Isaac Newton: Celibate or Closet Homosexual?
Created | Updated Jun 15, 2015
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So was he or wasn't he?
Much has been written about Newton's sexuality on - it has to be said - very little hard evidence. It is certain that Newton never married, nor had any romantic involvement with a member of the opposite sex during his adult years. For many, that alone is suspicious. Add to that his very intimate acquaintance with at least one and possibly two young men - one quite a bit younger - and a cloud of suspicion does cling to Newton. For such a habitually secretive man, living in a society where same-sex relationships were almost unthinkable, it would hardly be surprising that there is no 'smoking gun'. But since there has been so much speculation on the subject, no biographical look at Newton would be complete without at least raising the subject.
What is likely is that as an adolescent, Newton had an unrequited love for Catherine Storer, the stepdaughter of his landlord and employer in Grantham. We know little of the course of this relationship - Newton's surviving correspondence with a girl who he shared a house with is of course very limited. Indeed, we cannot discount the possibility that Newton may have invented this infatuation in later life to throw scandal-mongers off the scent. But either way, as far as we can tell, by the time he went up to Cambridge, he had forgotten all about her. There are no traces of letters (or drafts of letters) to or from her among his voluminous writings.
The rest is speculation, but perhaps speculation with some grounds in evidence.
1663 - 1683: John Wickens
The fist serious candidate for a more-than-platonic same-sex relationship in Newton's life is his first room-mate, John Wickens. The two shared rooms from 1663 to 1683 - 20 years. Newton and Wickens were certainly close; Wickens assisted Newton in his alchemical researches (though not understanding their aims), which indicates that Newton opened up to him a lot more than he did to even some of his closest friends. And it is also certain that they chose to be together; both of them opted to share rooms in 1663 as they did not get on with their original room-mates; in Newton's case, a certain Francis Wilford. Other than that, there is no hard evidence of any other goings-on. They may have been intimate, or simply two deeply religious celibates. The more sceptical will note that it was quite normal for grown men to share a room and to address each other in affectionate terms in their correspondence.
Their break was sudden and complete - Wickens taking up a post as a country vicar - and they are known to have written only once after that, in a civil but impersonal communication regarding the distribution of Bibles.
1689 - 1693: Fatio de Duillier
More suggestively, a little later Newton became closely involved with a young Swiss mathematician called Nicholas Fatio de Duillier. There is little doubt that Fatio was starstruck by the older man; a modern tongue might even go so far as to call him a groupie.
Fatio had gained favour with William of Orange by warning him of an abduction plot. He had been offered a professorship in reward, but instead, using his influence, he had travelled to London, where he had immediately been elected to the Royal Society. Two years later, he was further honoured by being asked to escort Huygens when he visited London; it was in this capacity that Fatio (and Huygens) first met Newton.
Fatio's relationship with Newton abruptly stopped this social rise. Society gossip turned Fatio from a rising young genius of the continental scene to 'Newton's Ape' on the English one.
Unlike with Wickens, there are existing letters between Fatio and Newton that do hint at a romantic relationship, even more than the social mores of the time would usually allow:
'...the reasons I should not marry will probably last as long as my life', wrote Fatio, then later, 'I could wish sir to live all my life, or the greatest part of it, with you.'
Newton responded with gifts of cash and offers of accommodation in or near his own rooms.
In June 1693, this all came to a sudden end; the relationship, whatever it was, ended abruptly and there was no further contact between the two for some time. Fatio returned to the Netherlands for over a year.
Fatio intermittently came back into contact with Newton; he intervened in Newton's feud with Leibniz; appears to have fallen in (love...?) with a quack; and then in 1707 fell in with a group of religious extremists known as the Commisards (but better known as the 'French Prophets') - which ended with Fatio ignominiously in the stocks.
Newton seems to have taken the breakup badly. It was shortly afterwards that he suffered his breakdown, which is suggestive of a very intense relationship between the two. And Fatio then formed another close same-sex relationship, leading further credence to the idea that he may have been gay, and by implication that his relationship with Newton was physical, or at least romantic.
And there the evidence ends and the speculation begins. For those convinced Newton would go on to form a sexual relationship with Fatio, the clear implication is that Wickens, the man with who Newton lived for two decades, was more than a confidante.
Newton: Closet Heterosexual?
The counter-evidence is thin on the ground. Aside from his childhood infatuation, there is a rumour that Newton may have proposed marriage to Lady Norris around 1702. Even if true, this may have been a political rather than a romantic match. The final verdict on this matter will probably be never truly proved one way or another.