William Rutter Dawes (1799 - 1868)

[Rev W R Dawes]
Rev W R Dawes
Copyright © The Royal Astronomical Society Library
Dawes was born in London. His father was a mathematics teacher who had high hopes that his son would become a clergyman in the Church of England. The young Dawes chose instead to train as a physician at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He moved to Liverpool in 1826 where he was to meet William Lassell (there appears to be no actual record of their first meeting) and strike up a lifelong friendship. It was around the time Dawes arrived in Liverpool that he became interested in astronomy and in particular the study of binary stars. In a letter he later wrote to Sir John Herschel, Dawes recalled how he obtained a copy of Rees's Encyclopaedia and from it copied out the list of Sir William Herschel's catalogue of double stars and using a 1.6 inch refractor and a copy of Flamsteed's Atlas that his father had, he worked away on every fine night to find all the binaries and draw diagrams of them.

Soon Dawes turned from medicine to religion when he became influenced by the Rev. Thomas Waffles who preached for many years at the Independent Chapel on Great George Street, Liverpool. That same building being in close proximity to where William Lassell lived but there is no evidence that the two men met there. This interest in religion resulted in Dawes taking charge of a small congregation of the same denomination in Ormskirk, some 15 miles from Liverpool. In 1829 Dawes took up astronomy and the study of binary stars in earnest. (Dawes and Lassell were already observing together by this time according to Lassell's observation notebook.) Sir John Herschel was to become Dawes' friend and mentor. Dawes improved on Sir John's own double star work by introducing refinements to his telescope, a 3.8 inch Dolland refractor, and was able, as a result, to make more accurate observations of binaries. Such was his observational prowess, he was often know as "eagle eye Dawes".

In 1830 Dawes was elected a Fellow of the RAS. He was never a healthy man and when his wife died in 1839 this affected his health even more. In consequence he gave up his congregation in 1839 and moved to London to take up the post of assistant at George Bishop's private observatory there. Bishop, who like Lassell, had amassed a fortune from producing alcohol, wine in his case, had become a patron of science erected an observatory in 1836 with a 7 inch refractor. Bishop, no astronomer himself, allowed Dawes to continue his astronomical work until 1844.

Dawes married again in 1842 and moved to Kent living some 40 miles from his friend Sir John Herschel. Dawes new wife was wealthy and he was able to erect his own observatory and install a 6.5 inch Merz refractor. With it, he co-discovered Saturn's crepe ring. W C Bond at the Harvard Observatory had also found the ring but before news crossed the Atlantic, Dawes had made his claim. In a letter to a friend, George Knott, Dawes pointed out that William Lassell using his 24 inch reflector had closely scrutinised Saturn on the 21st November, a very fine night, finding no suspicion of the dusky ring. Dawes goes on to describe his own discovery and a visit to him by Lassell soon after.

"on the 25th of November I detected for the first time a light within the area of the ring at both ends while examining the planet with my Munich refractor of 6.5 aperture while I was endeavouring to make out what it could possibly be I was interrupted by visitors. The next fine night, the 29th November, I attacked it vigorously, and made it out, I could scarcely believe my eyes or my telescope. On the December 2 Mr Lassell came to see me and the next night, the 3rd being fine, I prepared to show him the novelty which I had told him of and explained by my picture; but, naturally enough, he was quite indisposed to believe it could be anything he had not seen in his far more powerful telescope. However, being thus prepared to look for it , and the observatory being darkened to give every advantage on such an object, he was able to make it out in a few minutes."

In 1857 Dawes moved to Haddenham in Buckinghamshire where he stayed for the remainder of his life. There he gained great respect for the free medical service he gave to the poor of the town. His second wife died in 1860 and his own health deteriorated even more. He continued to observe until 1865 and that year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died 4 years later.

Jeff Hall
History of Science and Technology Group
University of Liverpool

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