Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Journal 45

Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics
by Mary T Brück

A Book Review by Dave Gavine

Years ago when I was researching the History of Astronomy in Scotland I managed to acquire a copy of the fourth edition (1902) of Agnes Clerke's History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, and it is a goldmine! This monumental work, constantly updated, was not the only product of this remarkable lady. Her System of the Stars, Modern Cosmogonies and Problems in Astrophysics reviewed the state of astronomy at the time, and identified new fields for investigation. Then there were the papers and articles in The Observatory, The Edinburgh Review, Knowledge, The Encyclopaedia Britannica and numerous other journals, and no less than 150 biographies of astronomers for the Dictionary of National Biography. She was praised by the astronomical community throughout the world and admired by the most famous astronomers such as Hale, Wolf, Gill and Huggins who freely offered her their results, photographs and advice. This surely must have been the work of an eminent academic in a great University.

But it was not. Agnes had no "qualifications" of any kind. Her circumstances were such that an academic career was most unlikely, born in 1842 in remote Skibbereen, Co. Cork, to a "mixed" Catholic/Protestant but well-to-do family. At that time women did not expect to be educated in sciences, they were not allowed to take degrees, and if they did have an education they were not encouraged to use it as a career. But Agnes had a prodigious thirst for knowledge and was given her education at home by her talented father, an amateur astronomer, not only in the physical sciences and mathematics but also in the classics, literature and history. Later her brother Aubrey, a brilliant mathematics and physics scholar of Trinity College, Dublin, would share his knowledge and her life-long encouraging companion was her elder sister Ellen, herself a talented scientific writer. Neither sister married - all their energies went into rigorous scholarship. Some years of fruitful research on Galileo and the Renaissance in Italy were followed by further travel and life in London where, assisted by her social standing and reputation, Agnes' literary career took off and life-long friendships developed, especially with William and Margaret Huggins. She was active at the time when sensational new discoveries were being made in astronomy, especially with the powerful new tools of spectroscopy and photography. She chronicled everything that went on in the astronomical world with impartial clarity and a grasp of the underlying scientific principles.

However, it was not easy. The universities were closed to women and the hallowed portals of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society would not accept them as Fellows. Not until 1903 (she died in 1907) would the latter at last admit her and her close friend Lady Huggins as Honorary Members, as had been the case a generation earlier with the formidable Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. The BAA alone (founded 1890) accorded men and women equal status. Only in America, it seemed, could a woman work in an observatory or be a professor of astronomy, albeit in a ladies-only college, Vassar, which tried unsuccessfully to entice Agnes to that post. And among the praise there remained Gregory, the reactionary critic of Nature who believed that women really were the weaker sex and should not dabble in this sort of thing, especially if they were not active professional observers.

Dr Brück, herself a highly competent astronomer, has brought Agnes Clerke to life in a fascinating book, indeed the two have a lot in common, even by birth. In a deceptively small work of 275 pages so much information is packed. Not only is the story of Agnes herself revealed but we are given much information about the characters she knew, like her close friends the Gills, the Huggins', George Ellery Hale, Holden and Lockyer. Likewise we are given revealing glimpses into social life in Ireland, the status of women in science, and the work of other ladies in astronomy, including Pickering's team at Harvard led by Mrs Williamina Fleming (who was born in Dundee!).

Enjoy this book - I did and I learned a lot.

Dave Gavine

Cover photograph of book

Picture from CUP website

Bibliographic information:
Brück, M. T. (Mary T.)
Agnes Mary Clerke and the rise of astrophysics / M.T. Brück.
Cambridge; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2002.
x, 275 p. ; ill., 1 map ; 23cm; ISBN 0-521-8084408
QB36.C57 B78 2002
520/.92 B 21