Belfast Telegraph

Blue plaque for Northern Ireland astronomer who was knighted for his scientific work

Accomplished: Sir Thomas Maclear
Accomplished: Sir Thomas Maclear
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

An internationally-renowned astronomer from Co Tyrone whose observations assisted the explorer David Livingstone is to be recognised.

Sir Thomas Maclear's remarkable life will be celebrated with the erection of a blue plaque in his home town of Newtownstewart on Saturday.

The plaque will be unveiled at the Newtownstewart Centre 2000 by Paul Maclear, his great-great-great-grandson.

It has been organised by the Ulster History Circle, a voluntary organisation that places commemorative plaques in public places.

Thomas Maclear was born at Moyle Glebe, Newtownstewart, in March 1794.

The eldest son of Rev James Maclear and Mary Magrath, he was educated in England where he was destined to become an Anglican cleric, but instead trained for the medical profession. In 1815 he was accepted into the Royal College of Surgeons in England and worked as a house surgeon in the Bedford Infirmary.

Ten years later he married Mary Pearse and they had four sons and seven daughters.

He developed a keen interest in astronomy and began a long association with the Royal Astronomical Society.

In 1833 he was named His Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

He worked closely with Sir John Herschel, who was carrying out surveys of the southern sky.

Between 1841 and 1848 Maclear was occupied in performing a geodesic survey for the purpose of recalculating the dimensions and shape of the earth.

This covered an area from Namaqualand to Cape Agulhas and a beacon was erected on top of Table Mountain which was used as a triangulation station to check calculations.

Maclear was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1859 and the following year was knighted for his outstanding scientific work as an astronomer.

He became close friends with David Livingstone and they shared an interest in African exploration. Through Maclear's work, Livingstone was able to plan his expeditions carefully.

His wife died in 1861 and he retired from the observatory in 1870. He died in Cape Town on July 14, 1879. He is buried next to his wife in the grounds of the Royal Observatory.

The town of Maclear in the Eastern Cape and Cape Maclear are named after him. The Maclear beacon is at the highest point on Table Mountain, and there is also a beach and a moon crater named in his honour.

Ulster History Circle vice-chairman Paul Clements said: "Sir Thomas Maclear played an active part in numerous scientific and cultural activities and it is gratifying that his name lives on in South Africa and will continue to be remembered in his native Newtownstewart."

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