Pepys’ place in a Scientist of the Day blog stems from his association with the Royal Society of London. He did not have much interest in natural philosophy, but neither did many of the members, who regarded the meetings and dinners as social occasions. But in 1684, Pepys was elected President of the Royal Society, and he was still in the chair in 1686 when Edmund Halley brought him a book manuscript from Isaac Newton at Cambridge and asked if the Society would publish it. As it happens, the Society was flat broke, having spent far too much money on the publication of Francis Willughby’s book of fish engravings in 1685, but when Halley said he would bear the publishing costs, Pepys gave it his blessing. And that is why the title page of Newton’s great Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica has Newton’s name as author across the center, and just below, the word IMPRIMATUR [Let it be printed], in a ridiculously large font. The line following reads, in the same size font as the attribution to Newton: “S. PEPYS Reg. Soc. PRAESES [President of the Royal Society], Julii 5, 1686.” Scientists everywhere have been so pleased ever since that Newton’s work met with Pepys’ approval. It is coincidentally interesting that three years later, in 1689, Sir Godfrey Kneller painted portraits of both Newton and Pepys. If you want to see Pepys’ portrait, it is on display at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (third image, below). If you want to see Newton’s, you need to get a personal invite to Farleigh House from the Earl of Portsmouth, or settle for this not very good reproduction on Wikipedia.
Pepys was an avid book collector, and his library of some 3000 volumes (along with his custom-built bookcases) now occupies the Pepys Library building at Magdalene College, Cambridge (fourth image, just below). The nine manuscript volumes of the Diary are there as well. There is a view of the exterior of the Library building a little further down (fifth image).
Pepys also loved music, the low-brow variety, and his collection of thousands of contemporary ballads (also housed in his Library) is reputedly a unique asset to musicologists. Pepys played several instruments and even wrote the occasional song. You can hear one of them, “Beauty Retire” performed at this link. (In the Halys portrait of 1666, Pepys is holding the music for “Beauty Retire”). While you are on YouTube, you might also check out this ditty about Pepys, which is entirely spurious (Pepys did not die in a fire), but still amusing and very well sung (it was recorded at the BBC Proms in 2008). Be forewarned: if you watch this, you will be singing it under your breath for the rest of the day. The occasional appearance of a wheel of cheese in the video is a veiled (a very veiled) reference to Pepys’ confession that, as the Great Fire was advancing, he and a friend dug a hole in the friend’s back yard and Pepys placed in it a treasured possession, a huge wheel of “Parmazan” cheese. He has been the butt of cheese jokes ever since.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.