Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nichol, John Pringle

NICOL, JOHN PRINGLE (1804–1859), astronomer, was the eldest son of John Nichol, a gentleman farmer from Northumberland, by his wife, Jane Forbes, of Ellon, Aberdeenshire. Born on 13 Jan. 1804 at Huntly Hill, near Brechin in Forfarshire, he was educated at King's College, Aberdeen, where he took the highest honours in mathematics and physics. During one of his vacations, at the age of seventeen, he was appointed parish schoolmaster at Dun; then, having completed his arts curriculum and passed the divinity hall at King's College, he was licensed as a preacher before he came of age. Owing to a change in his theological opinions, he, however, soon retired from the ministry, and devoted himself to educational work. He became successively headmaster of the Hawick grammar school, editor of the ‘Fife Herald,’ headmaster of Cupar academy, and finally, in 1827, rector of Montrose academy. Here he lectured publicly on scientific subjects, and opened a correspondence with John Stuart Mill [q. v.], who became his lifelong friend. Temporary ill-health induced him in 1834 to resign his post, and he was recommended by James Mill and Nassau Senior as the successor of J. B. Say in the chair of political economy in the Collège de France, Paris. He accepted instead, in 1836, the appointment of regius professor of astronomy in the university of Glasgow. The duties of his chair occupied but a small part of his energies. He was an inspiring teacher to a wider class of students than those who devoted themselves wholly to study, and his lectures to the general public proved almost uniquely attractive from their combination of rhetorical power with exact knowledge.

Nichol was the main agent in procuring the transference of the Glasgow observatory from the college grounds to its present site on Dowanhill, and he made a trip to Munich in 1840 in order to secure for it the best modern appliances. He spent the winter of 1848–9 in the United States, where he delivered several courses of lectures. His last notable appearance in public was in lecturing on Donati's comet in 1858. He died of congestion of the brain at Glenburn House, near Rothesay, Buteshire, on 19 Sept. 1859, aged 55. The career thus abruptly terminated had been one of unceasing activity and benevolence. ‘His personal character,’ the late Professor Rankine says, ‘was frank, genial, and generous, and secured him the warm regard of all who knew him’ (Imperial Dict. of Biog.) He was inspired by a deep feeling of reverence and by the respect due to the beliefs of others, but his own religious views were far from what is commonly called orthodox. His extensive knowledge of metaphysics is shown by his contributions to Griffin's ‘Cyclopædia of Biography’ on subjects connected with mental science. He took a prominent part in political and social discussions, but in 1857 he declined an invitation to stand as the liberal candidate for the parliamentary representation of the city of Glasgow. An honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by his own university in 1837. He was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and his membership of the Royal Society of Edinburgh dated from 1836.

Nichol was an intimate friend and correspondent of Sir William Rowan Hamilton [q. v.] of Dublin. He married, first, in 1831, Miss Tullis of Auchmuty, Fifeshire; secondly, on 6 July 1853, Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph Pease of Darlington: she died, aged 90, on 8 Feb. 1897. By his first wife he left two children—John Nichol LL.D., the first occupant of the chair of English literature at Glasgow, from which he retired in 1889; and a daughter, married to William Jack, LL.D., professor of mathematics at Glasgow.

Nichol was a prolific and successful writer. His books, like his discourses, were eloquent, enthusiastic, and learned. ‘George Eliot’ described herself in 1841 as ‘revelling’ in them, and they were most effective in the popularisation of science. The principal were entitled: 1. ‘Views of the Architecture of the Heavens,’ Edinburgh, 1838. It ran through seven editions in seven years; the ninth (1851) was illustrated by David Scott; the tenth was published by Baillière. 2. ‘Phenomena of the Solar System,’ 1838, 1844, 1847. 3. ‘The System of the World,’ 1846. 4. ‘The Stellar Universe,’ 1847. 5. ‘The Planetary System,’ 1848, 1850. This work contained the earliest suggestion for the study of sunspots by photography. 6. ‘The Planet Neptune,’ 1855. 7. ‘A Cyclopædia of the Physical Sciences,’ 1857; a laborious work, of which he was engaged in preparing a second edition when he died. He besides translated, adding an elaborate introduction, Willm's ‘Education of the People’ (1847), and prefixed a dissertation on ‘General Principles in Geology’ to Keith Johnston's ‘Physical Atlas’ (1850). He was one of the editors of Mackenzie's ‘Imperial Dictionary of Biography,’ and contributed largely to periodical literature. His astronomical observations were directed chiefly to the physical features of the moon, and to the nebulæ, some of which, following on the theories of Laplace, he held to be mere gaseous masses till the apparent resolution of the nebula in Orion by the telescope of Lord Rosse.

[Maclehose's Hundred Glasgow Men; Chambers's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen; Monthly Notices, Royal Astronomical Society, xix. 141, xx. 131; Times, 23 Sept. 1859; Stewart's University of Glasgow, Old and New, p. 65; Gilfillan's Second Gallery of Literary Portraits, p. 231; Ann. Reg. 1859, p. 465; Allibone's Critical Dict. of English Literature; Poggendorff's Biog. Lit. Handwörterbuch; Graves's Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, ii. 635, iii. passim.]

A. M. C.