Artists, Writers and Scientists

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1760 (c) National Portrait Gallery

There were many intellectuals flourishing in the lively social atmosphere of Georgian York.  Two city doctors were also historians: John Burton published a history of the Church in Yorkshire, Monasticon Eboracense (1758), and Francis Drake wrote the first great history of York, Eboracum (1736).

Burton, the inventor of obstetric forceps, was immortalised as Dr Slop in Tristram Shandy, considered by many to be the first modern novel.  It was written by Laurence Sterne (1713-68), an Irish-born clergyman who settled in and around York and had active connections with the Minster throughout his life.

The most famous fictional character to emerge from the city was Robinson Crusoe, whose adventures were first published in 1719.  Crusoe is described by author Daniel Defoe as a mariner ‘born in 1632, in the city of York, of a good family’.

Among York’s scientific community was John Goodricke (1764-86), a gifted mathematician, who began observing the heavens through a friend’s private astronomical observatory in York.  He discovered and calibrated the variable brightness of stars, presenting his paper to the prestigious Royal Society in London aged only 19.

He won the Godfrey Copley medal for the most significant discovery in science, an even more remarkable achievement considering he was profoundly deaf.  Two years later he was dead from pneumonia, perhaps brought on by prolonged exposure to the cold night air.

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