South, James

views updated


(b. Southwark, London, England, October 1785; d. Campden Hill, Kensington, London, 19 October 1867)


South’s great disappointments in, and severe criticisms of, contemporary scientific institutions often overwhelmed his actual scientific accomplishments. The son of a pharmaceutical chemist, he had studied surgery, become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and acquired an extensive practice when, through marriage in 1816, he became sufficiently wealthy to forgo medicine and devote himself to astronomy. He established several observatories, in the environs of London and Paris, where he observed with some of the finest telescopes available. From its inception in 1820 South held various offices in the Astronomical Society of London; barred by a technicality from serving as first president of the chartered Royal Astronomical Society in 1831, he thereupon left the organization. He was knighted in 1831 and awarded an honorary LL.D by Cambridge in 1863; in addition he was a fellow of the Royal Society of London (1821), the Linnean Society, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres, et des Beaux-Arts Belgique, and the Academia Scientiarum lmperialis Petropolitana.

Double stars, essentially discovered by Wiiliam Herschel, were of great interest throughout the nineteenth century—new ones being found and position measurements made more precise with each improvement in telescope construction. South, working with John Herschel during the years 1821–1823. reobserved the double stars charted originally by William Herschel, mainly for the purpose of detecting position changes. Their observations helped verify the newly recognized orbital motion of these neighboring stars. Their resulting catalog of 380 double stars, presented to the Royal Society in 1824, earned them the gold medal of the Astronomical Society and the grand prize of the Institut de France. For his second catalog of double stars, two years later, South was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society.

South was concerned, perhaps rightly so, by the decline of science in Britain. In 1822 he published a criticism of the Nautical Almanac, alleging its inferiority to Continental ones; and in 1829 he presided over an Astronomical Society committee charged with suggesting improvements in this institution. In 1830 South publicly criticized the Royal Society, but to no avail. His major disappointment, however, came from his quarrel with Edward Troughton. In 1829 South bought a French achromatic objective of 11.7 inches aperture, one of the largest in the world, and contracted with Troughton—who had made many of his other instruments—for an equatorial mount. South’s dissatisfaction with Troughton’s work led to a court suit that Troughton eventually won, extended and acrimonious debates, and South’s public destruction of the mount in 1836.


South’s articles are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 761–762; his books, in the British Museum General Catalogue of Printed Books.

Secondary literature includes J. C., “Sir James South,” in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 28 (1867–1868), 69–72; A. M. C[lerk], “Sir James South.” in Dictionary of National Biography LIII, 272–274; and T.R.R., “James South,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 16 (1867–1868), xliv–xlvii.

Deborah J. Warner

About this article

South, James

Updated About content Print Article


South, James