Portrait. Credit: Wellcome Library

Thomas Hewitt Key, FRS (20 March 1799 – 29 November 1875) was an English classical scholar.[1]


Grave of Thomas Hewitt Key in Highgate Cemetery

He was born in London and educated at St John's and Trinity Colleges, Cambridge, and graduated 19th wrangler in 1821.[2] From 1825 to 1827 he was the founding professor of Pure mathematics in the University of Virginia; Key owned at least one slave during his time there.[3] After his return to England was appointed in 1828 professor of Latin in the newly founded University of London.[4]

In 1832 he became joint headmaster of the school founded in connection with that institution (the University College School); in 1842 he resigned the professorship of Latin, and took up that of comparative grammar, together with the undivided headmastership of the school. These two posts he held until his death.[4] A few years before his death, he also took the position of secretary to the College of Preceptors in London (later known as the College of Teachers).[citation needed]

Key is best known for his introduction of the crude-form (the uninflected form or stem of words) system, in general use among Sanskrit grammarians, into the teaching of the classical languages. This system was embodied in his Latin Grammar (1846). In Language, its Origin and Development (1874), he upheld the onomatopoeic theory.[4]

Key was prejudiced against the German Sanskritists, and the etymological portion of his Latin Dictionary, published in 1888, was severely criticized on this account. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and president of the Philological Society, to the Transactions of which he contributed largely.[4]

Key was the great-grandfather of British authors Rumer Godden and Jon Godden.

He was buried on the western side of Highgate Cemetery.



  1. ^ "Key, Thomas Hewitt" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  2. ^ "Key, Thomas [Hewett] (KY816TH)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. ^ Gayle M. Schulman (2005). "Slaves at the University of Virginia" (PDF). Latin American Studies. Archived (PDF) from the original on 17 October 2020. Retrieved 17 October 2020. University professors owned at least a dozen people who had been the property of Thomas Jefferson or his relatives. Thomas Key hired, and then purchased, Sally Cottrell, a slave belonging to Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge.
  4. ^ a b c d Chisholm 1911.