Adams, John Couch

Mathematical astronomer, born at Lidcot Farm, near Launceston, Cornwall on 5 June 1819, the son of a tenant farmer. The family were staunch Wesleyans. During schooling at Devonport he was grounded in Classics and began a lifelong passion for maths and astronomy. A small legacy from his mother's side of the family enabled him to go to Cambridge. He was educated at St John's College, and was senior wrangler and the first Smith's prizeman. His discovery by mathematical deduction of the existence of the planet Neptune in 1843-45, at the same time as but independently of U.J.J. Leverrier, led to controversy (though he was later instrumental, with characteristic generosity, in persuading Cambridge to confer an honorary LLD on his rival). He refused a knighthood in 1847, but was awarded the Copley Medal in 1848 and became an FRS in 1849. He was a Fellow of St John's until 1852 and then of Pembroke College. He was elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society for 1851-53. From 1859 on he was Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and from 1861 Director of the Cambridge Observatory. His investigation of lunar theory and Leonid meteors won him a gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1866. He received honorary degrees from Oxford, Dublin, Edinburgh and Bologna. His omnivorous reading included theology and there are memorials to him in Truro Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. He died at the Cambridge Observatory on 21 January 1892 and was buried in the nearby St. Giles's cemetery.

One of his brothers, Thomas Adams (1820-1885; e.m. 1845), born at Lidcot Farm on 28 April 1820, trained at Richmond College and served as a WM missionary in the Friendly Islands, 1846-1861 under the Australasian Conference. He succeeded John Thomas as Chairman of the Tonga District and completed the translation of the Tongan Bible. Back in England, he helped to raise funds for the purchase of the Leys estate in Cambridge. He died at Chatteris on 24 October 1885.

Another brother, William Grylls Adams (1836-1915) became an outstanding scientist and educationalist. From 1865 to 1905 he was professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at King's College, London. His wide-ranging research interests included magnetism, the polarization of light and astronomy.


'Adams is a quiet-looking man, with a broad forehead, a mild face, and a most amiable and expressive mouth.I sat by him at dinner, and by gradual and dainty approaches got at the subject on which one most wished to hear him speak… He, in common with many others, conceived that there must be a planet to account for the disturbances of Uranus; and when he had time he set to work at the process, in deep, quiet faith that the Fact was there, and that his hitherto untried mathematical path was the one which must reach it; that there were no anomalies in the Universe, but that even here, and now, they could be explained and included in a Higher Law… At length he fixed his point in space, and sent his mathematical evidence to Airy, the Astronomer-Royal, who locked the papers up in his desk, partly from carelessness, partly from incredulity - for it seemed to him improbable that a man whose name was unknown to him should strike out such a new path in mathematical science with any success… Then came Leverrier's equally original, though many months younger, demonstration: Gall[e]'s immediate verification of it by observation: and then the astonomers were all astir. Professor Adams speaks of those, about whom the English scientific world is so indignant, in a spirit of Christian philosophy, exactly in keeping with the mind of a man who had discovered a planet.He speaks with warm admiration of Leverrier, specially of his exhaustive method of making out the orbits of the comets, imagining and disproving all tracks but the right one - a work of infinite labour. They enjoyed being a good deal together at the British Association Meeting at Oxford, though it was unfortunate for the intercourse of the fellow-workers that one could not speak French nor the other English.'

The Journals of Caroline Fox 1835-1871, ed. Wendy Monk (1972) pp.176-7

  • G. Elsie Harrison, "Methodist Good Companions" (1935) pp.88-108
  • Oxford 'DNB