William Scoresby

Birth: 1789


William Scoresby (1789-1857) was an English Arctic explorer, scientist and divine. He was born near Whitby, Yorkshire, on the 5th of October 1789. His father, William Scoresby (1760-1829), made a fortune in the Arctic whale fishery. The son made his first voyage with his father when he was eleven years of age, but on his return he was sent back to school, where he remained till 1803.

After this he was his father's constant companion, and was with him on the 25th of May 1806, as chief officer of the whaler "Resolution," when he succeeded in reaching 81° 30' N. lat. (19° E. long.), for twenty-one years the highest northern latitude attained in the eastern hemisphere. During the following winter, Scoresby attended the natural philosophy and chemistry classes at Edinburgh university, and again in 1809.

In his voyage of 1807 he began the study of the meteorology and natural history of the polar regions, among the earlier results of which are his original observations on snow and crystals; and in 1809 Robert Jameson brought certain Arctic papers of his before the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh, of which he was at once elected a member. In 1811 his father resigned to him the command of the "Resolution," and in the same year he married the daughter of a Whitby ship broker.

In his voyage of 1813 he established for the first time the fact that the temperature of the polar ocean is warmer at considerable depths than it is on the surface, and each subsequent voyage in search of whales found him no less eager of fresh additions to scientific knowledge. His letters of this period to Sir Joseph Banks, whose acquaintance he had made a few years earlier, no doubt gave the first impulse to the search for the North-West Passage which followed.

In 1819 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and about the same time communicated a paper to the Royal Society of London "On the Anomaly in the Variation of the Magnetic Needle." In 1820 he published An Account of the Arctic Regions and Northern Whale Fishery, in which he gathers up the results of his own observations, as well as those of previous navigators.

In his voyage of 1822 to Greenland he surveyed and charted with remarkable accuracy 400 m. of the east coast, between 69° 30' and 72° 30', thus contributing to the first real and important geographic knowledge of East Greenland. This, however, was the last of his Arctic voyages. On his return he was met by the news of his wife's death, and this event, with other influences acting upon his naturally pious spirit, decided him to enter the church. After two years of residence in Cambridge he took his degree (1825) and was appointed to the curacy of Bassingby, Yorkshire.

Meantime had appeared at Edinburgh his Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery, including Researches and Discoveries on the Eastern Coast of Greenland (1823). The discharge of his clerical duties at Bassingby, and later at Liverpool, at Exeter and at Bradford, did not prevent him from continuing his interest in science. In 1824 the Royal Society elected him a fellow, and in 1827 he was elected an honorary corresponding member of the Paris Academy of Sciences, while in 1839 he took the degree of D.D. From the first he was an active member and official of the British Association, and he contributed especially to the knowledge of terrestrial magnetism. Of his sixty papers in the Royal Society list many are more or less connected with this department of research. But his observations extended into many other departments, including certain branches of optics.

In order to obtain additional data for his theories on magnetism he made a voyage to Australia in 1856, the results of which were published in a posthumous work-Journal of a Voyage to Australia for Magnetical Research, edited by Archibald Smith (1859). He made two visits to America, in 1844 and 1848; on his return home from the latter visit he made some valuable observations on the height of Atlantic waves, the results of which were given to the British Association. He interested himself much in social questions, especially the improvement of the condition of factory operatives.

He also published numerous works and papers of a religious character. In 1850 he published a work urging the prosecution of the search for the Franklin expedition and giving the results of his own experience in Arctic navigation. He was twice married after the death of his first Wife. After his third marriage (1849) he built a villa at Torquay, where he died on the 21st of March 1857.

See the Life by his nephew, Dr R. E. Scoresby-Jackson (1861).


1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 24. pg. 409.

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