Gough, John (1757-1825) (DNB00)

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GOUGH, JOHN (1757–1825), scientific writer, was born at Kendal on 17 Jan. 1757. He was the eldest child of Nathan Gough, shearman-dyer, and his wife, Susannah; Nathan Gough being descended in the third generation from General William Goffe [q. v.], the regicide. Before he was three years old Gough was attacked by small-pox, which destroyed his sight. By training his sense of touch, and subsequently that of hearing, he learnt to recognise many different animals and also musical notes. His father, however, being a member of the Society of Friends, stopped his lessons on the violin which an itinerant fiddler gave him. At the age of six he went to the Friends' school, Kendal, then under a Mr. Rebanks, but made little progress until a change of masters, six years later, when the new master, a Mr. Bewly, being well read in natural philosophy, gained Gough's attention. He made good progress in Latin, but preferred books dealing with natural history. At the age of eight he began studying plants by touch. When thirteen he had recourse to the ‘Synopsis of British Plants,’ by John Wilson of Kendal, and afterwards to the works of Gerard, Parkinson, Hudson, Withering, and Smith, which he had read to him until he knew them by heart. Handling plants rapidly from their roots or stalks upwards, examining the stamens and pistils within the flower with the tip of his tongue, and detecting the finest hairs with his lower lip, he could even recognise plants not before examined by him from the descriptions he had heard. He formed a botanical class among his school-fellows; and, when fifteen, devoted himself, after hearing Derham's ‘Physico-Theology,’ to various physical experiments, which he conducted in his father's dye-house. The quotations from classical authors in Derham's notes directed his interest to the study of poetry, and he studied most of the Latin, Greek, and English poets, remembering many passages from them more than forty years afterwards. So great was his accuracy that Withering, with whom he corresponded before the publication of the third edition of the ‘Systematic Arrangement of British Plants’ (1796), said that he would accept his records and remarks without requiring specimens for verification. Coleridge, in his essay on ‘The Soul and its Organs of Sense,’ says of him: ‘The every way amiable and estimable John Gough of Kendal is not only an excellent mathematician, but an infallible botanist and zoologist … the rapidity of his touch appears fully equal to that of sight, and the accuracy greater.’ Wordsworth also alludes to him in the ‘Excursion,’ in the passage in the seventh book beginning

Soul-cheering Light, most bountiful of things!

In 1778, being attracted to mathematics, he went to live as a resident pupil with John Slee at Mungrisdale, Cumberland. He designed for his own use an elaborate form of abacus, with holes in vertical and horizontal rows, and pegs of various forms to represent the digits and algebraical symbols. He afterwards passed threads round these pegs so as to represent geometrical figures. In eighteen months he mastered the principles of conic sections and mechanics, and had begun the study of fluxions, and so great was his subsequent progress that for some years he taught a small number of private pupils. Among these were John Dalton [q. v.], the chemist, who was with him for four or five years, and William Whewell. In 1800 Gough married Mary, daughter of Thomas Harrison of Crosthwaite, by whom he had four sons and five daughters. Of his sons, Thomas Gough, surgeon, contributed a full memoir of Gough and lists of animals, plants, and fossils of the district to the second edition of the ‘Annals of Kendal,’ 1861. In 1823 Gough was first attacked by epilepsy, and on 28 July 1825 he died of that disease at Fowl Ing, Kendal. He was buried in the churchyard of the parish. Gough does not seem to have issued any independent works; but between 1786 and 1813 he communicated fourteen essays to the Manchester Philosophical Society and thirty-six contributions to Nicholson's ‘Philosophical Magazine’ (vols. iii.–xxv., xxxi. and xxxii.). Among the subjects of the former series of essays are the effacement of lakes, the laws of motion of a cylinder, the germination of seeds, the variety of voices, the position of sonorous bodies, the theory of compound sounds, caoutchouc, the theory of mixed gases, vis viva, the ebbing well at Giggleswick, Yorkshire, migratory birds, and statical equilibrium. The latter series treat of nutrition in plants, suspended animation in vegetables, prime factors, ventriloquism as due to reflection, scoteography, or the art of writing in the dark, the atmosphere and its moisture, the mathematical theory of the speaking-trumpet, fairy-rings, facts and observations tending to explain the curious phenomenon of ventriloquism, and various purely mathematical questions.

[Cornelius Nicholson's Annals of Kendal, 2nd ed. 1861, pp. 355–68; Gent. Mag. 1825, ii. 190.]

G. S. B.