by his contemporaries

One of the arguments put forth to support the theory that Isaac Newton suffered from what is now known as bipolar disorder is the difficult nature of his personality. Newton’s contemporaries, both friend and foe, described him in less than flattering terms when discussing his social skills. “The most fearful, cautious, and suspicious temper, than I ever knew,” wrote William Whiston, who served as Newton’s deputy in 1701, when Newton held the Lucasian Mathematics chair at Trinity College. Whiston also performed the majority of the duties associated with the position, which Newton turned into a sinecure, not tutoring students or concentrating on the performance of the students in the department. His personality wouldn’t allow him to teach.

When Newton attained his status as a Master of Arts and Major Fellow at Trinity College he began receiving a small stipend from the college, and continued to receive annual support from his mother, which he used beginning in early 1668 to refurbish his rooms. After the college itself took care of the heavy construction Newton had the interior redone to his taste, and went on a spending spree, purchasing carpets, leather chairs, ten additional chairs, several tables and desks, chests, a sofa, glasses, table linens, and a new bed. The spending on his refurbished home has been described by those supporting the theory of bipolar disorder as being symptomatic of a manic phase.

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
King’s School, Grantham, where Newton’s eccentricities were first noted by peers, is still in operation today. Wikimedia

12. Newton’s concentration was such that he often forgot to eat and sleep

Newton demonstrated powers of concentration which served to make him in many ways the prototype of the “absent-minded professor” of later ages. He often breakfasted on the cold dishes which had been set out for him as his supper the night before, having been so deep in thought throughout the night that he forgot to either eat or sleep. Late in life, he told his half-niece that during his days at Cambridge his cat had become fat through eating the meals which sat on his side table as he worked on some problem or another, unnoticed by him. On being reminded of his meal sitting unattended, he would often take one or two bites of the repast while standing, before being drawn away again by whatever was occupying his attention, according to his secretary at Cambridge.

John Locke, who like Newton was a Fellow of the Royal Society, once wrote that though he considered Newton a friend, he was concerned that he was difficult at times to deal with, “and a little too apt to raise in himself suspicions where there is no ground”. This and similar observations by contemporaries and later biographers led to Newton being described as withdrawn and forgetful due to a disturbed mind, afraid to engage in social activity because of a suspicious and paranoid personality. His fears of criticism led to his delays in publishing much of his work until they were overridden by the fear that another would receive the credit for his discoveries. At his death, much of his work remained unpublished.

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
British astronomer John Flamsteed believed Newton did not acknowledge the contributions of others in his work, and felt the sting of the physicists’ anger. Wikimedia

13. Newton answered criticism with acrimony as much as he did with reason

When Newton’s thoughts and discoveries on the nature of light were published he received criticism on both his theories and his lack of acknowledging the contributions of others on which he had relied to form his conclusions. The failure to acknowledge contributions from others was a frequent accusation directed at Newton throughout his career. When John Flamsteed, an English astronomer whose work had been used by Newton while forming his postulations on gravity, complained that Newton had failed to properly cite his contributions it started a long quarrel between the two scientists. Flamsteed complained in writing to another member of the Royal Society.

Flamsteed’s complaint was that Newton, in arriving at his conclusions over gravity, had “used the ore he had dug”. Newton responded with a comment along the lines of if Flamsteed had dug the ore it was he (Newton) who had formed the useless rock into a gold ring. Still, the comments must have stung Newton, for he began to exhibit an aversion to publishing his work, despite his promises to support the Royal Society by diligently doing so as regularly as possible. Newton once wrote to Leibniz of his hesitation to publish (before their quarrel), “…I conceive myself to have discovered the surest of explanations, but I refrain from publishing books for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.” Newton was referring to his discoveries of the properties of light.

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
Although Newton enjoyed neither theatre nor poetry, he did keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his personal library. Wikimedia

14. Newton was undistracted by the arts

Isaac Newton acquired a library of 1,896 books by the time of his death, none of which were the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, or William Shakespeare, though copies of two of the latter’s works, Hamlet and The Tempest, were in his collection. He did own copies of epic poems by John Milton, but referred to poetry itself as “ingenious nonsense”. According to William Stukeley, Newton once admitted to attending an opera, and said of it, “The first act I heard with pleasure, the second stretched my patience, at the third I ran away”. Once when listening to a harpsichord being played by Handel, Newton had no comment about the music. Instead, he observed the mechanics of the musician’s hands as he played.

Perhaps because of his avoidance of the arts Newton’s interactions with peers were curtailed. He was unable to join in the discussions in drawing rooms and parlors of the latest book, the latest play, the latest composition because he had not read, seen, or heard them. Already inexperienced in the social grace of conversation, his lack of knowledge would have made him appear uninformed and possibly even ill-bred in that time of class distinctions. In his publications, and even in his private letters Newton’s writing was spare in its use of adjectives and other tools of the writer. Newton’s indifference to the arts did not extend to landscaped gardens, one of which he meticulously kept while at Cambridge.

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
Newton’s earliest biographers mentioned his use of popular nostrums of his day, leading to speculation that he was a hypochondriac. Wikimedia

15. Newton has been described as being a hypochondriac

Isaac Newton, other than the period in which he suffered a breakdown during his alchemy experiments, lived a long and relatively healthy life, with few periods of sickness noted in his letters and those of his contemporaries. Yet he was described by many supporting the idea of mental health issues affecting him as suffering from hypochondria. The accusations are based on Newton’s alchemy experiments, in which he also mixed various medicinal potions along with his search for the elixir of life, and his reliance on a balm of the day known as Lucatello’s Balsome, which promised relief for many ailments, including measles, dog bite, and the illness for which Newton allegedly took it, consumption.

Newton did write of being confined to his, “Chamber by a cold” at one juncture, though he was about his business again within a week and it would be improbable that during such a long life he would not have suffered many colds, especially given the knowledge of medicine and contagion at the time. The use of such balms and nostrums was commonplace during Newton’s lifetime. If Newton did believe that he had consumption there are no records of his consulting a physician for relief, nor of him participating in the taking of healthful waters then believed to relieve the condition.

16 Examples of the Madness of Sir Isaac Newton
Newton preferred his own company to that of others, even to the end of his long and productive life. Wikimedia

16. He was a solitary and reclusive, preferring his own company to that of others

Over time, Isaac Newton developed the personality which led him to prefer to be alone, avoiding social contacts except when necessary for the advancement of his work. In his writings and those of his contemporaries, he exhibited little in the way of a sense of humor, and he did not easily share his achievements with others by making note of their contributions. He did not express his emotions other than in bursts of anger; other feelings remained under strict self-control. He did not speak or write of his own desires, and the only indications of his possessing a sense of remorse were in the lists of “sins” he prepared for himself while in his youth.

He was not free from a sense of sexual desire, since he wrote of the means to control it, and thus remain chaste, a condition in which he apparently remained throughout his life. “The way to chastity is not to struggle with incontinent thoughts but to avert the thoughts by some imployment (sic), or by reading, or by meditating on other things, or by convers”, Newton told a relative late in his lifetime. The only record of any potential romantic involvement was an adolescent one, before he began his academic career. Probably the best description of Newton’s personality comes from Humphrey Newton, who served as his secretary for a time at Trinity College. “His behavior was mild and meek, without anger, peevishness, or passion, so free from that, that you might take him for a stoic.” But clearly, he was not without his demons, as human as are all.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Mercury Poisoning: A probable cause of Isaac Newton’s physical and mental ills”. L. W. Johnson, M. L. Wobarsht, Notes and Records, The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science. July 1, 1979

“Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer”. Michael White. 1997

“Isaac Newton’s Personal Life”. The Newton Project, Oxford University. 2018. Online

“Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton”. Rob Iliffe. 2017

“Balancing Newton’s Mind: his singular behavior and his madness of 1692-93”. Milo Keynes, Notes and Records, The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science. September 20, 2008

“The Newton-Leibniz Controversy”. Gerald L. Alexanderson, Leonard F. Klosinski, Bulletin of the American Mathematics Society. February 1, 2016

“Robert Hooke, Britain’s Leonardo, papers go online”. Roger Highfield, The Telegraph. October 8, 2007

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“Isaac Newton Used This Recipe in His Hunt to Make a Philosopher’s Stone”. Danny Lewis, Smithsonian Magazine, April 11, 2016

“Notes In Which Isaac Newton Sought to Unlock Secrets Of Bible Sold At Auction”. TOI STAFF, Times Of Israel, 13 December 2020

“Isaac Newton: Was He a Jerk Due to Asperger’s?”. Ross Pomeroy, Real Clear Science, October 31, 2013

“Einstein and Newton showed signs of Autism”. Hazel Muir, New Scientist. April 30, 2003

“The Personality of Isaac Newton”. Milo Keynes, The Royal Society. 1995

“Why Was Isaac Newton Such a Jerk?” Stephen Ross Pomeroy, Forbes Online. November 4, 2013

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“Flaws of Gravity”. Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair. April 2008

“In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and his Times”. Gale Christianson. 1984

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“The Cambridge Companion to Newton”. Bernard I. Cohen, George E. Smith, editors. 2002