Astronomy Bio...James South

Jay Bitterman

James South was a British astronomer noted for the observatories that he founded and his observations of double stars. South was born in London on October 21,1785. He first studied medicine and surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons before giving up medicine at the age of 31 in order to devote himself to astronomy. His marriage in 1816 made him wealthy enough to establish observatories in London and in Paris and to equip them with the best telescopes then available.

In 1821 he became a member of the Royal Society of London and held a variety of positions in the Astronomical Society of London. In 1831 the Society gained a royal charter. Due to a technicality, South was barred from serving as its first president and he resigned from the Society. In that year he was knighted and two years later was awarded an honorary LLD by Cambridge University. He was also a member of a number of scientific organizations in Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium and Italy.

South's contribution to astronomy and the development of scientific work in England has been obscured by his argumentative temperament. He was critical of the Royal Society and accused many members of participating in the decline of the sciences in Britain. He published criticisms of other works, including the Nautical Almanac, finding it inferior to work done on the Continent. None of this endeared him to his peers. South's quarrel with Troughton about the quality of the latter's workmanship was consistent with his apprehension about declining standards. This faultfinding led to a lawsuit which South lost. He then publicly destroyed the equipment that Troughton had made for him.

Despite such quarrels, South continued to work until his retirement. He is perhaps best remembered for his work with John Herschel (1792-1871) in observing double stars. They charted and catalogued changes in the positions of some 380 such stars. Their work was presented to the Royal Society in 1824 and rewarded with the Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society. They also received a first prize from the Institute de France. In 1826 South completed another catalogue of double stars and for this he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. He died in London on October 19,1867.

Published in the October 1999 issue of the NightTimes