Sabine, Sir Edward (1788–1883), soldier, polar explorer, and physicist, was born 14 October 1788 in Great Britain St. (Parnell St.), Dublin, youngest of five sons and four daughters of Joseph Sabine and his wife Sarah, daughter of Rowland Hunt of Shropshire. He was the great-grandson of an English settler, also named Joseph Sabine (1661–1739), a landowner at Killmolin, Co. Wicklow, who fought with the army of William III (qv) in Ireland and rose to the rank of major-general in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which was stationed in Ireland. He was left in command of the English army in Scotland in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1715, and owned an estate in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, when he purchased the house and estate of Tewin, Hertfordshire, where he rebuilt the house and improved its gardens. Edward's family therefore had a long tradition in the military, which he followed at the age of 14 when he joined the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in December 1803; was posted to Gibraltar in 1804 and to various home stations till 1813; and was a second captain when he was sent to Quebec and fought against the Americans in the Niagara campaign.
It was through interactions with his brother-in-law Henry Browne and his brother Joseph Sabine (1770–1837), a founding member of the Linnean Society, that Edward developed his scientific interests, which included ornithology, horticulture, and earth sciences. This in turn led to his involvement in the observation of the earth's magnetism, magnetic instrumentation, and polar exploration. In 1818 the Royal Society of London recommended Sabine's assignment as astronomer and scientific officer to the North-west Passage expedition led by John Ross. His scientific observations in Baffin Bay included tides, currents, and atmospheric refraction, the determination of latitude, longitude, and gravity, and the measurement of magnetic intensity and direction. He quarrelled with Ross over credit for his work. He also produced a report on the expedition's biological observations and research, which appeared in Transactions of the Linnean Society and included a new species of bird, named Larus sabini. He wrote an account of the ‘Esquimaux’ (Inuit) people of the west coast of Greenland for the Quarterly Journal of Science.
Sabine went to the Arctic again in 1819 under William Edward Parry, sailing to 113° W. to reach Melville Island, where the navy expedition successfully overwintered at Winter Harbour. He conducted a magnetic survey with Parry and James Clark Ross. On return he tabulated the observations and arranged most of the appendices for Parry's journal, for which he was awarded the Copley medal of the Royal Society in 1821. Parry named Sabine Peninsula on Melville Island in his honour. Sabine continued his magnetic observations with a survey of the British Isles, working again with J. C. Ross. These voyages changed the course of his life and by 1830 he had become associated with what is known as ‘the magnetic crusade’, which involved a major investment in facilities, instruments, and training and deployment of a large number of observers in a global study and collection of data. He sailed aboard Pheasant in November 1821, visiting, for the purpose of scientific observation, the South Atlantic and the Caribbean. He continued in a further voyage visiting New York, Hammerfest, Greenland, and Spitzbergen. At 74° N., off Greenland's east coast he landed on an island to make magnetic observations. The island was later named Sabine Island.
He was supported in his magnetic work by Sir John Barrow, second secretary of the admiralty, and by the Royal Society. His regiment was posted to Ireland from 1830 to 1837 in the wake of the election of Daniel O'Connell (qv), where he collaborated with the Rev. Professor Humphrey Lloyd (qv) of TCD in a magnetic survey of Ireland in 1834, which was extended to Scotland in 1834 and to England a year later. Many of the instruments used were devised by Lloyd in collaboration with Sabine and built in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines at the optical engineering works of Howard Grubb & Son. He became secretary of the Royal Society in 1827 for two years.
In 1839 Sabine was instrumental in gaining the support and approval of the whig prime minister Lord Melbourne (qv) for an Antarctic expedition, which was led by Ross in command of HMS Erebus, accompanied by Capt. Francis Crozier (qv) (born in Banbridge, Co. Down) in command of HMS Terror. The expedition set up a chain of geomagnetic observatories in the southern hemisphere, which, when added to the existing magnetic stations, produced data on a global scale, which led to a better understanding of terrestrial magnetism. He was skilled in his management and analysis of large volumes of data, using teams of clerks at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Despite the absence of computers, he discovered some periodic phenomena; however, he is also accused of excessive central control, reducing local observers to very limited data-gathering roles. He won a dispute with G. B. Airy at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, when as president of the Royal Society Sabine upgraded Kew at the expense of Greenwich as central to the worldwide network of observatories. He was also excellent at maintaining the requisite funding. This he combined with a cheerful disposition and an attractive personality and graceful manners to develop a worldwide network of contacts. He was foreign secretary to the Royal Society in 1845, and in 1850 was elected treasurer and vice-president, serving as president 1861–71. He was promoted to the rank of general in 1870, and received many awards and honours including the DCL of Oxford and LLD of Cambridge (1855) and KCB (1869). He received the orders of Pour le Mérite of Prussia, SS Maurice and Lazarus of Italy, and the Rose of Brazil.
He married (1826) Elizabeth Juliana Leeves (1807–79); they had no children. She translated Alexander Von Humboldt's Cosmos in four volumes (1849–58), to which Sabine added an introduction and notes. The same team also translated Humboldt's Aspects of nature (1850), Meteorological essays by Francois Arago, and Narrative of an expedition to the Polar Sea by Ferdinand von Wrangel. Sabine published several books, hundreds of scientific papers (103 of which are listed in the Royal Society catalogue of scientific papers), articles, and reviews of literature related to terrestrial physics. He died 26 June 1883 aged 94 at his home in Richmond, Surrey. He is buried with the remains of Elizabeth in the family vault at Tewin, Hertfordshire. There is a portrait of Sabine in the rooms of the Royal Society; another in the mess of the Royal Artillery in Woolwich by G. F. Watts, RA, dated 1876; and another in the National Portrait Gallery, London, in oil, by Stephen Pearce (1850).