Proctor, Richard Anthony (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

PROCTOR, RICHARD ANTHONY (1837–1888), astronomer, was born in Chelsea on 23 March 1837, the fourth and youngest child of William Proctor, a solicitor in easy circumstances. His childhood, marked by frail health and studious tastes, had barely passed when the death of his father, in 1850, left the family burdened with a protracted lawsuit. Placed as clerk in the London and Joint Stock Bank in 1854, he was removed as soon as improved circumstances rendered a university education possible, and entered in 1855 the London University, and a year later St. John's College, Cambridge. Here he took a scholarship, read mathematics and theology, and sufficiently distinguished himself as an athlete to be captain of the college boating club. His mother's death during his second university year was quickly followed by his marriage to an Irish lady, whom he met when travelling with his sister. This event probably explained his comparative failure in his degree examination in 1860, when he disappointed expectation by obtaining only the twenty-third wranglership. He next read for the bar, but, after keeping some terms at the Temple, abandoned law for science, devoting himself in 1863 to the study of astronomy and mathematics as a distraction from his overwhelming grief at the loss of his eldest child. He made his literary début in 1865 with an article on the 'Colours of Double Stars' in the 'Cornhill Magazine,' and published in the same year, at his own expense, his celebrated monograph on 'Saturn and his System.' Recognised immediately in the scientific world as the work of a writer of consummate ability, it yet proved, in his own words, 'commercially a dismal failure.' The reputation it won enabled him, nevertheless, to make literature his profession, when the failure, in 1866, of a New Zealand bank in which he was a considerable shareholder left him entirely dependent on his own earnings. The news reached him simultaneously with a request from the editor of the 'Popular Science Review' for some articles on the telescope, 'From that day onwards (he wrote) for five years I did not take one day's holiday from the work which I found essential for my family's maintenance.' How irksome he found this unceasing drudgery may be gathered from his declaration that be 'would willingly have turned to stone-breaking or any other form of hard and honest, but unscientific, labour, if a modest competence in any such direction had been offered him.'

The limited range of his fame was shown by the rejection of many of his articles, and by Anthony Trollope's request, before accepting one for the 'St. Paul's Magazine,' of some evidence of his competence to treat a subject scientifically. Publishers were equally sceptical, and only the assistance of a friend enabled him to publish his 'Handbook of the Stars' in 1866. It barely paid expenses; nor were its successors, 'Constellation Seasons' and 'Sun Views of the Earth,' much more successful. They helped, however to extend his reputation, and he was commissioned by Messrs. Hardwick to write, for a fee of 25l, the small volume, 'Half-hours with a Telescope,' which, published in 1868, had before his death reached its twentieth edition. He taught mathematics for a time in a private military school at Woolwich, and in 1873 went on a lecturing tour to America, resigning, in order to do so, an honorary secretaryship to the Royal Astronomical Society. His success on the lecturing platform was from the first assured, and greatly increased his popularity. A second lecturing trip to America was followed, after the death of his wife in 1879, by a more extended tour to the Australasian colonies. Returning by the United States, he there married, in 1881, Mrs. Robert J. Crawley, a widow with two children, and settled at St. Joseph, Missouri, her home. In that year he founded in London 'Knowledge,' a scientific weekly periodical, which was converted in 1886 into a monthly. He contributed to the Royal Astronomical Society's monthly notices articles on such abstruse problems as the 'Construction of the Milky Way.' 'The Distribution of Stars and Nebulæ,' and the 'Proper Motions of Stars.' His papers on the coming 'Transit of Venus,' in the same journal, involved him in an acrimonious controversy with the astronomer royal, Sir George Airy, as to the time and place for observing the transit. Proctor's views ultimately prevailed.

In 1887 he transferred his household and observatory to Orange Lake, Florida, whence he was summoned on business to England in September 1888. He reached New York suffering from an illness hastily pronounced to be yellow fever, then epidemic in Florida. He died in the Willard Parker Hospital on 12 Sept. His malady was declared by his friends to have been malarial haemorrhagic fever. His widow and many children survived him. The alleged cause of his death gave prophetic significance to his article on 'Plague and Pestilence,' written a few days previously and published in the 'New York Weekly Tribune.'

Among his many gifts that of lucid exposition was the chief, and his main work was that of popularising science as a writer and lecturer. Yet he was no mere exponent. The highest value attaches to his researches into the rotation period of Mars, and to his demonstration of the existence of a resisting medium in the sun's surroundings by its effect on the trajectory of the prominences. His grasp of higher mathematics was proved by his treatise on the Cycloid, and his ability as a celestial draughtsman by his charting 324,198 stars from Argelander's 'Survey of the Northern Heavens' on an equal surface projection. Many of his works were illustrated with maps drawn by himself with admirable clearness and accuracy, Versatile as profound, he wrote in 'Knowledge' on miscellaneous subjects under several pseudonyms, and was a proficient in chess, whist, and on the pianoforte. His unfinished book on the 'New and Old Astronomy,' designed to embody the studies of his life, was completed by Arthur Cowper Ranyard [q. v.], and published in 1892. Of the fifty-seven books published by him, the principal, not already mentioned in the text, were; 1. 'Other Worlds than ours,' 1870. 2, 'Star Atlas,' 1870. 3. 'Light Science for Leisure Hours,' 1871. 4. 'The Sun,' 1871. 6. 'Elementary Astronomy,' 1871. 6. 'The Orbs around us,' 1872. 7. 'Essays in Astronomy,' 1872, 8. 'Elementary Geography,' 1872. 9 'School Atlas of Astronomy,' 1872. 10. 'The Expanse of Heaven,' 1873. 11. 'The Moon,' 1873. 12. 'The Borderland of Science,' 1873. 13. 'The Universe and the Coming Transit,' 1874. 14. 'The Transit of Venus,' 1874. 15. 'Our Place among Infinities,' 1875. 16. 'Myths and Marvels of Astronomy,' 1877. 17. 'The Universe of Stars,' 1878, 18. 'Flowers of the Sky,' 1879. 19. 'The Poetry of Astronomy,' 1880. 20. 'Easy Star Lessons,' 1882. 21. 'Familiar Science Studies,' 1882. 22. 'Mysteries of Time and Space,' 1883. 2:3 'The Great Pyramid,' 1883. 24. 'The Universe of Suns,' 1884. 25. 'The Seasons,' 1885. 26. 'How to Play Whist,' 1885. 27. 'Other Suns than ours,' 1887. 28. 'Half-hours with the Stars,' 1887, He also contributed the articles on astronomy to the American Cyclopædia,' and to the ninth edition of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica.'

[Memoirs and Obituaries in Monthly Notices, xlix. 164; Observatory, xi. 366: Times, 14 Sept. 1888; Knowledge, October 1888, p. 265; Appleton's Annual Cyclopædia, xiii. 707; Autobiographical Notes, New Science Review, April 1895.]

E. M. C.