Richard Proctor

On this date in 1837, Richard Anthony Proctor was born in London, England. Proctor attended St. John's College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and theology, receiving his degree in 1860. Soon after graduation, he began making astronomical observations, as well as writing about astronomy for the general public. He became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1876. In his popular writings, Proctor connected astronomical ideas to the religious and intellectual debate then current about the possibility of life on other worlds in order to pique the public's interest. He went on several lecture tours throughout the English-speaking world, including Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States. In 1881, he and his family moved to the United States, where he lived for the remainder of his life. He wrote widely, including as many as 57 books, 500 essays and 83 scientific papers on astronomy.

Proctor was a Catholic from the time of his first marriage in 1860, but he later abandoned these beliefs for deism and, finally, agnosticism. Many of his later written works take a skeptical view toward religious and theological questions, such as the dismissal in his The Universe of Suns, and Other Science Gleanings of the possibility of the Star of Bethlehem being based on an astronomical event. Proctor was also unafraid to admit his own mistakes, and made a public announcement in The New York Daily Tribune about a change of opinion on the philosophical problems of astronomy, as well as “the supervision and control of the universe” — an oblique reference to the divine. Proctor's daughter Mary (1862-1959) followed in his footsteps as a popularizer of astronomy. She had worked with her father as an assistant and learned from him how to write for a commercial audience. The Mars crater called Proctor is named for Richard Proctor. The crater Proctor on the moon, however, is named for Mary. D. 1888.

Prof. Proctor thus explains the object of the Sunday course of lectures which he is to deliver in Boston: “I wish to indicate the relation of modern astronomy to the great questions at present agitating the scientific and religious worlds. It has perhaps become manifest to readers of my latest works on science that I view these questions differently now than a few years or even a year or two ago. The views I now entertain on such subjects as the plurality of worlds, cosmic evolution, the supervision and control of the universe, the infinities amid which we are placed, and so forth, are altogether unlike those which I indicated in my 'Other Worlds than Ours,' and others of my earlier works.”

—New York Daily Tribune, Nov. 5, 1875

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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