Death of John Herschel, May 11th, 1871

1867 Photograph of Sir John Herschel by Julia Margaret Cameron
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art

On this day, May 11th, in 1871, John Herschel died at age 79. Herschel was a knowledgeable Englishman, known for his studies in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and various other areas. Herschel was educated in scientific practices at a young age, growing up under the influence of his father, astronomer William Herschel, and his aunt, astronomer Caroline Herschel.

John Herschel studied a variety of subjects, but his most prevalent work was in the field of astronomy. His first major astronomical publication was a continuation of his father’s studies on determining the parallax of a star. This work, published in Transactions of the Royal Society, cataloged systems of double stars and was recognized by the Paris Academy and the Astronomical Society. Today, Herschel is commemorated by a crater on Earth’s moon, named the J. Herschel Crater. See the crater via the following image/link:

J. Herschel Crater, from Google Moon


Another significant contribution by John Herschel were his experiments and developments in photography. He was able to produce photographs based on his knowledge and studies of chemical processes, and his studies led to multiple related publications. The term “photography” was coined and popularized by Herschel and he developed the first photographic fixer to preserve photographs.

One of John Herschel’s important publications was his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, an edition of which can be found in Lehigh University’s Special Collections. Published in 1931, this book explores the philosophy of scientific research and discovery. Herschel describes abstract science as being “independent of nature,” with artificial systems of creation, deemed to be language, notation, and rational. These systems were designed by humans to analyze and understand our world, and Herschel explains each one with examples in education. Early in the book, Herschel defines science as, “the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one.”
Lehigh University Special Collections also holds a number of letters and other publications written by John Herschel, mostly related to his astronomical research.


Leave a Reply