John Ball (1818 – 1889)

John
Ball was a notable Irish politician, naturalist, glaciologist and Alpine traveller. He made significant
discoveries in the field of natural science, particularly in the areas of
botany and glaciology.

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Background

Ball
was born on the 20th of August 1818 in Dublin. He was the eldest son
of a judge, Nicholas Ball, and his wife Jane Sherlock. From an early age, he showed an interest
in natural science, since he visited the Swiss Alps at age seven. (Ask About
Ireland n.d.) He entered Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1835, where he studied
under the botanist John Stevens Henslow and the geologist Adam Sedwick. He completed
his degree course in 1839. (Ask About Ireland n.d.) After leaving Cambridge, he
travelled in Switzerland and around Europe, studying botany and glaciology, and contributing papers on both subjects to scientific journals.
(Revolvy n.d.) Ball also had an active role in British and Irish politics. In 1846,
during the Irish Famine, he was appointed assistant Poor Law Commissioner. (Ask
About Ireland n.d.) He resigned in 1847 and stood as a candidate for Sligo in
parliament. In 1852 he was elected Liberal MP for Carlow. In 1858 he ran for
the Limerick constituency but was defeated. (Ask About Ireland n.d.) In 1858 he stood for
Limerick, but was again beaten. His defeat prompted him to abandon politics,
and he instead devoted himself to pursuing his interest in natural history.
(Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911)

Scientific
Contribution

While
travelling around Europe, Ball studied botany and glaciers. He wrote a paper on
the botany of Sicily, and in 1845 he studied glaciers in Zermatt, Switzerland,
observing their effect on landforms. In 1846, while stationed in Kerry as
assistant Poor Law Commissioner, he noted similar glaciated landforms, akin to
those he had observed in Zermatt; these had never been observed in Ireland. (Ask
About Ireland n.d.)

In
1857, Ball made the first ascent of Monte Pelmo, near Cortina, Italy, and then of
Cima Tosa in 1865. (The Alpine Club, 2011)

He
also travelled in Morocco (1871) and South America (1882). Several of his
observations were recorded in books. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911)

Ball
contributed several papers on Alpine plants to scientific journals. In 1879, he
gave a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, titled “On the Origins
of the Flora of the European Alps.”

Ball’s
scientific papers on botany and glaciology also influenced the great naturalist
Charles Darwin. (The Alpine Club, 2011)

Prizes/Distinctions
and Scientific Societies

Ball
was first president of the Alpine Club (founded 1857). Countless climbs and
journeys, and the observations made, resulted in the publication of his renowned
Alpine Guide (London, 1863-1868). (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911) Ball
visited the Alps almost every year from the mid-1840s until his death. He
gained a vast knowledge of the natural history and geography of the region. (The
Alpine Club, 2011) Ball’s Alpine Guide was published in three volumes,
covering the Western, Central and Eastern Alps respectively. (The Alpine Club, 2011) The guide was
hugely successful, and incited a rise in interest in the Alps. (The Alpine
Club, 2011)

Ball
was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA) in 1840 and a member of
the Royal Society (FRS) in 1869. He was also made a member of the Linnean, the
Geophysical and the Antiquarian societies of London. (Ask About Ireland n.d.)

Colleagues/Collaborations

As
an MP, Ball attracted the attention of the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, who
appointed him Under-Secretary for the Colonies in 1855. (Ask About Ireland n.d.)
He held this post for two years. At the colonial office he had great influence in furthering
the cause of natural science. He helped with the equipment of the Palliser
expedition in Canada, and with Sir W. Hooker’s efforts to obtain an organised
knowledge of the colonial floras. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911) In recognition of his
efforts, the Ball Range in the Canadian Rockies was named after him. (Revolvy
n.d.)

Ball
also worked alongside the naturalists Sir J. D. Hooker and G. Maw. In 1871,
they explored the Great Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where they compared its
flora with that of European mountains. (Ask About Ireland n.d.)

Personal Life
and Death

Ball
married Elisa Parolini, daughter of the Italian naturalist Alberto Parolini. He died in London in
October 1889, aged 81. (Revolvy n.d.)

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