Peter Mark Roget

Dr Vernon Coleman

Few men’s names are better known than Roget’s. And yet surprisingly little is written about this extraordinary English doctor.

Born in London, the son of a minister, Roget had an unhappy childhood. His father died young and his favourite uncle committed suicide in his presence. His wife died young. It is perhaps not surprising that he struggled with depression throughout his life.

Peter Roget qualified and worked as a physician. His first job was as physician to the Manchester Infirmary when he was 25-years-old. Four years later he was appointed physician to the Northern Dispensary in London.

But he was far, far more than a physician. In 1814, he invented a slide rule for calculating the roots and powers of numbers and in 1828 he helped found both the Royal Society of Medicine and the University of London. He was Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution from 1833 to 1836 and secretary of the Royal Society from 1827 to 1849. In 1834, he wrote Animal and Vegetable Physiology. He even designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard and, as a hobby, created chess problems.

However, those are still not the achievements for which he is best remembered. In 1840, he retired from medical work to work on the most notable work of his life. This was, of course, his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, a most comprehensive and classified collection of synonyms which enables writers to find an alternative word when they are creating a letter, an article or a book and do not wish to keep repeating themselves. Roget was the first person to create a thesaurus. He had always loved lists and had something of an obsession for list making when he was eight years old.

He started work on the thesaurus in 1805 and it was, for him, a way of escaping from his depression. The book was first published in 1852 when it was given the snappy title: 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 reprinted 28 times during Roget’s life. After he died at 90, while on holiday in Malvern, his son, John Lewis Roget took over the job of keeping the book up-to-date. And when he, in turn, died, his son Samuel Romilly Roget carried on the family tradition. Taken from `The 100 Greatest Englishmen and Englishwomen’ by Vernon Coleman – available via the bookshops on

Copyright Vernon Coleman September 2023