ASE logo The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh


No 60 - July 2009

Obituary: Mary Brück

It is with very great regret that we report the death of astronomer, eminent historian of astronomy and ASE Honorary Member Dr Mary Brück on 11 December 2008 at the age of eighty-three after a short illness. Dr Brück had a long association with the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh and will be well known to many members.

  Mary Bruck
  Máire (Mary) Teresa Brück (1925-2008). (Photograph courtesy Andrew Brück.)

Máire Teresa Brück née Conway (she often used the anglicised form of her first name outside Ireland) was born on 29 May 1925 in Ballivor, Co. Meath in the Irish Republic. She was the daughter of Thomas and Margaret Conway, the oldest of their eight children. She attended St Louis Convent in Monaghan. From school she attended University College Dublin where she studied physics. After graduating, she pursued doctoral research in solar physics at the University of Edinburgh, where normal academic life was resuming after the war. This work resulted in the thesis Studies of Hα Line Profiles in Prominences, for which a PhD was awarded in 1950.

Following the award of her doctorate Mary Conway, as she then was, took up an appointment at the Dunsink Observatory, Dublin, where she continued her solar work. While at Dunsink she met her future husband, Prof. Hermann Alexander Brück, then Director of the Observatory, and they married in 1951.

While at Dunsink Mary Brück made her first foray into popular astronomy, broadcasting a series of radio programmes for children, The Sun, Moon and Stars, on Radio Éireann (now Radio Telefís Éireann) in the mid-1950s. These broadcasts were the first popular astronomy programmes in Ireland and found a receptive audience. In the early 1960s, she broadcast a second series on the then-new topic of Spaceflight.

In 1957, Prof. Brück was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Regius Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE), posts that he held until his retirement in 1975. His family relocated to Scotland with him, moving into the purpose-built residence for the Astronomer Royal in the grounds of the ROE on Blackford Hill. They were the last Director's family to live "on the hill"; subsequent to Prof. Brück's retirement all the residential accommodation was converted to offices.

Although she now had three children of her own as well as two stepchildren, Mary Brück continued to pursue an academic career. In 1962, she was appointed a part-time lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, later becoming full-time and retiring as a Senior Lecturer in 1984. From 1984 to 1987, she was a Fellow of the University and more recently an Honorary Fellow. Throughout her time at Edinburgh Mary Brück was heavily involved in undergraduate teaching, for which she will be fondly remembered by generations of students. During this period she switched from solar to stellar research, pursuing a programme of three-colour photometry, initially largely of southern galactic clusters and later becoming an expert in the Magellanic Clouds.

Mary Bruck in 1954  
During 1954, the Dunsink Observatory mounted an expedition to observe the eclipse of 30 June from the island of Öland in Sweden. Mary Brück is captured here adjusting equipment during that expedition. On the day, heavy clouds prevented any observations from being made, a familiar frustration for eclipse-watchers. (Photograph reproduced courtesy the ROE.)  

After retiring in 1975, Prof. Brück took up the study of the history of astronomy. Initially Mary Brück collaborated in this work, but she was to become an eminent and respected historian of astronomy in her own right. The collaboration led to The Peripatetic Astronomer (1988), the definitive biography of Piazzi Smyth, the second Astronomer Royal for Scotland. In later years, Prof. Brück's health declined and Mary Brück looked after him through his final years until his death in 2000.

Mary Brück's own particular interest was women in astronomy and much of her work subsequent to The Peripatetic Astronomer was in this area. She wrote Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics (2002), a masterly piece of work that is likely to remain the definitive study of its subject. Her final book, Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy, a collection of biographical essays on various women astronomers, is to be published posthumously later in 2009. She also published numerous papers and book reviews and contributed entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She never lost sight of her Irish roots, writing two chapters for Stars, Shells and Bluebells (1997) published under the auspices of the Irish WITS (Women into Technology and Science) initiative and celebrating the achievements of early women pioneers of science in that country. Its forthcoming companion volume, Lab Coats and Lace, to which she also contributed, is dedicated to her memory.

Following tradition, Prof. Brück was Honorary President of the ASE from 1957 to 1975. Both he and Mary Brück were elected Honorary Members in 1992. Mary Brück regularly contributed to the talk programme during the 1990s, mostly speaking on historical topics. She also contributed an article to the Journal. In 2001, the Society awarded her its Lorimer Medal for her work in popularising astronomy.

Mary Brück was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS,, an Honorary Member of the Irish Astronomical Society ( and a Member (and valued supporter) of the Society for the History of Astronomy ( The ROE held a short workshop in her honour on the occasion of her eightieth birthday in 2005.

She remained active until shortly before the end, regularly attending meetings and giving talks. In 2002, despite being almost immobile following a hip operation, she was determined to honour an invitation as the guest speaker at the Scottish Astronomy Weekend in Dundee and gave an acclaimed talk on Spectra of the Stars. As recently as May 2008, she gave a well-received public lecture to the RAS in London on The Fascination of the Heavens about pioneering women astronomers. In addition to Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy, she also had a paper in press in The Antiquarian Astronomer. Co-written with ASE stalwart David Gavine, it documents the Revd Hector MacPherson, a populariser of astronomy in early twentieth century Edinburgh.

In her youth, Mary Brück imbibed the deep Catholic faith of her parents and it sustained and underpinned her throughout her life. Always modest and self-effacing, she was unfailingly generous and helpful to colleagues and students alike. She will be greatly missed by her many friends, not least in this Society. She is survived by her children Anne, Catherine and Andrew and her stepchildren Mary and Peter.

Clive Davenhall


Cover page

Society news

A letter to the Journal of the BAA

A grand event to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy

Forthcoming events

Obituary: Mary Brück

The international month of the Moon?

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