What manner of man was Halley?

Today, on board the Paramore, it is Halley’s 42nd birthday* and I thought I would mark that by looking at Halley’s character and personality.

The Biographia Britannica, published 15 years after his death, describes him as being:

of a middle stature, inclining to tallness, of a thin habit of body, and a fair complection, and always spoke as well as acted with an uncommon degree of sprightliness and vivacity.

While in his 1742 Éloge de M. Halley, Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan wrote that Halley:

possessed still more of the qualifications necessary to obtain him the love of his equals. In the first place he loved them; naturally of an ardent and glowing temper, he appeared animated in their presence with a generous warmth, which the pleasure alone of seeing them seemed to inspire; he was open and punctual in his dealings, candid in his judgment, uniform and blameless in his manners, sweet and affable, always ready to communicate, and disinterested.

He was generous, and his generosity exerted itself even at the expence of a vanity from which the learned are no more exempted than other men, and which they more frequently betray.

The reputation of others gave him no uneasiness, a restless jealousy and anxious emulation were strangers to his breast. He was equally ignorant of those extravagant prejudices in favour of one nation, which are injurious to all others.

A similar assessment is given by Agnes Mary Clerke in her 1890 entry for Halley in the Dictionary of National Biography, she writes:

His disposition was ardent, generous, and candid; he was disinterested and upright, genial to his friends, an affectionate husband and father, and was wholly free from rancour or jealousy … and was rendered socially attractive by the unfailing gaiety which embellished the more recondite qualities of a mind of extraordinary penetration, compass, and power.

Halley’s principal modern biographer, Alan Cook, tells us that Halley “remained a young man all his life, in his drive, practicality, and enthusiasm”, a view of which Halley himself would surely approve, given Thomas Hearne’s journal entry of 1728 that “Dr Halley (now in the 72nd year of his age) does not care to be thought old”.

What can be more fitting, then, than to end this post with a portrait of the scientist as a young man – Happy birthday, Edmond!

RS_9284 copy

Edmond Halley in his early 30s (the inscription is a later addition). (© The Royal Society (£), Image RS.9284)

* Halley’s birthday is October 29 by the Julian calendar (Old Style) of seventeenth-century England; by the current Gregorian calendar (New Style), his birthday falls on November 8.


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