Professor John North: Historian of science who made spectacular raids into archaeology, art and literature

Monday 24 November 2008 01:00

John North's work illuminated the history of science from its earliest beginnings to the present day. As well as making important contributions to the history of astronomy and cosmology, he used his remarkable powers of scholarship to recover lost worlds of thought in archaeology, literature and art, publishing strikingly original interpretations of Stonehenge, Chaucer and Holbein.

Born in Cheltenham in 1934, North spent most of his early life in Yorkshire. From Batley Grammar School he went to Merton College, Oxford, to read mathematics, but changed to PPE in order to study philosophy. After teaching in Derbyshire, and passing an external London degree in maths, physics and astronomy with distinction, he taught physics at Magdalen College School, Oxford. He then won a Nuffield Foundation fellowship, held at Oxford University from 1963 to 1968, which allowed him to devote himself to research on the history of science.

It was in Oxford that he met his wife, Marion. They married in 1957, the beginning of a personal and intellectual partnership at the heart of his work that lasted for 51 years. His debt to her is repeatedly expressed in his books.

North's first book, The Measure of the Universe: a History of Modern Cosmology (1965), stemming from his doctoral research, was typically ambitious in its range and detailed in its scholarship. He was appointed Librarian and Assistant Curator of Oxford University's Museum of the History of Science, in 1968, which gave him an unequalled opportunity to study early scientific instruments. His boundless intellectual curiosity and capacity for hard work soon started to produce what was to become a prodigious output of books, scientific papers and reviews.

His most important early publication, in 1976, was an exemplary three-volume edition of the works of an Oxford-trained mathematician with a good claim to have been England's greatest medieval scientist. In 1965 North had recognised a manuscript in the Bodleian Library as the description of the workings of a clock built by Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336). Extraordinarily elaborate in design, and aimed at measuring time in the heavens as well as on earth, the clock set new standards of accuracy. It is also the earliest mechanical clock that can be reconstructed with confidence, as indeed was done during the 1970s.

As well as publishing Richard Wallingford: an edition of his writings and in 1968 Horoscopes and History, North returned to the subject in a later book, God's Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford and the invention of time (2005), a biography of the blacksmith's son who rose to become head of the great abbey of St Albans but died a leper.

Together with his mentor and friend Alistair Crombie, North ran an admired Special Subject at Oxford on the history of science. In 1977, however, he accepted the chair in the History of Philosophy and the Exact Sciences at Groningen in the Netherlands, where he stayed until his retirement in 1999. Oxford's loss was Groningen's gain. Among North's many other gifts was one for languages. Becoming fluent in Dutch, he entered fully into the life of his new university, where he was greatly admired as a scholar and esteemed as a colleague.

North's international credentials were recognised by visiting professorships at Frankfurt and Aarhus, as well as at Yale, Minnesota and Austin, and by membership of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science, the Royal Danish Academy and the German Academia Leopoldina. His administrative abilities also led to his appointment as Secretary of the Académie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences, of which he became the driving force for 10 years from 1983.

As a leading expert on medieval astronomical instruments, North was well aware of Geoffrey Chaucer's A Treatise on the Astrolabe. This led to his re-examination of the whole of the poet's work in Chaucer's Universe (1988). In it he not only explained the astronomical references in Chaucer's work, and how they could be used to date it accurately, he showed that individual stories in The Canterbury Tales owed their structure to astronomical considerations.

In another important work, Stonehenge: Neolithic man and the cosmos (1996), North reinterpreted Stonehenge, and with it the whole early history of science. Backing his arguments with a wealth of archaeological detail, he claimed that Stonehenge was constructed for the observation of the setting midwinter sun, not the rising midsummer sun.

North showed his powers as a sleuth and code-breaker at their most scintillating in his next book, The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the world of the Renaissance (2002). Holbein's masterpiece, in the National Gallery, has always puzzled interpreters. What is the significance of the scientific instruments between Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, or of the extraordinary anamorphic skull in the foreground? Using a dazzling range of scholarship, North calculated the time given in the portrait as 4pm on Good Friday, 11 April 1533, 1500 years exactly after the Crucifixion, with the key to the painting to be found in the small crucifix, often unnoticed, in its top left-hand corner.

North's spectacular raids into other disciplines provoked criticism, not unexpectedly, from the specialists upon whose toes he had trodden. He became resigned to criticism that avoided trying to answer his arguments and to critics who were unable to follow his mathematical workings. While the longer-term impact of his interpretations of Chaucer, Stonehenge and Holbein is still to be seen, the integrity, originality and power of North's work are beyond doubt.

The description of a man who combined a vast literary output with ceaseless intellectual energy might conjure up an image of John North as an austere and purely cerebral figure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Few academics of such distinction can have had less side to them. He remained modest, friendly and helpful in person, and was always interested in other people. Practical, hospitable and witty, he was above all a good family man, devoted to his wife, children and grandchildren.

Despite being diagnosed with cancer in 2005, he continued his work to the end, concerned for others as much as for himself. His last major book, Cosmos, a revision and expansion of his Fontana History of Astronomy and Cosmology (1994), reflecting a lifetime's work, appeared in July this year.

Martin Sheppard

John David North, historian of science: born Cheltenham, Gloucestershire 19 May 1934; Nuffield Foundation Research Fellow, Oxford University 1963-68, Assistant Curator, Museum of the History of Science 1968-77, Senior Research Associate, Museum of the History of Science 2003-08; Professor of History of Philosophy and the Exact Sciences, University of Groningen, Netherlands 1977-99 (Emeritus); Honorary Permanent Secretary, Académie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences 1983-2008; FBA 1992; married 1957 Marion Pizzey (one son, two daughters); died Oxford 31 October 2008.

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