Sunday, 15 July 2012

John Gough - blind scientist and polymath, Wellcome Collection

27June 2012

John Gough’s (1757-1825) ledger account of observations in Kendal of weather and birds migrations was the object which had been chosen from the archives of the Wellcome Collection. ( The archivist Chris Hilton was sparring with Quentin Cooper in the uncovering of the object. 

Meteorological journal kept by John Gough, blind naturalist of Kendal, and sent to Luke Howard, meteorologist and chemist of London.
credit: Wellcome Library, London

I had a sneak peek at the ledger in the Wellcome Library as part of the Wellcome’s audio described preview. I can’t read so Catherine Walker read out the ledger entries from the original volume.    

John Gough had a Quaker background and was in correspondence with other Quakers.  Quakers had a reputation for letter writing and family letters have been meticulously archived.  These Gough records came into the Wellcome Collection, which continues to collect items of health, science and society. 

A Meterological journal kept at Middlesaw, near Kendal ...
credit: Wellcome Library, London

The archives within the Wellcome Library are open to all and can be accessed in person provided you have suitable identity; or via the internet if the archives are on the images list.  For previous events in the ‘The This Is …’ series, the images department at the Wellcome have sent me images of the touch pieces discussed.  For the June gathering, I had been given the catalogue numbers for the items discussed and was able to download them from the Wellcome’s website.  I have put these images on the blog, though I can’t read them. (This is similar to my nmr spectra.)

Although John Gough lost his sight aged 3 on account of smallpox, he dictated his “observations” and asked matter of fact questions.  He was in the circle of Luke Howard from the chemical company who were linked into the dyer chemical business. 

Howard of Ilford had a chemical plant in Ilford (London) and I can remember going round the iodine sublimation towers which were used for refining iodine.  The Japanese cornered the market out of Chile by the 1980s.  At the time, iodine was used in the manufacture of erythrosine, a food colour used in many soft drinks and a topic for some speculation regarding health.

The Gough family had a business in Kendal and the Lake District.  John Gough was a mentor of John Dalton, a fellow Quaker.  The Wellcome Library has much to do with Dalton.  John Dalton’s manuscripts and meteorological readings from various lakes and hills in the Lake District are in bundles in the Wellcome Archives.  On my June visit Catherine showed me examples of John Dalton memorabilia.  As the items I “handled” are not yet in digital format, it was a treat to be so close to chemical history. 

Catherine mentioned that such access is available with a library reader card.  I had been encouraged to try out the Wellcome Library on previous visits so on a subsequent visit I duly signed up.   

Quakers could not attain high political office and barred themselves from army, English Universities, law, organised religion.  John Gough formed part of a Quaker network which included Luke Howard who researched and systematised cloud analysis.  Goethe was said to be keen to be introduced to Howard.  The talk was followed by a discussion of the scientific method and on being matter of fact and precise. 

This was an interesting meeting for me on several fronts.  First, though blind, John Gough had been able to link in to an educational system and scientific society that may not have appeared to be mainstream.  It was fascinating to hear Catherine read out some of the ledger items which form much of our detailed descriptions of weather of 200 years ago. 

Second, there is also the incidental testimony, or unwitting testimony, that can be drawn from such observations and comments on other topics are now useful for archivists in promoting a digital bank of data which can be connected. 

Finally, as part of my sneak peek or preview Catherine had shown me some of the papers of John Dalton.  This was particularly significant for me as a chemist.  The inorganic chemistry division of the Royal Society of Chemistry is named after John Dalton and Dalton can be said to be one of the original thinkers in chemistry in his time.  Dalton’s Atomic Theory was ground breaking in its day so I found it encouraging that he had been mentored by John Gough, a blind man.  Gough had a reputation for asking matter of fact questions and I could find myself nodding as Chris Hilton told us about his methods of questioning and having his measurements and answers presented by a third party.