|A selection of four books, on: Thomas Young (1733-1829), Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), and Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), each subtitled with the “last man who knew everything” epitaph.|
“Nothing is more beautiful than to know all.”— Athanasius Kircher (c.1670) (Ѻ)
“Spend a few thoughts sometimes on the puzzling inquiries concerning vacuums and atoms, the doctrine of infinites, indivisibles, and incommensurables in geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable difficulties: do this on purpose to give you a more sensible impression of the poverty of your understanding and the imperfection of your knowledge. This will teach you what a vain thing it is to fancy that you know all things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present attainments.”— Isaac Watts (1727), The Improvement of the Mind (pg. 22); read by Michael Faraday at age 14
The following page gives an overview of oft-cited names attributed with this title.
At least four, as shown adjacent, namely: Thomas Young, Joseph Leidy (IQ:150|#439), who built on Goethe's morphology work, and Athanasius Kircher, and Enrico Fermi, have had books written about them, with the epitaph "last man to know everything" attributed or affixed to their name. 
Intellectual breaching point
Sometime between 1700 to 1900, predominately, people began to profess the view that the body of "known knowledge" had become so large that it was no longer possible for one person to know everything. To situate this postulate in the context of a date, French philosopher Pierre Levy argues, in his 1994 Collective Intelligence, that the publication of Frenchman Denis Diderdot and Jean d’Almbert’s Encyclopedie (1751-1772) marks “the end of an area in which a single human being was able to comprehend the totality of knowledge.”
|An intellectual roundtable: Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm Humboldt, Alexander Humboldt, a cited last person to know everything, and Johann Goethe, another well-cited last person to know everything, Jena 1797, discussing, in Goethe's own words, “all of nature from the perspectives of philosophy and science”. |
“At the beginning of this century it was possible for an Alexander von Humboldt to take a survey of the entire domain of the extant science. Such a survey would be impossible for any scientist now, even if gifted with more than Humboldt’s powers. Scarcely any specialist of today is really master of all the work which has been done in his own comparatively small field. Facts and their classification have been accumulating at such a rate, that nobody seems to have leisure to recognize the relations of subgroups to the whole. It is as if individual workers in both Europe and America were bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on cementing them together without regard to any general plan or to their individual neighbor’s work.”
Humboldt is one of the cited "last persons to know everything" (below); a Cattell 1000 (top 100); was one of the first to propose that South America and Africa were both joined; in 1797, in Jena, with his brother Wilhelm, Friedrich Schiller, and Johann Goethe, the four discussed, in Goethe's own words, “all of nature from the perspectives of philosophy and science”.
Overview | Chronological
The following group of individuals, listed in chronological order by reaction end (death), gives a listing of the known referenced opinions on the matter of who considers who to be the last person to know everything, ranked by:
(a) prevalence of citations claiming that person was the last to know everything;
(b) age of the citation, e.g. Leibniz (1914) and Young (1921);
(c) a weighting factor addition for known established IQs,
The following are the purported-to-be all-knowers:
|“Aristotle, described by some as the last man to know everything there was to know, wrote his classic books on rhetoric some 2300 years ago.” (1986) |
“His combined works constitute a virtual encyclopedia of Greek knowledge. It has been said that Aristotle was probably the last person to know everything there was to be known in his own time.” (2009) 
“Aristotle may have been the last person to know everything there was to be known in his own time.” (2009) 
|“Roger Bacon—the founder of English philosophy whose knowledge of chemistry and mathematics led him to recognize the value of deductive reasoning, establish a scientific method, and invent spectacles—who has been called the last man to know everything, the last man to bridge the two cultures.” (2003) |
|3.||Leonardo da Vinci|
|“The last person to know everything was Leonardo da Vinci.” (1985)  |
“Da Vinci, the last man to know everything, was overwhelmed by waves of depression, which left him shy and insecure.” (2004) 
|4.|| Francis Bacon|
|“Francis Bacon, they say, was the last man to know everything.” (1992) |
“Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is regarded by historians as the last person to know everything in the world. Since then, each of us learns a progressively smaller percentage of all the information that exists.” (1998, 2004) 
|5.|| Johannes Kepler|
|“I think someone said that Kepler was the last man to know everything. It may be that we are now redefining the 'everything' that this new man has to know; he must have just sufficient knowledge to assess the contribution of his predecessors.” (1968) |
|6.||John Milton |
|“Milton, some say, was the last man to know everything (or to know enough about most things to discuss them with authority).” Darwin was the last biologist who could claim that.” (2001) |
“It is said that the 17th-century poet John Milton, although blind towards the end of his life, was the last person to know everything because he had read virtually every book ever written at that time.” (2007) 
|7.||Athanasius Kircher |
|“By the time of the Jesuit natural philosopher Athanasius Kircher (in Joscelyn Godwin's words, the ‘last man to know everything’), the Renaissance man of knowledge had split into three mutually exclusive figures: theologian, philosopher, and scientist.” (2001) |
Findlen, Paula. (2004). Athanasius Kircher: the Last Man Who Knew Everything.
“Kircher combined polymath erudition and intellectual eccentricity in ways far beyond mortal men. He is often mentioned as a candidate for ‘the last man to know everything’, from obscure archaic languages and literatures to the latest in science to the most fantastical absurdities then in currency, all in heaps in the measureless attic of his remarkable mind. He wrote 40 books on subjects ranging from Egyptian hieroglyphics to possible causes of the bubonic plague, constructed strange objects, including an automatic organ, and assembled in Rome what was arguably the first natural history museum.” (2006) 
Godwin, Joscelyn. (2009). Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: the Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge. Inner Traditions.
“Another candidate [for the last person to know everything] is archaeologist, mathematician, biologist, physicist, volcanologist, and Egyptologist Athanasius Kircher.” (2009) 
|“Leibnitz was the last man to know everything, and Locke confessed his ignorance.” (1914) |
“Leibnitz, it has been said, was the last man to know everything. Thought this is most certainly a gross exaggeration, it is an epigram with considerable point. For it is true that up to the last years of the eighteenth century our greatest mentors were able not only to compass the whole science of their day, perhaps together with mastery of several languages, but to absorb a broad culture as well. But as the fruits of scientific labor have increasingly been applied to our material betterment, fields of specialized interest have come to be cultivated, and the activities of an ever-increasing body of scientific workers have diverged. Today we are most of us content to carry out an intense cultivation of our own little scientific garden (to continue the metaphor), deriving occasional pleasure from chat with our neighbors over the fence, while with them we discuss, criticize, and exhibit our produce.” (1957, 2001, 2005) 
“Leibnitz, it has been said, was probably the last man to know everything.” (1969, 1971, 1973) 
“Leibniz is said to be the last person to know everything.” (1976) 
“Leibniz had a huge range of theoretical as well as practical interests. Philosopher, mathematician, historian, logician, political writer, and counselor to statesmen and aristocrats: he was a ‘universal genius’ (Kneale, 1962), the ‘last man to know everything’ (Bugarski, 1976).” (2004) 
|“Emanuel Swedenborg probably was the last person to know everything in the world. He wrote 155 books in 17 sciences (before age 54): mastering astronomy, engineering, chemistry, mathematics, geology, paleontology, anatomy, physiology, optics, metallurgy, cosmogony, cosmology, and psychology; after which he wrote an additional 282 books [on religion] in the remaining 32 years, some being substantial tomes of more than 1,000 pages.” |
|10.|| Immanuel Kant |
|“Kant was the last man to know everything worth knowing in the humanities and sciences of his age, thought he was not quite caught up in the most recent advances in mathematics.” (2003) |
|“Goethe, he used to say, was the last man in the world who knew everything; after Goethe (d. 1832), there was too much to know for any one person to know it all.” (c.1966) |
“It was said of Goethe, after his death in 1932, that he was the last man to know everything worth knowing.” (1982, 1985, 1990) 
“It has been said that the last person to know everything was Goethe. Can’t vouch for that, but there has been such an explosion of knowledge, industry, technology, and techniques since his life that this statement sounds about right.”
— Carlton Smith (2014), The Ignorant Grandfather (Ѻ)
|12.||Thomas Young |
|“Thomas Young, one of the great lights of British medicine, and science, and as someone as said, the last man to know everything.” (1921) |
“Young as been called the last man to know everything. This obviously over-simplified statement is to be taken to mean that during the nineteenth century the world of learning rapidly was becoming much too broad for any polymath to master more than a fragment of it.” (1959) 
Robinson, Andrew. (2006). The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the anonymous Polymath who proved Newton wrong, Explained how we see, Cured the sick, and deciphered the Rosetta stone, among other feats of Genius. OneWorld.
“It has been suggested that physicist, physician, and Egyptologist Thomas Young was the last person to know everything.” (2009) 
|Hjelmroos-Koski, Mervi. (2009). “Baron Alexander von Humboldt: the Last Man Who Knew Everything.” May 19, Blog of the Botanical Art and Illustration Program at Denver Botanical Gardens.|
|“John Stuart Mill, the British economist, political thinker, and philosopher of science, died more than a hundred years ago. The year of his death (1873) is important because he is reputed to have been the last man to know everything there was to know in the world.” (1998, 2007) |
“John Stuart Mill has been described as the last man to know everything.” (2000) 
“British economist, political thinker, and philosopher of science John Stuart Mill was reputed to have been the last man to know everything there was to know.” (2006) 
|Warren, Leonard. (1998). Joseph Leidy: the Last Man Who Knew Everything. Yale University Press.|
|16.|| Henri Poincare |
|“A mathematician I know once described Poincare as the last man to know everything.” (2006) |
|17.|| Max Weber|
|“Weber seems to me very much a man of a particular time. A man of whom it has been said (as it has of others) that he was the last person to know everything of importance that was to be known. A nonsensical idea, of course, but one which point to the extraordinary breadth of his interests in sociology, religion, economics, politics, history, music, and much else besides.” (2005) |
|“He became known as ‘the last man who knew everything’.” (1999) |
Others, e.g. as summarized on a 2004 blog article “Last Man to Know Everything” by high-profile blogger Dennis Mangan, include: Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), Erasmus, Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874-1971), Carl Gauss, Denis Diderot, Thomas Jefferson, and William Whewell, and Archimedes (nominated by Mangan).  There's also a bit of Internet talk about Samuel Coleridge said to have known everything (Ѻ) (Ѻ), but a Google Books reference for this claim does note seem to be available.
In general, after c.1930, the growth of knowledge (or tree of knowledge) had proliferated so much so, that the effects of hydraism, information obesity (Scott, 2012), anti-interdisciplinarity, “doctrinaire departmentalism” (Stewart, 1955), forest blindness, ships not seen, glass walls, etc., resulted in making the labels "last universal physicist" (e.g. Enrico Fermi) or "last universal mathematician" (e.g. Jacques Hadamard) began to be used.
Discussion | Overlap
The close association of these intellectual know-it-alls is striking: Kircher was frequently cited by Goethe: for instance, in his search of a science of optics to counter Newton’s, Goethe rediscovered the earlier work of Kircher, and to the extent that Kircher’s theories kept popping up in Geothe’s path, is exemplified by Goethe’s circa 1800 comment: “thus, entirely unexpected, Father Kircher is here again.” Kircher’s work on hieroglyphics translations was frequently discussed and critiqued by Young. Young endorsed Goethe’s explanation of certain pathological conditions of color-blindness and color confusion; had no objection to Goethe’s description of Physische (Physics) and Chemische Farben (Chemical Colors), but expressed great aversion to Goethe’s Farbenlehre (Color Theory) and went to great lengths to disprove it.
Goethe’s connections with Alexander Humboldt date back to 1797, when he and Alexander and Wilhelm Humboldt formed a close circle in Jena to pursue scientific research in anatomy, chemistry, mineralogy, physics, and zoology. Goethe’s opinion of Humboldt was exceedingly high, referring to him as a ‘cornucopia of sciences’ and stating that “a person cannot derive as much information from books in a week, as Humboldt can convey in an hour” and “I have never known anybody who has so harmoniously combined such determined activity with so much intellectual universality.”
Leidy, in his late 1870s search to prove that flies were the agents of contagion, acknowledged Goethe as being the first to observe fungi in flies; he was also knowledgeable of Goethe’s pre-Darwin theories of change from one form to another, of many forms arising from a few.
Last mathematician to know all of mathematics
In 2003, John Derbyshire, in his Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, stated: 
“You will see it written that Hadamard was the last of the universal mathematicians—the last, that is, to encompass the whole of the subject, before it became so large that this was impossible. However, you will also see this said of Hilbert, Poincare, Klein, and perhaps of one or two other mathematicians of the period. I don't know to whom the title most properly belongs, though I suspect the answer is actually Gauss.”
In Internet folklore, citing this quote (Ѻ), since at least 2009, the query who was the last mathematician to know or understand all mathematics, is a semi-common debate topic, with answers supplied including: Blaise Pascal, Emile Picard (1856-1941) (Ѻ), Henri Poincare, John Neumann, David Hilbert, Leonhard Euler, Carl Gauss, Bernhard Riemann. (Ѻ)(Ѻ)
The following are related quotes:
“To seem to ‘know all things’ certainly, and to speak positively of them, is a trick of bold and young fellows; whereas those, that are indeed intelligent and considerate, are wont to employ more wary and diffident expressions as he speaks.”— Aristotle (c.350), Publication; cited by Robert Boyle (1662) in New Experiments Physico-Mechanical on the Spring of the Air (pg. 2); in: Collected Works, Volume One (Ѻ)
“Spend a few thoughts sometimes on the puzzling inquiries concerning vacuums and atoms, the doctrine of infinites, indivisibles, and incommensurables in geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable difficulties: do this on purpose to give you a more sensible impression of the poverty of your understanding and the imperfection of your knowledge. This will teach you what a vain thing it is to fancy that you know all things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present attainments.”— Isaac Watts (1727), The Improvement of the Mind (pg. 22); read by Michael Faraday at age 14 
“If this universe is one universe, if it is so far thinkable that you can pass in reason from one part of it to another, it does not matter very much what that fact is. For every fact leads to every other by the path of the air. Only men do not yet see how, always. And your business as thinkers is to make plainer the way from some thing to the whole of things; to show the rational connection between your fact and the frame of the universe. If your subject is law, the roads are plain to anthropology, the science of man, to political economy, the theory of legislation, ethics, and thus by several paths to your final view of life. It would be equally true of any subject. The only difference is in the ease of seeing the way. To be master of any branch of knowledge, you must master those which lie next to it; and thus, to know anything — you must know all.”— Oliver Holmes Jr. (1886), “The Profession of the Law” 
“Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”— Isaac Asimov (c.1960) 
“Ideas about order and disorder began to germinate in my mind about the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. Their origin was in the areas of physics and chemistry—the Carnot cycle, of course, as well as my wanderings through the labyrinth of chemical thermodynamics. It was about this time that the laws and principles of thermodynamics began to be applied on an increasing scale to the geological and biological sciences. The conviction grew that energy and entropy relationships were fundamental not only in understanding processes in physics and chemistry but also in astronomy, geology, and biology. Inevitably this led to the conjecture that further extrapolation would lead to the human sciences and arts, and even to psychology, sociology, history, music, philosophy and religion. Someone, I thought, will bring out the importance of understanding the concepts of order and disorder to all configurations of matter—including man and all of his works. Individuals have applied these concepts within their own specialties; there are articles on information and electronics, entropy in literature, music, and even entropy in religion. But I have waited in vain for someone to show that order and disorder are universal. Most of this essay, and it is an essay—an attempt—was written in the early 1960s. But I am, I believe, a cautious person. I ask myself, who am I [four degrees: BS geology MIT; MA Columbia; MA and PhD metallurgical engineering, Stanford] to presume myself enough of an eclectic to be able to discuss all of human knowledge [see: last person to know everything]?”— Norman Dolloff (1975), Preface to Heat Death and the Universe (see: polymathy degree problem)
● Genius IQs
1. (a) Swenson, Richard. (1998). The Overload Syndrome (pg. 136). NavPress.
(b) Miller, Kevin A. (2004). Surviving Information Overload (pg. 27). Zondervan.
2. Brockman, Max. (2009). What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science (pg. 226). Random House.
3. Grey, Christopher. (2005). A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Organizations (pg. 21). Sage.
4. Kharbe, A.S. (2009). English Language and Literary Criticism (pg. 185). Discover Publishing House.
5. Tunkelang, Daniel. (2009). Facet Search (pg. 3). Morgan & Claypool Publishers.
6. Thayer, Stevan J. and Nathanson, Linda S. Interview with an Angel (pg. 19). Random House.
7. (a) Robinson, Andrew. (2006). The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the anonymous Polymath who proved Newton wrong, Explained how we see, Cured the sick, and deciphered the Rosetta stone, among other feats of Genius. OneWorld.
(b) Warren, Leonard. (1998). Joseph Leidy: the Last Man Who Knew Everything. Yale University Press.
(c) Findlen, Paula. (2004). Athanasius Kircher: the Last Man Who Knew Everything.
8. Heilbroner, Robert L. (1999). The Worldly Philosophers: the Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic (Thorstein Veblen, Quote: he became known as “the last man who knew everything”, pg. 241). Simon and Schuster.
9. Hjelmroos-Koski, Mervi. (2009). “Baron Alexander von Humboldt: the Last Man Who Knew Everything.” May 19, Blog of the Botanical Art and Illustration Program at Denver Botanical Gardens.
10. Crawford, Osbert G.S. (1996). Antiquity (pg. 241), Vol. 70, Issues 267-68.
11. Anon. (1976). Computer Graphics and Art: Volumes 1-3 (pg. 25). Berkeley Enterprises.
12. Shoales, Ian. (1985). I Gotta Go: the Commentary of Ian Shoales (pg. #). Perigee Books.
13. Whitehouse, Maggy. (2007). Total Kabbalah: Bring Balance and Happiness into Your Life (pg. 174). Chronicle Books.
14. (a) Anon. (1982). Time Magazine (pg. 268), Volume 120, Issues 10-17. Time Inc.
(b) Shrodes, Caroline, Finestone, Harry, and Shugrue, Michael F. (1985). The Conscious Reader (pg. 664). MacMillan.
(c) Litzinger, Boyd. (1990). The Heath Reader (pg. 63). Heath.
15. (a) Anon. (1969). Saturday Review, Volume 52 (pg. 94). Saturday Review Associates.
(b) Anon. (1971). Education in America, 1960-1969 (pg. 612). Arno Press.
(c) Corder, Jim W. (1973). Finding a Voice (pg. 373). Scott, Foresman.
16. Gore, Albert. (2000). Earth in the Balance: Ecology and Human Spirit (pg. 200). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
17. (a) Colin, Cherry. (1957). On Human Communication (pg. 1). John Wiley & Sons.
(b) Ackoff, Russell, Emery, Fred E, and Ruben, Brent D. (2005). On Purposeful Systems (pg. 4). Transaction Publishers.
(c) See also: (2001) (2008)
18. Kidder, Rushworth M. (2003). How Good People Make Tough Choices (pg. 147). Harper Collins.
19. Baker, Ronald J. (2006). Measure What Matters to Customers: Using Key Predictive Indicators (pg. 90). Wiley.
20. Cialdini, Robert B. (1998). Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion (pg. 269-70). HarperCollins.
21. Ruhah, John. (1921). “The Fitz-Patrick Lectures and Medicine in England During the Reign of George III”, Medical Records (pg. 901), Vol. 99.
22. Fentress, George L. (1914). “Tendencies in Modern Educational Development”, Annual Address Delivered Before the Alumni Association, June 16, Bulletin (pg. 29), Volume 7.
23. Nelson, Victoria. (2001). The Secret Life of Puppets (pg. 7). Harvard University Press.
24. Standish, David. (2006). Hollow Earth (pg. 21). Da Capo Press.
25. Thomas, Margaret A. (2004). Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition (pg. 120). Psychology Press.
26. Terras, Victor. (2003). “A Positive Pragmatist”, in: A Mind at Work (pg. 64) by Mercedes Vilanova, and Frederic Chorda. Dresden University Press.
27. Weisberg, Robert W. (2006). Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts (pg. 390). Wiley.
28. Brass, Perry. (2004). The Substance of God: a Spiritual Thriller (pg. 75). Perry Brass.
29. Jones, Steve. (2001). Darwin’s Ghost: the Origins of Species Updated (pg. xxiii). Ballantine.
30. Jeans, James W. (1986). Litigation, Volume 2 (pg. 1093). Kluwer Law Book Publishers.
31. Boyer, Carl B. (1959). The Rainbow from Myth to Mathematics (pg. 294). T. Yoseloff.
32. Kidder, Rushworth M. (1992). In the Backyards of Our Lives and Other Essays (pg. #). Yankee Books.
33. Anon. (1968). “Article” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society, Volume 33.
34. Mangan, Dennis. (2004). “Last man to Know Everything”, Mangans.BlogSpot.com, Sep.
35. Pearson, Karl. (1900). The Grammar of Science (pg. 13). Publisher.
36. Boerner, Peter. (2005). Goethe (pg. 72). Haus Publishing.
37. Tibballs, Geoff. (2004). The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners (pg. 299). Running Press.
38. (a) Holmes, Oliver. (1886). “The Profession of the Law”, Conclusion of a lecture Delivered to Undergraduates of Harvard University, Feb 17.
(b) Holmes, Oliver. (1943). The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes: His Speeches, Essays, Letters, and Judicial Opinions (pgs. 32-33). Transaction Publishers.
39. Derbyshire, John. (2003). Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (pg. 159) (Ѻ). Joseph Henry Press.
40. Watts, Isaac. (1727). The Improvement of the Mind. A.S. Barnes, 1885.
The following are articles that cite this page:
● Brown, Scott. (2012). “Coping with Information Obesity: A Diet for Information Professionals” (abs), Business Information Review, 29(3):168-73.
● Who is called the last person to know everything? (2006) – FunTrivia.com.