Ball, John (1818-1889) (DNB01)

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BALL, JOHN (1818–1889), man of science, politician, and Alpine traveller, born in Dublin on 20 Aug. 1818, was eldest son of Nicholas Ball [q. v.], judge of the court of common pleas in Ireland, and Jane Sherlock of Butlerstown Castle, co. Waterford. In his early childhood he showed a precocious taste for out-of-door observation and works on natural science. "When in his seventh year he was taken to Switzerland, he was deeply affected by the view of the Alps from the Jura. He wrote in after life, 'For long years that scene remained impressed on my mind, whether asleep or awake, and perhaps nothing has had so great an influence on my entire life.' In the following year, at Ems, the child's chief occupation was measuring, or trying to measure, the height of the hills around with a mountain barometer.

Brought up as a Roman catholic, Ball at thirteen was sent for three years to the Roman catholic college at Oscott, whence he went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, being admitted in 1835. There, like Darwin, he fell under the influence of Professor John Stevens Henslow [q. v.], whose botanical lectures he attended, and in whose family the 'wild Irishman' was a prime favourite. He came out as twenty-seventh wrangler in 1839, but was prevented by his religion from taking a degree. After leaving the university Ball travelled for four years in different parts of Europe, seeing much of men and manners, and also of mountains and flowers. A valuable paper on the botany of Sicily was one of the results of these early travels. In 1845 he stayed for some time at Zermatt in order to study glaciers, making a series of observations. The conclusions he was led to, however, coincided so closely with those of James David Forbes [q. v.] that he refrained from publishing them, though he afterwards contributed several papers to the 'Philosophical Magazine,' in which he contested the hypothesis with regard to the action of glaciers in the formation of Alpine valleys and lake basins that had been lately put forward. Ball was called to the Irish bar in 1845, but never practised. In 1846 he was appointed assistant poor-law commissioner. This was at the period of the Irish potato famine. The work was severe, and in the following year he was forced by ill-health to resign. In 1848 he stood unsuccessfully for the borough of Sligo. In 1849 he was again appointed as second commissioner, a post which he held for two years, when he resigned it in order to stand as a liberal for county Carlow, for which he was elected on 26 July 1852. In the House of Commons he advocated most of the liberal measures that have since become law: the disestablishment of the church of Ireland, a readjustment of land tenure, the reduction of rents, and a new land valuation. He was not a frequent or a lengthy speaker, but he made so decided a mark in the house that in 1855 Lord Palmerston offered him the under-secretaryship for the colonies.

In this position (which he held for two years) Ball was able to advance the interest of science on several notable occasions. It was mainly due to his energetic representations that the Palliser expedition was properly equipped and sent out to ascertain the best routes within British terrritory for uniting by rail the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Canada and British Columbia.

Among the results of this enterprise was the discovery of four practicable passes, one of which is now followed by the Canadian Pacific Railway [see Palliser, John].

Ball was also instrumental while in office In inducing the home government to give its support to Sir W. Hooker's efforts for the publication of floras of all our colonies, compiled on a definite system, which he himself drew up, an undertaking equally important whether from the commercial or from the scientific point of view.

The combination of scientific zeal and sound judgment as to the extent of the support which science might reasonably claim from the state that Ball displayed while at the colonial office led to his opinion being often asked, and sometimes acted on. But to the end of his life he deplored the comparative indifference to science, and the ignorance of its practical bearings on the prosperity of nations, shown by the British treasury, as well as by British travellers and administrators in all quarters of the globe.

In 1858 Ball contested Limerick. His ardent sympathy with Italian liberty (Cavour and Quintino Sella were among his close friends) did him harm on this occasion with the Irish priests, and through their action he was defeated after a keen contest. This result he accepted, despite subsequent opportunities of a seat offered him, as a definite discharge from public life and office.

To a man with the tastes he had shown from childhood there was little struggle in resigning himself to the career of a natural philosopher. At the same moment a definite direction was given to his leisure by his nomination as the first president of the Alpine Club. That association (founded in 1857) was composed of a small band of enthusiastic lovers of the mountains, who, having in common one of the chief pleasures of their lives, were anxious to provide fixed opportunities for meeting, comparing notes, and developing projects for new adventures or extended researches. Ball was selected as the man who most thoroughly united in himself and represented the various motives which inspired the first members of the club — the zest for adventure, the love of the glories of the mountains, or the patient pursuit of natural science in the many branches that are open to the mountaineer.

He found another link with the Alps in his first wife, a daughter of the Nobile Alberto Parolini, a distinguished naturalist, through whom he subsequently came into property near Bassano. The task he now set himself was the compilation of a guide to the whole Alpine chain from the Col di Tenda to the Semmering. 'The Alpine Guide' (1863–8) was undoubtedly the most important literary product of a life of very various activities. Its plan was at once comprehensive and clear. A preface dealing with the Alps and Alpine travel generally, both from the scientific and practical point of view, was prefixed to the work. The range was then divided into three sections — the Avestern, central, and eastern Alps — each described in a single volume. The lesser subdivisions into groups, based mainly but not absolutely on physical considerations, were made with great skill and have proved practically convenient. Throughout the work the special geological and botanical features of each district are insisted on, while the travelling student finds observations in detail thrown in at every fitting opportunity. The object of the writer is not to conduct his readers along certain beaten tracks, but to put them in a position to choose for themselves such routes as may best suit their individual tastes and powers, to give advice as to what is best worth notice, and to show what is open to the prudently adventurous. The main purposes of the book are kept constantly in sight, and it is written throughout in a vigorous style which keeps its freshness to the end and makes the descriptive passages pleasant reading, while they are relieved from time to time by shrewd observations, flashes of quiet humour, or tersely told personal adventures.

Ball was himself rather a scientific traveller than a great climber, and his taste for solitary rambles was perhaps too strong to make the numbers needed for safety in the region above the snow level altogether congenial to him. But the extent of his Alpine travels, mostly on foot, is indicated by his own statement. Before 1863 he 'had crossed the main chain forty-eight times by thirty-two different passes, besides traversing nearly one hundred of the lateral passes.' His first Alpine feat was the passage of the Monte Rosa chain by the Schwarz Thor in 1845, and among the summits of which he made the first or early ascents were the Pelmo, the Tergloo, and the Cima Tosa.

In 1871 Ball accompanied Sir J. D. Hooker and Mr. G. Maw in an expedition to Morocco. The object of the journey was to investigate the flora of the Great Atlas and determine its relations to those of the mountains of Europe. In 1882 Ball made a five months' voyage to South America.

Ball's contributions to science were mainly geographical, physical, and botanical. In the first the most important are 'The Alpine Guide' (3 parts, London, 1863-8, 8vo; translated into Italian 1888; the first volume has been re-edited as a permanent memorial to him by the Rev. W. A. B. Coolidge for the Alpine Club, 1898), his 'Journal of a Tour in Morocco,' 1878, and his 'Notes of a Naturalist in South America,' 1887, of which Sir J. D. Hooker writes: 'High authorities have pronounced them to be deserving of a corner of the same shelf with the works of Humboldt, Darwin, Bates, and Wallace.' Of Ball's papers on physical subjects the most important were concerned with meteorology or hypsometry. His contributions to botany were both critical and theoretical. Among the first his 'Spicilegium Floræ Maroccanæ' (Linnean Soc. Journal, 'Botany,' 1878, xvi. 287-742) will always remain a classic both for its merits and as the earliest work on the flora of that region. His 'Distribution of Plants on the South Side of the Alps,' which he left unfinished, was published after his death in the 'Transactions of the Linnean Society' in 1896. Sir J. D. Hooker thus describes Ball's theoretical essays in botany: in that '"On the Origin of the Flora of the European Alps" (Geogr. Soc. Proc. 1879, pp. 564–88), he argued for the high antiquity of the Alpine flora, and for the earliest types of flowering plants having been confined to high mountains (thus accounting for their absence in a fossil state), due to the proportion of carbonic acid gas in the lower regions of the earth being too great to support a phenogamic vegetation. He further held that existing modes of transport are insufficient to account for the present distribution of plants. His other theory relates to the South American flora, and is given in his "Naturalist's Journal." In this he assumes that the majority of the peculiar types of the whole South American flora, except possibly a few that originated in the Andean chain, had their primitive homes on that hypothetical ancient mountain range which he had placed in Brazil, and to great heights on which they would, under his theory, be restricted through the operation of the same cause that restricted the European early types to the highest Alps.'

Ball suffered from ill-health during the last years of his life. He died at his house, 10 Southwell Gardens, South Kensington, on 21 Oct. 1889,

Ball married twice, in 1856 and 1869. His first wife, by whom he had two sons, who survive him, has been already named; his second was Julia, daughter of F. O'Beirne, esq., of Jamestown, co. Leitrim. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 4 June 1868, and an honorary fellow of his college at Cambridge on 3 Oct. 1888. He was also a fellow of the Linnean, Geographical, and Antiquarian Societies of London, and of the Royal Irish Academy.

Besides the works mentioned above Ball published papers in the Cambridge 'Mathematical Journal' on physical science, in the Philosophical Magazine,' and in the 'Reports' of the British Association, on the geological action of glaciers and on other subjects, on botanical subjects in the 'Botanical Magazine,' 'Journal of Botany,' the 'Proceedings of the Linnean Society,' 'The Linnfea,' and the 'Bulletin de la Société Botanique de France.' On Alpine subjects he contributed to the first series of 'Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers' (which he edited), 1859,8vo, and to the 'Alpine Journal.' He wrote the article 'Alps' in the 'Encyclopædia Britannica' (9th edit.), and an article in the 'Edinburgh Review,' 1861, on glacier theories. He contributed occasionally to the 'Saturday Review' and 'Nature.' He was also the author of a tract (1847), 'What is to be done for Ireland?' (2nd edit. 1849), and an article in 'Macmillan's Magazine,' 1873, on Daniel O'Connell.

[Biographical notices in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1889-90, vol. xlviii. p. v; Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 1890, xii. 99; Journal of Botany, December 1889; Alpine Journal, vol. xv. No. 107, February 1890, with portrait; Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 1888-90, p. 90; Royal Society's Cat. of Scientific Papers; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

D. W. F.