Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/South, James
SOUTH, Sir JAMES (1785–1867), astronomer, was the eldest son, by his first wife, of James South, dispensing chemist in Southwark, where he was born in October 1785. John Flint South [q. v.] was his half-brother. He became a member of the College of Surgeons, he attracted the favourable notice of Sir Astley Cooper; but, the acquaintance of Joseph Huddart [q. v.] inclining him to astronomy, he began observing with a six-inch Gregorian reflector. His marriage, in 1816, to Charlotte, niece and sole heiress of Joseph Ellis of South Lambeth, having rendered him comparatively opulent, he relinquished a large surgical practice, and fitted up an observatory attached to his house in Blackman Street, Borough, with two equatoreals of respectively five and seven feet focal length, besides a first-rate transit instrument by Troughton (Phil. Trans. cxvi. 424). Here he observed, jointly with John Frederick William Herschel [q. v.], 380 double stars (ib. vol. cxiv. pt. iii.). In presenting him with the gold medal of the Astronomical Society in 1826, Francis Baily [q. v.] spoke of his ‘princely collection of instruments, such as have never yet fallen to the lot of a private individual’ (Memoirs Roy. Astr. Society, ii. 547). In 1835 South removed his five-foot telescope to Passy, near Paris, where he came to know Humboldt and Arago, and convinced Laplace of the reality of revolving stars by ocular demonstration in the case of 70 Ophiuchi. He executed there in a few months what Herschel called ‘a noble series of measures’ on 458 compound stars, of which 160 were new (Phil. Trans. vol. cxvi. pt. i.); and for these labours, together with his paper ‘On the Discordances between the Sun's observed and computed Right Ascensions,’ presented to the Royal Society on 8 June 1826 (ib. p. 423), was awarded the Copley medal in 1826. He was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1821.
One of the founders of the Astronomical Society, he was chosen its president in 1829, and the royal charter granted to it in 1831 was made out in his name. This led to vehement disputes, South and Charles Babbage [q. v.] making common cause against Richard Sheepshanks [q. v.] and Sir George Airy. As the upshot, South withdrew from the society, and became alienated from most of his early scientific friends. Regarding science in England as decadent, he had previously opened negotiations for a definitive removal to France; but the knighthood conferred upon him on 21 July 1830 by William IV had a soothing effect; and he enjoyed from 1831 a civil-list pension of 300l. in aid of his astronomical researches.
In 1826 he equipped a splendid observatory on Campden Hill, Kensington, erecting there, besides most of his former instruments, an eight-foot achromatic, the transit-circle employed by Stephen Groombridge [q. v.], and a clock presented by the king of Denmark. He then purchased for about 1,000l., in Paris, a twelve-inch object-glass by Cauchoix, the largest but one in the world, and had it equatoreally mounted by Troughton. The work, finished in 1831, proved a failure; South, bitterly disappointed, refused to pay; and Troughton brought an action. The matter was referred to arbitration, and there ensued ‘the most remarkable astronomical trial which ever took place in England’ (De Morgan). Sir William Henry Maule [q. v.] presided over the court; John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune [q. v.] acted as counsel for South; Sheepshanks advised Troughton, whose entire claim was awarded in 1838. South thereupon broke up the instrument in dispute, and sold the débris by public auction, placarding the walls of his observatory with a bill addressed to ‘shycock toy-makers, smoke-jack makers, mock coin-makers,’ &c. His loss on the transaction amounted to fully 8,000l.; and the exasperation caused by hostile proceedings lasting five years wellnigh unhinged his mind. The twelve-inch lens which had been the ruin of his astronomical career was presented by him in 1862 to the observatory of Trinity College, Dublin.
Subsequently to 1838 he attempted only casual pieces of work, experimenting with clocks and pendulums, and executing at Watford in 1846 a series of observations on the disturbance, by passing railway trains, of star-images reflected from mercury. They were reported to government, and presented in 1863 to the Royal Society (Proceedings, xiii. 65). He observed Encke's comet in 1828 and 1838, Mauvais's comet in 1844, and Vico's in 1845. He spent a fortnight as the guest of Friedrich Struve at Dorpat in 1832 for the purpose of studying Fraunhofer's equatoreal; and in February 1845 tried the performance of the six-foot Rosse reflector at Parsonstown (Monthly Notices, xxix. 128; Astr. Nach. No. 536). His admiration was expressed in a letter to the ‘Times’ of 16 April 1845. During his later years he became partially blind and deaf, and he succumbed to a painful disease at the Observatory, Campden Hill, on 19 Oct. 1867. His wife had died in 1851. His instruments were sold on 4 Aug. 1870 (Astr. Register, viii. 196). The academies of sciences of St. Petersburg and Brussels enrolled him among their members, and he received in 1863 an honorary LL.D. from the university of Cambridge.
In two papers presented to the Royal Society on 16 June 1831 and 13 Dec. 1832 (Phil. Trans. cxxi. 417, cxxiii. 15), South detailed observations of star-appulses to Mars, showing a complete absence of planetary atmospheric effects. He published in the ‘Quarterly Journal of Science’ (xiii. 209) ‘Results of some Astronomical Observations made in Blackman Street in 1822,’ mainly of eclipses and occultations; and sent occasionally to that periodical, and to the ‘Annals of Philosophy,’ lists of star-places and other brief technical communications. He wrote much, and at times acrimoniously, in the daily and weekly press, and was the author of some critical pamphlets. In one, published in 1822, he animadverted on the defects of the ‘Nautical Almanac,’ and presided over a committee of the Astronomical Society appointed in 1829 to devise remedial measures (Memoirs Roy. Astr. Society, iv. 449). His ‘Thirty-six Charges against the President and Council of the Royal Society,’ printed as a tract in 1830, were officially ignored, notwithstanding his protest at a stormy meeting of the society (Athenæum, 27 Nov. 1830). After the death of Sheepshanks he renewed, in a ‘Letter of Reply’ to obituary notices of him, a defamatory attack published in the ‘Mechanics' Magazine’ January 1852. The tract was privately printed in 1856, and severely handled in the ‘Athenæum’ for 26 April 1856.[Monthly Notices Royal Astr. Society, xxviii. 69; Proceedings Royal Society, vol. xvi. p. xliv; Memoir of A. de Morgan, passim; Gent. Mag. 1867, ii. 825; Weld's History of the Royal Society, ii. 457; Babbage's Exposition of 1851, pp. 156, &c.; English Cyclopædia (Knight); Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers, vol. v.]