Ball, John (1818–89), scientist, politician, and mountain traveller, was born 20 August 1818 in Dublin, eldest son among four children of Nicholas Ball (qv), politician and judge, and Jane Ball (neé Sherlock) of Butlerstown, Co. Waterford. When he was aged 7, excursions to Cave Hill near Belfast and particularly to the Swiss Alps affected him deeply, inspiring his lifelong interest in mountains. As a child he had a voracious appetite for science, especially chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy, and before reaching the age of ten had taught himself to measure heights barometrically. After attending (1832–5) St Mary's, Oscott, Staffordshire, he entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1835, where he studied analytical mathematics and was strongly influenced by the botanist Professor John Stevens Henslow, as was Charles Darwin after entering Christ's in 1828. In 1835, when the British Association met at Dublin, Ball became an enthusiastic juvenile member, and led a tour of Connemara on which his colleagues regarded him as ‘very much of a wild Irishman’ (Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, xii (1890), 100).
Although a hard-working student, being catholic he could not take a degree, and he decided to further his education by travelling for some years through Europe making botanical and geological observations. This included a visit to Sicily and he contributed a ground-breaking paper to the Annals of Natural History on the island's botany. In 1843 he was called to the Irish bar, but never practised.
During the famine he was appointed an assistant poor law commissioner (1846–7), an experience that led him to write a tract, What is to be done for Ireland? (1847). His health broke down from overwork and he resigned, but returned as second commissioner (1849–51). Around this time he began a lifelong friendship with W. E. Forster (qv), with whom he shared several Alpine expeditions. An unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for Sligo borough in July 1848, he was elected liberal MP for Carlow county (1852–7), advocating church disestablishment and land reform. His support for land reform and for Gladstone's proposal to extend income tax to Ireland (1853) brought him to the attention of Palmerston, who appointed him under-secretary for the colonies (1855–7). He used the position to promote his scientific interests, notably the Palliser expedition (1857) which discovered several possible rail routes across Canada. After failing to be elected for Sligo county in April 1857, he stood for Limerick city at a by-election in February 1858, but his support for Italian reunification and his friendships with liberals such as Cavour and Quitino Sella earned him the enmity of local catholic clergy, and after a hard-fought contest he was narrowly defeated. The bitterness of the campaign disillusioned him with politics, and afterwards he drew on his private income to devote himself to science and travel, usually spending his summers in Ireland (he had a house at 85 St Stephen's Green, Dublin) and his winters in Europe or North Africa.
He was primarily interested in geography and botany, but also made significant contributions to meteorology, glacial science, and geology: he was the first to suggest using the electric telegraph for storm warnings in 1848. He wrote fluently in Latin, English, French, German, and Italian, and contributed many articles to scientific journals. He climbed most of the Alpine peaks, was first president of the Alpine Club (1858–60), and wrote Peaks, passes and glaciers (1859) and the highly regarded The Alpine guide (3 vols, 1863–8), probably his most important work, a comprehensive study of the geography, geology, and botany of the region. In 1871 he undertook an expedition to the Atlas mountains with J. D. Hooker which he recorded in Journal of a tour in Marocco [sic] (1878); this trip produced perhaps his finest botanical work, ‘Spicilegium florae Maroccanae’ (Journal of the Linnean Society, xvi), which drew attention to the strong similarities between European and Moroccan flora. He recorded his 1882 tour of South America in Notes of a naturalist in South America (1887).
He was elected MRIA (1840), fellow of the Linnean (1856), Geographical (1860) and Royal (1868) societies, and honorary fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge (1888). He was twice decorated by the Italian government: in 1865 for his scientific work and in 1866 for providing the Italian staff with a plan to take the Austrian fort of Val Ampola in the Dolomites.
Friendly with many leading figures in literary, artistic, scientific, and political circles in Britain and Europe, he was universally regarded with affection. He enjoyed the pleasures of society but could never quite shake off twinges of guilt at how socialising interfered with his work. After several years of poor health, he was taken seriously ill in Italy, and died of cancer 21 October 1889 in his home at 10 Southwell Gardens, South Kensington, London. He was buried in St Thomas's catholic church, Fulham.
He married twice: in 1856 to Elisa, daughter of the famous Italian naturalist Count Alberto Parolini, with whom he had two sons, and through whom he inherited estates in Bassano; there were no children from his 1869 marriage to Julia O'Beirne of Jamestown, Co. Leitrim, who survived him. A bibliography of his works can be found in I. B. Balfour et al. (ed.), Annals of Botany (1887–92), iii, 450.