In this short series on ‘Women in Astronomy’ I wanted to highlight the significant contribution that women have made to our understanding of the cosmos. These contributions were achieved despite the attitudes and prejudices towards women, prevailing at the time.
Agnes Mary Clerke (February 1842- January 1907)
Agnes Mary Clerke was an astronomer and writer, whose work has received recognition beyond it’s time and helped to pave a way for women in astronomy. Her success came from her ability to combine her scholastic aptitude with her passion for astrophysics.
She was born in Skibbereen, a small town in County Cork, Ireland, to a fairly well-to-do family, her father being a bank manager. Along with her brother and sister, she was home-educated by her father to a level which was unusual for girls at that time, most likely due to his own enthusiasm for learning.
While studying classics, her father became fascinated with, and took courses in, astronomy. Due to this, Agnes became enchanted by the subject from a young age and used her father’s 4-inch telescope to study Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. She was also an avid reader, and by age 11, she had read copious amounts, including John F. W. Herschel’s “Outlines of Astronomy”- a book with over 900 pages. By the age of 15 she had already begun to write her own history of astronomy which went on to be her best-known work.
At age 19, her family moved to Dublin for her father’s work. There, although only tutored by her younger brother, who was studying at Dublin University, she achieved university level physics, astronomy, and advanced mathematics. She herself couldn’t attend because it was a men-only college. At age 25, Agnes and her sister Ellen moved to Italy, partly for health reasons. For 10 years she studied science, languages and many other subjects. This was where she honed her skills as a linguist.
In 1877, she returned to her family, who were now in London, and in that same year, managed to get two articles (which she wrote whilst in Italy) published in the Edinburgh Review. One of these was related to astronomy, which led to her being asked by the publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to write biographies for many famous scientists in its ninth edition. This resulted in her acquiring more work, which included writing
an article on astronomy for the Catholic Encyclopaedia. Incidentally, she was a devout catholic her whole life.
Her work then led her to spending time at the Cape Observatory (now known as the South African Astronomical Observatory) in 1888, after being invited by the director Sir David Gill. Not being a practical astronomer, she spent her time there collating, interpreting and summarising the data of astronomical research. There, she became familiar with and wrote a book about spectroscopy, a new branch of science at the time, which measures the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation emitted from stars. However, her work was unfortunately criticised by other scientists, who said only people actively engaged in observational astronomy were entitled to write about it.
While writing that book, she was however informally offered a position at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. This would have given her exclusive use of one of the major telescopes, but she turned the position down to commit to her writing. She was later formally offered another position there, this time as an assistant to a computer, but again, she turned it down, saying it was due to the fact that Greenwich Park was said to be unsafe for women at night. Consequently, she lost the opportunity for further research and possibly the potential to achieve even greater things. Perhaps she could have earned the respect of those scientists at the time who had criticised her work.
Intriguingly, unbeknownst to her, she was also put forward for a position at Vassar College in the US (one of the first women-only colleges), as a professor of astronomy, showing her work was well known internationally, not just within the UK.
Another significant achievement came in 1893, when at the age of 51, the Royal Institution awarded her the Actonian Prize which was worth 100 guineas. As a member of the British Astronomical Society, she attended their meetings regularly and in 1903 she, along with Lady Huggins, became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, a position which had only been achieved by three other women before her: Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville and Anne Sheepshanks.
She died in 1907 at the age of 64. One mark of her significance is the naming of a lunar crater after her. The Clerke Crater was near where Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, landed in 1972. Then in 2017, the Royal Astronomical Society created the Agnes Clerke Medal, which is awarded to people who have made significant contributions and research in the history of astronomy or geophysics. The first recipient was Clive Ruggles who is one of the leading figures in archeoastronomy.
Written by Katy Hollands, University of York student and summer intern for Galaxy on Glass.