Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ball, Robert

BALL, ROBERT (1802–1857), naturalist, was born at Cove (now Queenstown), county Cork, on 1 April 1802. His father, Bob Stawel Ball, was descended from an old Devonshire family which settled in Youghal in 1651. He early showed a decided spirit of inquiry, especially into natural history. He was principally educated at Ballitore, county Kildare, by a Mr. White, who appreciated and encouraged his zoological studies. At home at Youghal he became an active outdoor observer, and recorded much that he saw with little aid. Taking an interest in public and useful institutions, he was appointed a local magistrate in 1824, a few months after coming of age. A little later the Duke of Devonshire induced him to enter the government service in Dublin, although he desired to study medicine, if he could do so without expense to his father. From 1827 to 1852 he was a zealous public servant in the under-secretary's office in Dublin, chained to the desk in occupation distasteful to him, disappointed of advancement or change of employment, at one time being put off with the reply that his duties were so well done that a change must be refused. A stranger was appointed to the head clerkship of his office when a vacancy occurred; and finally in 1852 a reduction took place in the chief secretary's office, and Ball was placed on the retired list, on the ground that 'he devoted much attention to scientific pursuits, and that it was not expedient that public servants should be thus occupied;' although he had most faithfully performed his duties. His retiring allowance, however, allowed him to live in moderate comfort. The time he could spare from official work he always devoted to natural history pursuits, making zoological expeditions during his holidays, frequently with Mr. W. Thompson of Belfast, to whose many zoological publications, and especially the 'Natural History of Ireland,' he added numberless facts of interest. During almost the whole of his residence in Dublin he was one of the most prominent figures in its scientific life. He was for many years a member of the council of most of the Dublin scientific societies, and became president of the Geological Society of Ireland, and of the Dublin University Zoological Association. For many years secretary of the Zoological Society of Ireland, he devoted unwearied care and ingenious suggestiveness to its gardens. To him the working classes of Dublin were indebted for the penny charge for admission. He always exerted himself as far as possible to promote the general diffusion of scientific knowledge, especially by lectures and museums; and in 1844, on being appointed director of the museum in Trinity College, Dublin, he presented to it his large collection of natural history, which was richer in Irish specimens than any other, and included many original examples and new species. In recognition of his services and merits, Trinity College in 1850 conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. In 1851 he was appointed secretary of the Queen's University in Ireland, and discharged the office with distinguished success. Other offices in which Dr. Ball's services were of great importance were that of secretary to the Joint Committee of Lectures, appointed in 1854 by the government and the Royal Dublin Society, to direct scientific lectures in Dublin and in provincial centres, and assistant examiner to the Civil Service Commission (1855). He had been appointed president of the natural history section of the British Association for the Dublin meeting of 1857, but died several months previous to the meeting, on 30 March 1857, of rupture of the aorta. His busy public life had in later years left him no leisure, and his life was shortened by over-work. In private life his social qualities and his honourable nature were most highly esteemed, and, like his friend, Professor Edward Forbes, he had a genius for enlivening a children's party. His principal scientific papers were on fossil bears found in Ireland, on remains of oxen found in Irish bogs, on Loligo, and other minor zoological topics, and were published in Proc. and Trans. Roy. Irish Acad. 1837-50; Proc. Zool. Soc. 1844; Ann. Nat. Hist. 1846-50; Nat. Hist. Rev. 1855.

[Memoir, by R. Patterson, Nat. Hist. Rev. 1858, v. 1-34.]

G. T. B.