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Peter Mark Roget (1779 – 1869)

A scholar and physician best known for publishing the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases.

Peter Mark Roget

Born in Soho, London in 1779, Peter Mark Roget was the son of a Swiss clergyman, Jean Roget and Catherine Romilly, the daughter of a prosperous London jeweller. After his father died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1783, his mother moved the family in and out of lodgings multiple times before settling in Edinburgh to allow Peter to attend university.

Clearly gifted, Roget began studying medicine aged 14 and graduated five years later in 1798. During the 1795 - 96 academic year he was lucky enough to attend the last full lecture series in chemistry delivered by Professor Joseph Black.

Coping mechanism

Roget struggled with depression for most of his life and his obsession with list-making, categorisation and classification might well have been a way of coping with this depression as well as the tragedies that blighted his light.

As well as the early death of his father and his wife and the restlessness and paranoia of his mother, his uncle and father-figure, Sir Samuel Romilly, a successful lawyer and a major figure in the reform movement of Regency England, committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. Roget was present as he died.

His initial attempt to write a Thesaurus at aged 26 did not come to fruition and it would be almost 50 years later, when he was in his early 70s, that it was published.

Physician and teacher

He started his professional life working as a physician and private teacher, travelling around Europe with his students. During his life, he contributed to multiple fields of study including anatomy, mathematics, and optics. The latter had direct impact on the development of motion pictures by influencing the development of the Zoetrope, and his invention of a slide rule in 1815 simplified calculations and shaped the basis of slide rules that were used until the invention of the calculator.

Following a move to London in 1808, Roget continued to lecture on medicine and was granted fellowship of the Royal Society in 1827 - serving as its secretary for 21 years.

Roget's Thesaurus

Roget, retired in 1840 and twelve years later, the first edition of the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was published. The idea of a list of synonyms and antonyms was not new, but his version - based on notes he'd been compiling since early in his career - was far more comprehensive than its predecessors. On publication, one critic believed that Roget's Thesaurus would never be “useful.” However, as each edition quickly sold out, Roget struggled to keep up with the demand.

Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print since its release in 1852 and has estimated to have sold over 30 million copies worldwide.