Scoresby, William (1789–1857)
British Arctic explorer, whaler, physicist, author, and clergyman
who was also a pioneer in the study of animal magnetism.
He was born on October 5, 1789, at Cropton, near Whitby, England.
At the age of eleven, he accompanied his father (a master
mariner) on a whaling expedition, afterward resuming his
education at a simple country school. Three years later, he was
apprenticed to his father on a whaler. He made annual voyages
to Greenland, and became a ship’s chief officer in 1806. Later
in the same year, he resumed his studies, entering Edinburgh
University, Scotland, and studying chemistry and natural philosophy.
In 1807, he undertook a voyage to survey and chart the
Balta Sound in the Shetland Islands. Afterward he served with
the fleet at Copenhagen. He left the navy a year later and became
acquainted with Joseph Banks, who introduced him to
other scientists of the day. Scoresby made studies of natural
phenomena and resumed attendance at Edinburgh University.
From 1813 to 1817, he was at sea again, in charge of whaling
vessels. In January 1819, he was elected a fellow of the Royal
Society of Edinburgh, and in the following month he contributed
a paper on variations of the magnetic needle to the Royal
Society of London. The next year he published his first book,
An Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of
the Northern Whale-Fishery (2 vols., 1820), for many years the
standard work on the subject. This was the first of a number of
books that grew out of his worldwide travels.
In 1819, Scoresby moved with his family to Liverpool, where
he superintended the building of the Baffin, a vessel fitted for
the Greenland trade. He made three successful voyages in this
vessel, but on returning to Liverpool in 1822, he found that his
wife had died. Her death stimulated his strong religious convictions.
Following his next voyage in 1823, he entered Queen’s
College, Cambridge, England, to prepare for the ministry. He
was ordained in 1825, and for two years he was curé of Bessingby,
near Bridlington Quay, in the north of England.
He became successively chaplain of Mariners Church, Liverpool
(1827–32), incumbent of Bedford Chapel, Exeter
(1932–39), and vicar of Bradford (1839–47). He resigned because
of ill health, having spent six months leave on a voyage
to the United States in search of a replacement. He lived his last
years at the English seaside resort of Torquay when he was not
traveling in search of some relief from his illness. He died at
Torquay on March 21, 1857.
It was during his years at Exeter that Scoresby’s interest in
animal magnetism (mesmerism), arising from his observations
on terrestrial magnetism during his polar voyages, emerged.
During his last years at Torquay, he conducted a number of experiments,
having found that he could mesmerize subjects easily.
He gave the name ‘‘zoistic magnetism’’ to this hypnotic faculty.
His third wife was one of his hypnotic subjects.
Scoresby’s careful research into the possibility of clairvoyance
resulted in persuasive evidence for thought transference
or community of sensation between operator and subject. One
entranced subject was able to describe accurately food that
Scoresby tasted and also identified physical sensations in
Scoresby’s body. Another subject was immobilized as she sat on
a sofa that had been ‘‘magnetized’’ by Scoresby and was unable
to move outside an imaginary circle that Scoresby had traced
on the floor. The power of purely imaginary diagrams to imprison
hypnotized subjects was often explored by early mesmerists
and suggests affinities with the magic circles of occult
magicians.
Scoresby’s work in the field of animal magnetism is of special
importance. His book Zoistic Magnetism influenced James
Esdaile, who read it while he was in India. Esdaile claimed to
have successfully repeated Scoresby’s experiment in ‘‘magnetizing’’
a sofa, using an armchair with knobs that Esdaile ‘‘magnetized.’’
The subject was unable to remove his hands from the
chair knobs until Esdaile had made mesmeric passes over him.
Sources
Scoresby, William. Journal of a Voyage to Australia for Magnetical
Research. London Longman, Green, Longman, & Roberts,
1859.
———. Magnetical Investigations. 2 vols. London Longman,
Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844–52.
———. Zoistic Magnetism. London Longman, Brown,
Green, and Longmans, 1849.
Stamp, Tom, and Cordelia Stamp. William Scoresby, Arctic
Scientist. Whitby, U.K. Whitby Press, 1975.

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