Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Perry, Stephen Joseph

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PERRY, STEPHEN JOSEPH (1833–1889), astronomer, born in London on 26 Aug. 1833, was son of Stephen Perry, steel-pen manufacturer in Red Lion Square. His mother died when he was seven. At nine he was sent to school at Gifford Hall, whence, after a year and a half, he was transferred to Douay College in France. During his seven years' course there a vocation to the priesthood developed in him, and he proceeded for theological study to the English College at Rome. He entered the Society of Jesus on 12 Nov. 1853, and in 1856 came to Stonyhurst for training in philosophy and physical science. His mathematical ability led to his being appointed to assist Father Weld in the observatory; he matriculated in 1858 at the university of London, studied for a year under De Morgan, then attended the lectures in Paris of Cauchy, Liouville, Delaunay, Serrat, and Bertrand. On his return to Stonyhurst, late in 1860, he was nominated professor of mathematics in the college and director of the observatory; but the three years previous to his ordination, on 23 Sept. 1866, were spent at St. Beuno's College, North Wales, in completing his theological course; the two years of probation customary in the jesuit order followed; so that it was not until 1868 that he was able definitively to resume his former charges.

His public scientific career began with magnetic surveys of western and eastern France in 1868 and 1869, and of Belgium in 1871. Father Sidgreaves, the present director of the Stonyhurst observatory, assisted him in the first two sets of operations, Mr. W. Carlisle in the third. The successive presentations before the Royal Society of their results, as well as of the magnetic data collected at Stonyhurst between 1863 and 1870, occasioned Father Perry's election to fellowship of the Royal Society on 4 June 1874. He became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society on 9 April 1869, and was chosen to lead one of four parties sent by it to observe the total solar eclipse of 22 Dec. 1870. His station was at San Antonio, near Cadiz; his instrument, the Stonyhurst 9½-inch Cassegrain reflector, fitted with a direct-vision spectroscope; his special task, the scrutiny of the coronal spectrum, in the discharge of which he was, however, impeded by the intervention of thin cirro-stratus clouds (Monthly Notices, xxxi. 62, 149; Memoirs Royal Astron. Society, xli. 423, 627).

Perry's services were thenceforward indispensable in astronomical expeditions, and he shrank from none of the sacrifices, including constant suffering from sea-sickness, which they entailed. On occasion of the transit of Venus on 8 Dec. 1874, he was charged with the observations to be made on Kerguelen Island. They were fundamentally successful; but the dimness of the sky marred the spectroscopic and photographic part of the work. The stay of the party in this ‘Land of Desolation’ was protracted to nearly five months by the necessity and difficulty, in so atrocious a climate, of determining its absolute longitude. This end was attained in the face of innumerable hardships and the gloomy prospect of half-rations. After a stormy voyage Father Perry left the Volage at Malta, and was received by the pope at Rome. His graphic account of the adventure was reprinted in 1876 from the ‘Month,’ vols. vi. and vii. A ‘Report on the Meteorology of Kerguelen Island,’ drawn up by him for the meteorological office, appeared in 1879, while his statement as to the astronomical results of his mission was included in the official report on the transit.

For the observation of the corresponding event of 6 Dec. 1882, he headed a party stationed at Nos Vey, a coral reef close to the south-west shore of Madagascar, where, favoured by good weather, he completely carried out his programme. Father Sidgreaves, his coadjutor here, as at Kerguelen, described the expedition in the ‘Month’ for April 1883. Father Perry next formed part of the Royal Society's expedition to the West Indies for the solar eclipse of 19 Aug. 1886. His spectroscopic observations, made in the island of Carriacou, were much impeded by mist. His report appeared in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ clxxx. 351. Again, as an emissary of the Royal Astronomical Society, he was stationed at Pogost on the Volga to observe the eclipse of 19 Aug. 1887; but this time the clouds never broke. His last journey was to the Salut Islands, a French convict settlement off Guiana. This time he was charged by the Royal Astronomical Society with the photography of the eclipsed sun on 22 Dec. 1889, for the purpose of deciding moot-points regarding the corona. In the zeal of his preparations, however, he disregarded danger from the pestilential night air, contracted dysentery, and was able, only by a supreme effort, to expose the designed series of plates during the critical two minutes. Then, in honour of their apparent success, he called for ‘three cheers’ from the officers of her majesty's ships Comus and Forward, in which the eclipse party had been conveyed from Barbados, adding, ‘I can't cheer, but I will wave my helmet.’ But collapse ensued. He was taken on board the Comus, and Captain Atkinson put to sea in the hope of catching restorative breezes. But the patient died on the afternoon of 27 Dec. 1889, and was buried at Georgetown, Demerara, where he had been expected to deliver a lecture on the results of the eclipse. The photographs taken by him were brought home, necessarily undeveloped, by his devoted assistant, Mr. Rooney, but proved to have suffered much damage from heat and damp. A drawing from the best preserved plate by Miss Violet Common was published as a frontispiece to the ‘Observatory’ for March 1890, with a note by Mr. W. H. Wesley on the character of the depicted corona.

Perry's character was remarkable for simplicity and earnestness. He had the transparent candour of a child; his unassuming kindliness inspired universal affection. In conversation he was genial and humorous, and he enjoyed nothing more than a share in the Stonyhurst games, exulting with boyish glee over a top score at cricket. Yet his dedication to duty was absolute, his patience inexhaustible. Enthusiastic astronomer as he was, he was still before all things a priest. He preached well, and his last two sermons were delivered in French to the convicts of Salut. The astronomical efficiency of the Stonyhurst observatory was entirely due to him, his efforts in that direction being rendered possible by the acquisition in 1867 of an 8-inch equatorial by Troughton and Simms. Various other instruments were added, including the 5-inch Clark refractor used by Prebendary T. W. Webb [q. v.] Two small spectroscopes were purchased in 1870; a six-prism one by Browning was in constant use from October 1879 for the measurement of the solar chromosphere and prominences; and a fine Rowland's grating, destined for systematically photographing the spectra of sun-spots, was mounted by Hilger in 1888. In 1880 Perry set on foot the regular delineation by projection of the solar surface, and the drawings, executed by Mr. McKeon on a scale of ten inches to the diameter, form a series of great value, extending over nineteen years. By their means Perry discovered in 1881, independently of Trouvelot, the phenomenon of ‘veiled spots;’ and he made the Stonyhurst methods of investigating the solar surface the subject of a Friday evening discourse at the Royal Institution in May 1889, as well as of a paper read before the Royal Astronomical Society on 14 June 1889 (Memoirs, xlix. 273). But while his chief energies were directed to solar physics, his plan of work included also observations of Jupiter's satellites, comets, and occultations, besides the maintenance of a regular watch for shooting stars. The magnetic and meteorological record was moreover extended and improved.

His popularity as a lecturer was great. He drew large audiences in Scotland and the north of England, discoursed in French to the scientific society of Brussels in 1876 and 1882 (Annales, tomes i., vi.), and to the Catholic scientific congress at Paris in 1888, delivered addresses at South Kensington in 1876, in Dublin in 1886, at Cambridge, and before the British Association at Montreal in 1884. His success was in part due to the extreme carefulness of his preparation. Thoroughness and uncompromising industry were indeed conspicuous in every detail of his scientific work.

Perry served during his later years on the council of the Royal Astronomical society, on the committee of solar physics, and on the committee of the British Association for the reduction of magnetic observations. He was a member of the Royal Meteorological Society, of the Physical Society of London, and delivered his inaugural address as president of the Liverpool Astronomical Society almost on the eve of his final departure from England. The Academia Pontificia dei Nuovi Lincei at Rome, the Société Scientifique of Brussels, and the Société Géographique of Antwerp enrolled him among their members, and he received an honorary degree of D.Sc. from the Royal University of Ireland in 1886. He took part in the international photographic congresses at Paris in 1887 and 1889. Numerous contributions from him were published in the ‘Memoirs’ and ‘Notices’ of the Royal Astronomical Society, in the ‘Proceedings’ of the Royal Society, in the ‘Observatory,’ ‘Copernicus,’ ‘Nature,’ and the ‘British Journal of Photography.’ He had some slight preparations for an extensive work on solar physics. A 15-inch refractor, purchased from Sir Howard Grubb with a fund raised by public subscription, was erected as a memorial to him in the Stonyhurst observatory in November 1893.

[Father Perry, the Jesuit Astronomer, by the Rev. A. L. Cortie, S.J., 2nd ed. 1890 (with portrait); Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc. 1. 168; Proc. Royal Soc. vol. xlviii. p. xii; Nature, xli. 279; R. P. Thirion, Revue des Questions Scientifiques, Brussels, 20 Jan. 1890; The Observatory, xiii. 62, 81, 259; Sidereal Messenger, No. 85 (with portrait); Men of the Time, 12th ed. 1887; Times, 8 Jan. 1890; Tablet, 11 and 25 Jan. 1 and 22 Feb. 1890.]

A. M. C.