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James Craig Watson

Born: 28-Jan-1838
Birthplace: Fingal, Ontario, Canada
Died: 23-Nov-1880 [1]
Location of death: Madison, WI
Cause of death: Illness [2]
Remains: Buried, Forest Hill Cemetery, Ann Arbor, MI

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Astronomer, Mathematician

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Claimed to discover the planet Vulcan

James Craig Watson was considered a child prodigy in mathematics, and spent only a day and a half in high school before quitting, because he felt he knew more about mathematics than the teacher. Over the next several years, he worked in a print shop while teaching himself advanced mathematics, Latin, Greek, and as much astronomy as he could find in the library and taught algebra and geometry to the man who would have been his high school teacher. At fifteen he entered the University of Michigan, where by the age of 21 he was a full professor and had authored 47 articles published in scientific journals. In twenty years teaching at the University, he discovered 22 asteroids and became one of America's most respected astronomers.

In 1878 he announced his discovery of the planet Vulcan, originally proposed by astronomer Urbain Le Verrier (1811-77) and verified by Watson's observation of the planet between Mercury and the Sun. What Watson saw is now assumed to have been sunspots, as the planet's existence is widely disbelieved by astronomers, but the Vulcan of Le Verrier and Watson was presumably the inspiration for the planet Vulcan in Star Trek mythology. In 1879 Watson accepted the directorship of the planned Washburn Observatory at Madison, Wisconsin, and while that Observatory was still under construction he was stricken with acute inflammation of the bowels. He died within days of his first symptoms, only 42 years of age, and in his obituaries he was prominently described as the discoverer of Vulcan. He is the namesake of the James Craig Watson Medal, awarded by the National Academy of Sciences, for outstanding astronomical research.


[1] Erroneously listed as 1879 in some sources.

[2] Peritonitis.

Father: William Watson (farmer, b. 17-Jan-1811, d. 28-Nov-1878)
Mother: Rebecca Bacon Watson (b. Jun-1818, m. 1837, d. 1901)
Sister: Catharine Watson (chemist, b. circa 1839, d. 18-Jul-1877)
Brother: Edward Watson (physician, b. Nov-1840, d. 1901)
Brother: Elthan Watson (b. circa 1844, d. 1879)
Wife: Annette Waite Watson (m. 1860, no children)

    High School: Ann Arbor High School, Ann Arbor, MI (briefly attended, 1850)
    University:
BA Astronomy, University of Michigan (1857)
    University: MA Physics, University of Michigan (1859)
    Teacher: Mathematics, University of Michigan (1858-60)
    Professor: Astronomy, University of Michigan (1859-60 and 1863-79)
    Professor: Physics, University of Michigan (1860-63)
    Professor: Astronomy, University of Wisconsin at Madison (1879-80)
    Administrator: Assistant Director, Ann Arbor Observatory, University of Michigan (1858-59)
    Administrator: Acting Director, Ann Arbor Observatory, University of Michigan (1859-63)
    Administrator: Director, Ann Arbor Observatory, University of Michigan (1863-79)
    Administrator: Director, Washburn Observatory, University of Wisconsin at Madison (1879-80)

    American Philosophical Society 1877
    National Academy of Sciences 1867
    Gold Medal of the Imperial Institute of France 1870
    Asteroid Namesake 729 Watsonia
    Lunar Crater Watson (62.6 S, 124.5 W, 64 km. diameter)
    Naturalized US Citizen
    Canadian Ancestry
    Irish Ancestry Paternal

Author of books:
A Popular Treatise on Comets (1861)
Theoretical Astronomy: Relating to the Motions of the Heavenly Bodies (1868)


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