Samuel Johnson, 1709 - 1784

portrait of Samuel Johnson
1772 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Born: 18 September 1709, Lichfield, England
Died: 14 December 1784, London, England

Johnson was given over to a wet nurse with tuberculosis shortly after birth and was infected through her milk, losing most of his eyesight and the hearing in one ear as a result. In fact, he was rarely physically healthy and suffered with depression throughout his life. He used his time at home to read volumes from his father's book store. As parlor entertainment his mother had him memorize and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer at three years. He attended Litchfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin but first exhibited the tics that some now believe to have been Tourette syndrome. At several times during his youth, Johnson boarded with teachers, he not only regularly attended school but was routinely tutored outside his school work. A small inheritance allowed the family to send him to Pembroke College, Oxford, but only for one year. He taught school briefly, but opportunities were limited without a degree. At age 25 Johnson married a wealthy widow, 21 years his senior. Unable to be employed as a teacher, he used a good portion of his wife's assets to start a school of his own, when it failed he devoted himself to writing. In 1756 a group of publishers engaged Johnson to create an authoritative English dictionary which took him a decade. It was the best regarded, and most copied, dictionary of 150 years, until the Oxford dictionary was released in 1928. It also inspired Oxford to give him an honorary Masters degree. (He later received honorary doctoral degrees from Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin.) He wrote many essays and published magazines, his next major project was editing the complete works of Shakespeare. He finally was relieved of constant financial problems (he was arrested for debts on three occasions) when King George III granted him a pension in recognition of the value of the dictionary. Due to his keen insight, great command of language, and the sheer bulk of his work, Johnson is believed to be the second most quoted author in the English language.

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