John Goodricke

Hearing with the eye: the life and work of John Goodricke

The name of John Goodricke (1764-1786) is well known in York. He won the Copley Medal, the highest scientific honour of the Royal Society of London at the age of nineteen for his observations of the star Algol. A plaque commemorates him on the wall outside the Treasurer’s House, where his family lived for a brief time and where he apparently observed. The young man, deaf from early childhood, is duly celebrated as one of York’s famous citizens, and in the wider community he is a role model for those who overcome what could have been crippling disabilities. The present author, a professor of astronomy who has taught thousands of students of John Goodricke’s age, has always been fascinated by the way young people learn. A sabbatical in the spring of 2010 gave her the chance to live in York, to visit places where John Goodricke lived and worked, and to study his journals in the York City Archives.

The biographer Richard Holmes cautions about the shroud of myths that often envelops scientists of great accomplishment. One such myth is that of the lone, heroic figure, struggling against misconceptions perpetrated by lesser minds, against his (or her) own family, and perhaps even against society itself. A corollary to that myth is that any scientist who achieves success does so through sheer genius. His accomplishments are attributable only to his own effort and talent; no mere mortal could possibly have attained them. These beliefs are evident in Milton’s couplet:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said, “Let Newton Be!” and all was light. 

The danger of such myths is that they can blind us to the humanity both of the scientist and of those who lived and worked with him. Further, belief in such myths could blind us to the realization that people such as John Goodricke benefitted greatly from appropriate teaching and mentoring. The teenaged-winner of the Copley Medal did not spring, fully formed like Athena, from anyone’s forehead. Rather, he attended forward-thinking schools that addressed his learning needs and nurtured his talents, and he was surrounded by a family who apparently valued and encouraged his studies.
The Misunderstood Genius myth is apparent in the common presentation of John Goodricke’s story. Perhaps the single worst perpetrator of the myth was the noted astrophysicist Czech-British Zdenek Kopal, who was responsible for much of our modern understanding of Algol. In his autobiography Of stars and men Kopal asserted that “All Goodrickes were essentially country squires of the fox-hunting type.” The implication is, of course, that the Goodricke family were ignorant and provincial at best. After a trip to the churchyard at Hunsingore, where the Goodricke family were patrons of the parish, and not finding John’s name on a tombstone, Kopal suggested that the family had buried him “alone and forgotten, in a nearly-unmarked grave.” These are strong accusations indeed, and it seemed likely that a concerted investigation might be able to show whether or not they were grounded in truth.

The Goodricke family line is long, with several branches in England. The Goodrickes of Yorkshire took up residence at Ribston in 1533 when Henry
Goodricke, brother of Thomas Goodricke, the Archbishop of Ely, became steward of Great Ribston. The property dated back to before the Conquest, and it passed through the hands of the Knights Templar and several other religious orders before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the time of Henry VIII. In 1641 Sir John Goodricke was created the first Goodricke baronet for his service to the King during the Civil War. John, the astronomer, was the eldest grandson of the fifth baronet, also named Sir John (1708-1789).
The Goodricke baronets were, for the most part, not content to sit at home on the Ribston estate. Sir Henry, the second baronet, was the English Ambassador to Spain from 1678 until 1682, and Sir John, the astronomer’s grandfather, was Envoy Extraordinary to Sweden from 1764 until 1773. Both men, as well as the astronomer’s father, Henry (1741-1784) served as MPs, and both baronets were members of the Privy Council. These Goodrickes certainly do not fit Kopal’s stereotype of provincial “fox-hunting country squires.”
John Goodricke, the astronomer, was born in Groningen, the Netherlands, on 17 September, 1764, where his father, Henry, was employed in diplomatic service. John’s mother was born Levina Benjamina Sessler in 1735; her father was Peter Sessler, a merchant of Namur, Belgium. John was the eldest surviving child. Also born in Holland were a brother and two sisters; yet another sister was born after the family returned to York.
According to the family history, John became deaf at the age of five due to a severe illness that has been conjectured to be scarlet fever. He was sent to study, at the age of seven, at Thomas Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in Edinburgh. This school was the first in the British Isles for deaf children. Braidwood was very secretive in his teaching methods. It is known that he attempted to teach his pupils to speak if they were able, and that in any case an excellent education in all subjects was provided. John went on to study at the Warrington Academy for three years after leaving Braidwood’s. Warrington was one of the “freethinking” or non-conformist academies originally founded to prepare clergymen in denominations other than the Church of England. It was well known for its emphasis upon mathematics and natural philosophy; the chemist Joseph Priestley had taught there but had moved on before John Goodricke arrived in 1778. John was described as “a very tolerable classic and an excellent mathematician” in a school report. His mathematics notebook is preserved in the Goodricke collection of the York City Archives, and the figure below can be found on the inside back cover.
The drawing below shows several constellations: Orion’s belt can be seen, along with the brightest star in Taurus, “The Eye of the Bull,” Aldebaran; the constellation of Auriga; and “the two brightest stars in the Gemini”. The Milky Way is shown, as well as the zodiac (or ecliptic), and the Moon. And at the bottom of the page is a sentence describing the position of various stars on either side of the meridian, a line connecting the north and south points on the horizon and
passing through the zenith. The star positions, together with the Moon’s position in the sky, permit determination of the approximate date of the drawing. The only time that matches during Goodricke’s lifetime is a one-week period in late November of 1779. On 23 November 1779, a total lunar eclipse was visible over England. John Goodricke would have had access to textbooks with tables of predicted eclipses; he would also have been taught to do such calculations in his schoolwork. Exactly how he came to produce this drawing we may never know. What is significant, however, is that he was already observing the sky in 1779, at the age of fifteen.

The previous Goodricke baronets had attended university at either Cambridge or Aberdeen, and John surely would have been intellectually qualified for university. Why he returned to York to live with his family is somewhat puzzling. Both John, in his journal, and Edward Pigott, in a diary, make occasional references to John’s not being well, so perhaps his health had already begun to fail. At any rate, the first entry in John’s formal observing journal comes early November 1781, when he writes: “Last evening at 9 p.m. Mr. E. Pigott discovered a comet.” During the first entry John describes Edward’s correspondence with William Herschel and with Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal. Edward’s contacts in the astronomical world, as well as his discoveries, clearly impressed John, who immediately set about keeping a record of his own observations.
Space does not allow justice to be done to Edward Pigott, a talented astronomer in his own right, who lived a normal life span and made many significant contributions. Even in their lifetimes, Edward’s work was overshadowed by John’s
winning the Copley Medal. Edward’s father, Nathaniel, was also an astronomer, and he had taught his son astronomy primarily as a tool for surveying. The elder Pigott was responsible for the determination of the latitude and longitude of several cities in the Low Countries, work to which Edward contributed. Nathaniel built in York an observatory described as “the finest private observatory in England,” and John and Edward often observed there together.
It seems to have been Edward who first suggested that observations of variable stars might prove fruitful. By this time astronomers had been cataloguing stellar positions and brightnesses for over a hundred years. The Italians Montinari and Maraldi had mentioned in 1695 that the star Algol, in the constellation of Perseus, varied in its light output, but cited no details. In November of 1782, John Goodricke set out a table in his journal of “stars which are variable or are thought to be so,” and included Algol. He then set about observing several of these stars. On 12 November 1781, he observed:

This night I looked at Beta Persei [Algol], and was much amazed to find its brightness altered–It now appears to be of about 4th magnitude.I observed it diligently for about an hour–I hardly believed that it changed its brightness because I never heard of any star varying so quickly in its brightness. I thought it might perhaps be owing to an optical illusion, a defect in my eyes, or bad air, but the sequel will show that its change is true and that I was not mistaken.

Edward joined in observing Algol on every clear night, and he too saw the dimming in December. The two obviously discussed their work beyond the notes to be found in their journals, and so it is difficult to say who first suggested the possible explanations. In early December John wrote: “[Algol’s variation] can’t be accounted for in any other manner than supposing it to have suffered an Eclipse… by the interposition of a Planet revolving around it….”

They continued their observations throughout the spring of 1783. The journals show Edward roaming more afield in search of other variable stars, while John sticks with Algol and a few other stars. By observing every eclipse that occurred during night-time hours, John was able to determine the period between successive minima of Algol’s light to be 2.8646 days. Edward certainly collaborated both on the observations and the analysis of these data. It was the custom of the day for one researcher to communicate the results to a member of the Royal Society of London to be read at a meeting. John’s letter to Dr. Anthony Shepherd, Plumian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, was read at the Royal Society and published in the Society’s Philosophical transactions in May 1783. John had given equal treatment to the two hypotheses, and carefully refrained from using the word “planet” to describe the “unseen body” orbiting Algol. Here is his conclusion:

…I should imagine it could hardly be accounted for otherwise than either by the interposition of a large body revolving round Algol, or some kind of motion of its own, whereby part of its body, covered with spots or such like matter, is periodically turned towards the earth. 

 Thanks in part to Edward’s communications with other astronomers, the members of the Royal Society were eager to witness the Algol phenomenon, and many did. The accuracy of the period of the light diminution determined by Goodricke was confirmed. However, most astronomers did not accept John and Edward’s preferred explanation of the light being dimmed due to an eclipse. William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, preferred the starspot explanation; as late as 1795 he would write:

Dark spots, or large portions of the surface, less luminous than the rest, turned alternately in certain directions, either towards or away from us, will account for all the phenomena of periodical changes in the lustre of the stars so satisfactorily, that we certainly need not look for any other cause.

Today’s astronomers accept the eclipse hypothesis for Algol. Confirmation of that hypothesis came nearly a century after Goodricke’s death, however. As a fledgling astronomer, he quite naturally listened and learned from the senior figures around him, and by the time his last paper was published in 1785 he wrote that stellar variations “…may, I suppose, be accounted for, by a rotation of the star on its axis, having fixed spots that vary only in their size.”
John Goodricke continued to observe Algol whenever possible, as he broadened his net to include other variable stars as well. He established periods of variation for two other stars, Beta Lyrae (another eclipsing binary), and Delta Cephei. The latter is a totally different type of variable; stars of this type actually pulsate, becoming brighter and dimmer. The physics of the variation of Cepheids is well understood, and the time it takes these stars to go through one cycle is directly related to their luminosity. By knowing how bright a Cepheid really is, and by observing how bright it appears, we can determine its distance, and this enables us to measure the distances to other galaxies. None of the physics needed to understand the nature of any of these stars was understood in the time of Goodricke and Pigott, of course. Their pioneering work helped lay the observational groundwork upon which later astronomy and astrophysics was built.
The Royal Society of London voted in August of 1783 to award John Goodricke the Copley Medal for his determination of the periodicity of the star Algol. John went to London where he collected his medal and visited Nevil Maskelyne at Greenwich. At some point he sat for the pastel portrait above. James Scouler was a London-based portrait artist, but as yet I have found no evidence about where the portrait was done.
On 6 April 1786, the Royal Society elected John Goodricke to membership. His nomination was put forward by Nathaniel Pigott and sponsored by seven other members including Maskelyne, two other members of the Board of Longitude, and professors from Cambridge and Oxford. Sadly, Goodricke died on 20 April in York.

One final “Goodricke Myth” deserves consideration. What of the suggestion that the Goodrickes had the young man buried apart from the rest of the family? This seems to have arisen entirely from Zdenek Kopal’s speculations. Kopal visited the Hunsingore churchyard in the late 1950s looking for Goodricke’s grave. He seems to have been unaware that the current church at Hunsingore was built in 1867, after the Ribston estate was sold to the Dent family, and long after John Goodricke’s death. There is no Goodricke vault in the church because there are no Goodrickes buried in the church. In 1780 John Goodricke’s grandfather, Sir John the fifth baronet, had a vault constructed under the vestry of the old church. The vault remains, marked only by a building stone engraved with “The Goodricke Vault” on one side. The parish burial records are on microfiche at the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton. They record the interment of

John Goodricke, Esq., Grandson and Heir Apparent of the Right Honourable Sir John Goodricke, Bart, of Great Ribston, buried in the new Cemetery at Hunsingore on Friday the 27th day of April 1786. 

Special copies of the family history, with added notes by Charles Alfred Goodricke, are preserved in the British Library and at Great Ribston. These copies include material on the family vault, with a listing of everyone buried in the vault. The list includes John’s parents, Henry and Levina; his grandparents, Sir John and
Dame Mary; his brother Henry, the sixth baronet; his nephew Harry James, the seventh baronet; and Elizabeth Soper, a relative by marriage of the sixth baronet, who died suddenly while visiting the Goodricke family. Although death came to John Goodricke tragically early, he was not shunned by his family either in life or in death.

Much remains to be learned about John Goodricke’s life and work. Although somewhat isolated by his residence in York and by his deafness, he was recognized by the scientific community of his day. The people of York can be deservedly proud of their native son.

It is a pleasure to thank Joy Cann and Caroline Stockdale of the York City Archives, Alison Brech of the Borthwick Institute, and Ian Stuart and Ron Emmons for their assistance, advice, and inspiration. This work was supported by the Herbert C. Pollack Award from the Dudley Observatory and by a Small Research Grant from the American Astronomical Society.

Principal Sources
Enfield, William Institutes of natural philosophy, theoretical and practical. London: J. Johnson, 1785 Goodricke, C.A. History of the Goodricke family. London: Privately printed, 1897 Goodricke, J. “A series of observations on, and a discovery of, the period of variation of the light of the bright star in the head of Medusa…” in Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 73, (1783) 474-482 Goodricke, J. “On the periods of the changes of light in the star Algol…” in Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 74, (1784) 287-292 Goodricke, J. “A series of observations of, and a discovery of, the period of… [Delta Cephei].” in Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 76, (1785) 48-61 Goodricke, J. Observing journal, pp.24-25 Goodricke, M. Goodricke family history.[online] Herschel, W. “On the periodical star a Herculis….” in Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. London 86 (1795) 48-61 Hoskin, Michael “Goodricke, Pigott, and the quest for variable stars.” in Stellar astronomy. Chalfont St. Giles: Science History Publications, 1982 Johnson, Samuel A journey to the western islands of Scotland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965 McConnell, A. and Alison Brech “Nathaniel and Edward Pigott, itinerant astronomers” in Notes and records of the Royal Society of London 53, (1999) 303¬318 McLachlan, H. Warrington Academy: its history and influence. New York and London: Printed for the Chetham Society, 1943 reprinted by Johnson Reprint Corporation Parker, Irene Dissenting academies in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914 Pigott, E. Observing journal,p. 176 Speight, H. Nidderdale and the garden of the Nidd. London: Elliot Stock, 1894

[ Article by Linda M. French, originally published in the YPS Anuual Report 2010]

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