AGNES MARY CLERKE / ASTRONOMER

AGNES MARY CLERKE

Science writer and astronomer

Skibbereen / Italy / London / Cape of Good Hope

1842 – 1907

 Agnes Mary Clerke, science writer and astronomer, was awarded membership of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1903 and had a moon crater named in her honour by the International Astronomical Union in 1973. Without a formal education, her lifelong passion for astronomy and keen, enquiring mind, gave her a talent for writing on complex topics without compromising on detail. Her obituary in The Times asserted, ‘both from the literary and scientific standpoints she must be ranked as a great scientific writer.’

Born in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, Agnes and her sister Ellen were home-schooled by well-educated parents. Her father, John William Clerke, owned a telescope and taught her the basics of astronomy, while her university-educated brother, Aubrey, tutored her in mathematics. From an early age, both Agnes and Ellen demonstrated a keen interest in astronomy and in literature.

In 1867, the sisters moved to Italy, spending 10 years studying Renaissance history and Italian. But London offered clearer opportunities. From 1877, Agnes made a career there as a writer for the Edinburgh Review and as a contributor of scientific biographies for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography. With the British Museum on her doorstep, Agnes began to study astrophysics, publishing A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century in 1885. The book became an instant classic and was arguably the most important of Agnes’s seven astronomy books. It was aimed at both specialists and a wider audience, written in clear language without oversimplification. In her words, it was:

an attempt to enable the ordinary reader to follow, with intelligent interest, the course of modern astronomical inquiries ...’

Clerke intended her work to reach as wide an audience as possible, declaring in The System of the Stars (1890),

‘Astronomy is essentially a popular science. The general public has an indefeasible right of access to its lofty halls, which it is all the more important to keep cleared of unnecessary technical impediments ...’

Her books contained striking photographs of nebulae, planets and comets, gleaned from Agnes’s international network of correspondents. She lauded the advances in astrophotography whereby a 40-minute exposure supplied the same information that formerly demanded four years of telescopic observations. Photographing celestial bodies demanded considerable skill, as the photographic lens, the telescope and the negative had to remain simultaneously trained on the object as it moved across the sky. The photographs made Clerke’s books scientifically up-to-date and visually exciting.

The detail and rigour of her work was internationally recognised. In 1888, Agnes spent two months at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, gaining practical experience and a view of the southern sky. The observations she made there were published, and she was offered (but declined) a job at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory. In 1903 she became the fifth woman member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She died suddenly in 1907, and is buried in London’s Brompton Cemetery.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this week’s herstory.