Ball, John

John Ball, 1818 – 1889

Glaciologist, botanist and politician

John Ball is best known as a prominent 19th-century glaciologist but who also, in the course of his field studies, recorded the flora of many regions. He was born on 20th August 1818 in Dublin , to judge Nicholas Ball and Jane Sherlock. He showed a precocious interest in natural science, stimulated by a visit to the Swiss Alps at age 7.  

He entered Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1835, studied under the botanist John Stevens Henslow and the geologist Adam Sedwick, and completed his degree course in 1839.   However, as a Roman Catholic he could not be conferred. He spent the next six years travelling throughout Europe , during which he wrote a key paper on the botany of Sicily . In 1845 he studied glaciers in Zermatt and contributed to the on-going debate on their postulated role in influencing landforms.

Ball was called to the Irish bar in 1843, but never practiced. In 1846, during the Irish Famine, he was appointed assistant Poor Law Commissioner. While stationed in Kerry, he noted glaciated landforms, previously unrecorded in Ireland , which he had earlier observed in Zermatt . In 1852 he was elected Liberal MP for Carlow.   He advocated most of the Liberal causes in parliament, such as the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland , and reforms in land tenure, valuations and rents. In 1858 he ran for the Limerick constituency but was defeated, mainly due to clerical opposition.

As an MP, he had attracted the attention of the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, who appointed him Under-Secretary for the Colonies in 1855. In this position he was able to promote many scientific initiatives.   These included the Palliser expedition to explore Atlantic-Pacific railway routes in Canada, and Sir William Hooker’s master plan to publish floras of all the British colonies.

His keen interest in the natural history of the Alps led to his nomination as first President of the Alpine Club (founded 1857). The Club comprised a small band of enthusiasts with a zest for adventure, the glories of the mountains and the patient pursuit of natural sciences.   Ball compiled The Alpine Guide in 1863-68, in three volumes covering the western, central and eastern Alps . The special geological and botanical features of each district were included.

In 1871 Ball, with Sir J D Hooker and G Maw, explored the Great Atlas mountains in Morocco , comparing its flora with that of the European mountains. In 1882 he made a five-month expedition to South America , publishing his results as Notes of a Naturalist in South America in 1887.

He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA) in 1840 and a fellow of the Royal Society ( FRS ) in 1869. He was also a fellow of the Linnean, the Geophysical and the Antiquarian societies of London.


DNB .2004. Vol. 3; 562-564. Oxford University Press 

DIB (on-line database). Royal Irish Academy . Cambridge University Press


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