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Forbes, James David, (1809-1868), Professor
Forbes, James David, (1809-1868), Professor
James Forbes was a key player in the development of early alpine mountaineering, and his example led many to follow in his boot prints. Forbes was a Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University and spent a considerable amount of time between 1835 and 1842 travelling, climbing and studying in the Alps. Although he began this activity in order to collect evidence for his theory of glacier movement, some of his climbs had little scientific justification, and instead were purely adventurous, such as his ascent of the Jungfrau in 1841. In 1842 he spent much of the summer on the Mer de Glace above Chamonix in order to gain an intimate insight into the working of a great glacier. This culminated in his ground-breaking work which became known as the ‘Viscous Theory’ which first proposed that glacier ice did not behave like a solid at all, as everyone had assumed, but more like a very slowly deforming liquid. However, Forbes’ influence in pump-priming the imminent ‘invasion’ of the Alps by British climbers lay not so much in his scientific discoveries, but in his descriptions of the climbs he had made there. Despite the prevailing orthodoxy that the pursuit of scientific knowledge was the only noble reason for venturing high, his semi-autobiographical book, Travels through the Alps, actually contained rather a lot of uninhibited high adventure. These accounts, along with self-penned sketches of the mountains, captured the imagination of a public thirsty for new areas to visit and marvel at. The success of the publicity afforded to the Alps was such that thirty years later Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal was to bemoan the fact: ‘I suppose,’ he intoned, ‘it may be asserted that the present popularity of Zermatt, a place which was before scarcely known, is almost entirely due to Professor Forbes’s picture of the Matterhorn.’
Further reading: Killing Dragons, Fergus Fleming. Granta, 2000
Biographical information is kindly supplied by Colin Wells.
2006-08-06 00:00:00
Maxine Willett
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Forbes, James David, (1809-1868), Professor