Apr 202012

20th April marks the anniversary of the death of a remarkable young man who died, at only 21 years of age, on this day in 1786.

John Goodricke was born in 1764 in Groningen in the Netherlands, to a Dutch mother and an English father who was a diplomat. He was the eldest of five children. In 1769 he contracted scarlet fever, and the illness left him totally deaf.

His parents sent him to Thomas Braidwood’s Academy in Edinburgh, a school with an excellent reputation for educating deaf children. Indeed when Dr Johnson visited the Academy in 1773 he was astonished, remarking “No other city has to show a college of the deaf and dumb, who are taught to speak, to read, to write, and practise arithmetic.” Amazed by what he witnessed from the twelve students, he declared, “they hear with the eye.”

In 1778 the thirteen year old boy was sent to Warrington Academy while the family moved to nearby York. Warrington was a school with an excellent academic record – Joseph Priestly had been a tutor there – but it had no special facilities for deaf pupils. Indeed these would appear not to have been needed because John Goodricke had mastered lip reading, and could communicate fully with his mentors. The school had been founded as a Unitarian theological seminary and one of the teachers was William Enfield. He taught natural philosophy and mathematics – subjects in which his deaf pupil excelled. He also taught religion, elocution and, most important of all, astronomy. It is highly likely that it was Enfield who fostered John’s interest in the night sky.

When he left Warrington John went to live with his family at The Treasurers House in York. From then on the story moves swiftly. John had developed a fascination with the universe and this passion was shared with his cousin Edward Piggott who, at 28, was eleven years his senior. Edward’s father was Nathaniel Piggott, a well-known astronomer, and he provided the eager pair with sophisticated equipment with which to scan the skies at night (a telescope and an extremely accurate timepiece).

Goodricke studied the star Algol, otherwise Beta Persei. It is the second brightest star in the constellation Perseus, and its light takes something like 93 years to reach us. It is distinctive for varying in brightness every few days. In his Journal for 12th November 1782 Goodricke writes:

“This night looked at Beta-Persei …and was much amazed to find its brightness altered. It now appears to be fourth magnitude… I observed it diligently for about an hour upwards…hardly believing that it changed its brightness, because I had never heard of any star varying so quick in its brightness. I thought it might be perhaps owing to an optical illusion, a defect in my eyes or bad air, but the sequel will show that its change is true and that it was not mistaken.

Goodricke measured these fluctuations as occurring every 68 hours and fifty minutes. He correctly surmised that this was a sort of cosmic B.O.G.O.F. (Buy one, get one free) whereby two stars were locked in a perpetual game of merry-go-round, each eclipsing the other at regular intervals. His discovery of the first known eclipsing binary i.e. a pair of rotating stars, opened the way for others to locate similar examples. For this work, he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1783.

John continued to study stars and went on to discover the variability of Beta Lyrae and Delta Cephei, the latter apparently being known as a ‘prototype Cepheid variable’ (whatever that may mean!). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 6th April 1786. Sadly, he never knew of the honour , as he died two weeks later from pneumonia, before news of his election reached him. He is buried in the family grave at Hunsingore Church in Yorkshire.

A plaque at Treasurers House at York, where John made his discoveries, reads as follows:

“From a window in the Treasurer’s House, City of York, the young deaf and dumb astronomer John Goodricke, who was elected a fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 21, observed the periodicity of the star ALGOL and discovered the variation of CEPHEL and other stars thus laying the foundation of modern measurement of the Universe.”

I will leave it to another star-gazer to comment on his achievement. Sir Patrick Moore, the TV astronomer, made the following remarks:

“He was deaf and dumb and remained so all through his life, but there was nothing the matter with either his eyesight or his brain; he became an expert observer as well as a theorist.”

Commemorative stamp from Nicaragua, 1994

One of the colleges at York University is named Goodricke College in his honour.

In the Eighteenth Century it was especially hard for any person to overcome  a disability such as profound deafness – it was a society in which no quarter was given, no allowance made. But he made a significant contribution to the field of astronomy, and deserves to be remembered, as an inspiration to others.

  One Response to “Signing off: John Goodricke, astronomer, died 20th April 1786”


    Interestingly the superstitious might comment that the star he was studying, Algol, might have been responsible for his bad luck and early death; the original name was ra’s al-Ghul, the demon star. [lit, the ogre’s head, a name also to be reflected in Hebrew and Latin names for it]. Even in far away China it had the name ‘pile of corpses’ which is equally grim…
    I can’t help wondering why this particular star should be associated with ill luck across the globe; not something John Goodricke in the age of reason would hold any truck with!

 Leave a Reply