Women Astronomers | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


Six Trailblazing Women Astronomers From History

This July at The Archive we are exploring all things space and the stars, and what better way to begin this exploration than with a look at six trailblazing women astronomers from history.

From the first woman to discover a comet (Caroline Herschel), to the first woman to be appointed Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (Margaret Burbidge), we will explore the stories of six women astronomers from history, from the 1700s through to the 2000s, using newspapers taken from our Archive.

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More Than An ‘Astronomer’s Sister’ – Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

In 1848, the Illustrated London News reported on the death of German astronomer Caroline Herschel, at the age of 98. Caroline was known for being the sister of fellow astronomer Sir William Herschel, who was famed for his discovery of the planet Uranus, but Caroline was a brilliant astronomer in her own right.

The Illustrated London News tells of how Caroline was born in Hanover on 16 March 1750, where she lived until the age of 22. Dubbed a ‘poor little drudge’ at this time by the Weekly Dispatch (London) in 1898, Caroline made ends meet by working as a dressmaker, before she moved to Bath to live with her brother William, who was working as a musician in that city. This is when Caroline’s life would change forever, as she began to assist her brother with his astronomical studies.

Caroline Herschel | Weekly Dispatch (London) | 4 September 1898

The Illustrated London News picks up Caroline’s story:

There, from the first commencement of his astronomical pursuits, her attendance on both his daily labours and nightly watches was put in requisition; and was found so useful, that on his removal to Datchet, and subsequently to Slough…she performed the whole of the arduous and important duties of his astronomical assistant, not only reading the clocks and noting down all the observations from dictation…but subsequently executing the whole of the extensive and laborious numerical calculations necessary to render them available to science…

But Caroline was a lot more than simply an astronomer’s assistant. The Illustrated London News goes on describe how she ‘found time…for actual astronomical observations of own,’ using a Newtonian sweeper constructed ‘for her by her brother’ to ‘search the heavens for comets.’

Illustrated London News | 29 January 1848

And on 1 August 1786 Caroline’s endeavours were rewarded, as the Weekly Dispatch (London) tells, with her discovery of her first comet, dubbed the ‘First Lady’s Comet,’ for Caroline Herschel had become the first woman to discover a comet. She would go on to discover seven more, as Mrs. Henry Fawcett (suffragist Millicent Fawcett) for the Mothers’ Companion wrote in 1887, the discovery of her ‘eighth and last’ comet being in 1797.

By this point, Millicent Fawcett writes how Caroline was ‘recognised as a comrade by all the leading astronomers of Europe.’ Indeed, her work was recognised by the King himself, George III granting her £50 a year ‘in recognition of her valuable assistance to her brother in the pursuit of science,’ as details the Weekly Dispatch (London).

Caroline’s devotion to her brother, and her brother’s fame, threatened to overshadow her various achievements, however. Upon William’s death in 1822 she returned to Germany, and never again returned to England, where she had discovered eight comets. But she continued to be recognised by organisations in Great Britain, as Millicent Fawcett for the Mothers’ Companion in 1887 details.

William Herschel | Mothers’ Companion | 4 March 1887

Addressing Caroline Herschel’s ‘genuinely humble’ estimations of her own achievements, Millicent Fawcett wrote how:

Scientific men and scientific societies did not endorse Caroline Herschel’s extremely humble estimation of herself. In the address to the Astronomical Society by Mr. South, on presenting the medal to Miss Herschel in 1828, the highest praise was conferred upon her as her brother’s fellow-worker, and as an original observer. ‘She it was,’ said Mr. South, ‘who reduced every observation, made every calculation; she it was who arranged in systematic order; and she it was that helped him to obtain his imperishable name.’

Meanwhile in 1889 the Dundee Evening Telegraph drew a series of ‘lessons’ from Caroline’s life, stating that her achievements demonstrated the ‘lesson of the usefulness of the unmarried woman.’ In Britain at that time, and for many hundreds of years before, the unmarried woman was seen as pariah, a burden on her family, but Caroline Herschel showed through her intellect and achievements that a single woman was capable of so very much, turning on its head the usual gender roles that were so ingrained within society. The Dundee Evening Telegraph article went on to conclude:

When she kept records so systematically and so scientifically that after nearly 100 years they are still valuable, every line that she wrote was an argument for the higher education of women.

Caroline Herschel was granted honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society, and of the Royal Irish Academy, as details the Weekly Dispatch (London). When she was 96-years-old, the King of Prussia granted her the gold medal for science, although, at this point in her lifetime, as reported the Home News for India, China and the Colonies, she was ‘quite incapable of astronomical observations.’

Caroline Herschel | Mothers’ Companion | 4 March 1887

One hundred years after her death, however, in January 1948, the Somerset Guardian and Radstock Observer dubbed her as the ‘astronomer’s sister.’ She was so much more than this, although the article acknowledges her authorship of A Catalogue of the Stars. Caroline Herschel was a trailblazing astronomer, and forged the path for many women to follow their passion in the pursuit of science.

‘The Most Remarkable Scientific Woman’ – Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

And following in her path was scientist Mary Somerville, with whom Caroline Herschel’s name was coupled by the Hereford Journal on 4 March 1835:

Mrs. Somerville and Miss Caroline Herschel have been elected honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Morning Post in February 1874 narrates how Mary Somerville was born on 26 December 1780 in Jedburgh, the daughter of Admiral Sir William Fairfax. Running ‘wild for the first ten years of her life,’ she was known as the ‘Rose of Jedwood’ due to her ‘attractive appearance,’ and her first husband was a man named Samuel Greig.

During her first marriage she lived in London, and was ‘greatly occupied by her studies, to which her husband strongly objected.’ However, he passed away in 1807, and Mary was free to continue with her studies. She married again in 1812, to her cousin William Somerville, and ‘in his appreciation of her talents she found encouragement and support so long denied her.’

Burntisland, where Mary Somerville grew up, pictured in 1908 | Dundee Courier | 28 May 1908

She devoted herself then to the study of astronomy, mathematics, natural science and geography, the Fife Free Press, & Kirkcaldy Guardian noting in 1955 how she ‘became the owner of a library of books on Mathematics, Mechanics, and Astronomy’ after her marriage to William Somerville.

And by the 1830s, Mary Somerville was writing and publishing her own books. In 1831 she published her first, The Mechanism of the Heavens, of which the first 750 copies were all sold at Cambridge, as details the Fife Free PressIndeed, Millicent Fawcett, writing again for the Mothers’ Companion in 1887, but this time on Mary Somerville, observes how The Mechanism of the Heavens ‘immediately placed its author in the first rank among the scientific thinkers and writers of the day.’ Its publication led to her election as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, alongside Caroline Herschel, and in the same year, then Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, ‘on behalf of the government, conferred a civil list pension of £200 a year upon’ Mary.

Our archive, meanwhile, contains contemporary reviews of the books Somerville went on to pen. The London Courier and Evening Gazette in November 1836 dubbed her work On The Connexion of the Sciences an ‘astonishing production,’ admiring the author’s ability to convey ‘with so much simplicity, so great a mass of profound knowledge.’

London Courier and Evening Gazette | 18 November 1836

Somerville’s studies went on to win her great plaudits, the Fife Free Press describing how ‘it was unanimously voted by the Royal Society of London that her bust should be placed in their great hall.’ In 1857 Somerville was ‘elected an honorary member of the Geographical and Statistical Society of New York and in 1869 a member of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge.’

Characterised as ‘the most remarkable scientific woman our country has produced’ by Millicent Fawcett for the Mothers’ Companion, there was ‘hardly any branch of art of knowledge which [Somerville] did not delight in.’ And towards the end of her life she championed women’s suffrage; hers was the first name on the petition in favour of women’s suffrage presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill in 1868.

The Graphic | 14 December 1872

Mary Somerville’s life was an extraordinary one, as she overcame her family’s ‘condemnation of what they chose to regard as her eccentric and foolish behaviour’ to become an internationally recognised scientist, and indeed, she was the first person ever to be described in print as a scientist, in 1834.

And when the Leicester Journal in December 1872 reported on her death, it noted how Mary Somerville was ‘actively engaged in her favourite pursuits almost to the last,’ studying ‘microscopic science’ and ‘investigating some of the higher branches of mathematics.’ Somerville’s legacy lasts to this day in many ways, one of them being the naming of Somerville College, one of Oxford University’s first ever colleges for women.

Discoverer of Stars – Williamina Fleming (1857-1911)

Another famed Scottish astronomer was Williamina Fleming, who made her name across the Atlantic, as curator of the observatory at Harvard University, and as the discoverer of stars. The Dundee Evening Telegraph, in recounting her ‘remarkable career’ in September 1904, describes how she was born Williamina Stevens in Dundee on 5 May 1857.

After ‘teaching in the public schools of Dundee for five years,’ she married James Orr Fleming, and the two later emigrated to the United States. On reduced funds, and with a new baby to care for, Williamina looked for ways to make ends meet. With a passion for mathematics, the Dundee Evening Telegraph tells us how she decided to undertake book-keeping and accounting work, before starting work as a copyist for one of the professors working at the Harvard University observatory.

Williamina Fleming | Dundee Evening Telegraph | 20 September 1904

The Dundee Evening Telegraph relates how, after starting work at the observatory, she:

…at once showed the rare, peculiar mental faculties that are necessary for scientific research. She was now entirely absorbed and fascinated by her new work, and gave to it every energy of her singularly logical and brilliant mind. Her gifts for this line of research soon began to win recognition, and year after year her responsibilities increased, until her honours culminated in her appointment as Curator of the astrophotographic library.

Her work at the library far exceeded a mere curatorship, however, as she ‘discovered a large number of variables and six new stars.’ The stars discovered by Williamina Fleming are named Nova Persei No. 1, Nova Normae, Nova Carinae, Nova Centauri, Nova Sagittarii, and Nova Aquilae. In addition to these, the Dundee Evening Telegraph describes how:

Mrs Fleming has discovered nearly two hundred new variable stars by the bright hydrogen lines in their spectra, and in each case has been able to prove their variability from the photographic charts of the same regions.

Dundee Evening Telegraph | 20 September 1904

However, despite her name standing for ‘unparalleled effort and honourable achievement throughout the world of science,’ her gender was something of a barrier to Williamina Fleming’s success. The Dundee Evening Telegraph relates how:

Mrs Fleming says that she owes somewhat of her success as a writer for scientific journals to the fact that she signed herself ‘M. Fleming,’ using the initial of her family appellation ‘Mina,’ instead of her full name. In the belief that ‘M. Fleming;’ belonged to the masculine gender, her contributions were accepted.

In May 1911 the Aberdeen Press and Journal announced the ‘Death of Scottish Lady Astronomer,’ Williamina Paton Fleming. The newspaper relates how at the time Williamina had ‘more than a dozen’ people working beneath her at the Harvard University observatory. She was truly another trailblazing woman who broke down gender barriers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, her legacy living on when the Fleming lunar crater was named after her.

Observing The Night Sky – Annie S. D. Maunder (1868-1947)

Another trailblazing astronomer was Annie Scott Dill Maunder, who was born Annie Scott Dill Russell in 1868 in County Tyrone. However, because of her gender, her contribution to astronomy at the time was downplayed. Her achievements included recording the first evidence of the movement of sunspot emergence from the poles down towards the equator.

After studying at Girton College, Cambridge, Annie tried to get a job at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, but she was turned down, and instead she worked for a year as a teacher. A year later in 1891 she was finally accepted by the Observatory, working in the solar department for a salary of £4 a month.

In 1895 she married fellow astronomer Walter Maunder, with whom she had worked on the Greenwich photoheliograph programme. Forced to leave her position at the Royal Observatory, however, as married women were not allowed to work in public service at the time, she went on to travel the world with her husband, continuing their work together. The couple even collaborated on many works on astronomy and the sun, the most famous of which was the 1908 work The Heavens and Their Story.

Daily News (London) | 3 June 1930

Annie Maunder also wrote a column on astronomy and the night’s sky for the Daily News (London), and so we are lucky enough to have some of her work actually featured within our Archive. Here is an extract from a piece penned by Maunder from June 1930, which was entitled ‘Sun in Collision:’

Sometime about 2,000 million years ago a passing star collided with our Sun and sheared off a gaseous ribbon from him. Part of this ribbon went to form the planets, part fell back upon the Sun and made him rotate on his axis, and part was dispersed through the system revolving round the sun as the planets do; the parts near the Sun resolved quickly, those further away more slowly, according to their distances.

In 1916, Annie Maunder was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society, 21 years after she had been rejected from the society because of her gender. Her legacy lives on in the form of a Moon crater named ‘Maunder’ after herself and her husband, and a telescope at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, was named after her in 2018.

‘Stars in the Making’ – Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979)

Born in Buckinghamshire in 1900, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, like Williamina Fleming, made her name in the United States in the world of astronomy. Moving there to study under Harlow Shapley, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, in 1923, she was the second woman student to enrol on the university’s graduate programme in astronomy.

During this programme, she would claim as part of her doctoral thesis that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. Initially her theory was rejected, but it was soon proved that she was correct, and her work on the nature of variable stars formed the basis of modern astrophysics.

And despite leaving Britain, Cecilia’s name was not forgotten. In 1938 she was given the title of ‘Astronomer’ at Harvard University, but it was later changed to ‘Phillips Astronomer,’ and it was in this position that she wrote a series of well-received books on astronomy, including the Introduction to Astronomy.

The Sphere | 21 July 1956

The Sphere in July 1956 hails Cecilia for achieving ‘what must surely be one of the best modern accounts of astronomical research into the structure and evolution of the universe’ with the Introduction to Astronomy. Also providing to the world ‘a fairly up-to-date picture of the universe’ was her work Stars In The Making, which was described by the Northern Whig in December 1953 as providing ‘an enthralling account of the birth, lives and death of stars.’

Payne-Gaposchkin was at the forefront of modern astronomy and astrophysics, relocating to the United States to follow her dream. Meanwhile, she was a pioneer, breaking through into a male-dominated scientific community, leading the way for other women astronomers and astrophysicists who followed in her footsteps.

The Top Job – Margaret Burbidge (1919-2020)

Our sixth and final trailblazing woman astronomer is Margaret Burbidge (née Peachey), who like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, was born in Great Britain but travelled to the United States to pursue her career in astronomy and astrophysics. Born in Stockport in 1919, Burbidge would become known as one of the founders of stellar nucleosynthesis and for her work with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Having worked as caretaker for the University of London Observatory during the Second World War, receiving her PhD from University College London in 1943, she gained her first position in the United States at the University of Chicago’s observatory in 1951. Burbidge then took on the role of Professor of Astronomy at the University of California, and in the early 1970s she hit the headlines back in Britain.

Birmingham Daily Post | 5 October 1971

The Birmingham Daily Post on 5 October 1971 announced – ‘Top science job goes to a woman’ – as the news broke that Margaret Burbidge would become the next Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Nearly one hundred years since Annie Maunder had tried to get a job at the Observatory, a woman was now leading the institution.

The Birmingham Daily Post provided further background on the new Director:

Burbidge, now Professor of Astronomy in California, is a British citizen, as is her husband, Geoffrey Burbidge, Professor of Physics at the same university. They are two of the most highly regarded astronomers and astrophysicists in the world. Mrs. Burbidge became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1964. They have one daughter. Mrs. Burbidge was assistant director and acting director of the London University Observatory from 1948 to 1951, before going to California.

Margaret Burbidge would hold this role until 1975, after that serving as the first director of the University of California San Diego’s Centre for Astrophysics and Space Science. Throughout this time she opposed discrimination against women in astronomy, turning down the Annie J. Cannon Award of the American Astronomical Society in 1972 because it was awarded to women only.

Margaret Burbidge | Illustrated London News | 1 November 1971

She would go on to work with the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990. We found mention of Margaret again in 1990 in relation to this work, as it was announced in November 1990 by the Aberdeen Press and Journal that the telescope had detected ‘a faint quasar – or quasi-stellar object – billions of light years from Earth.’ Margaret Burbidge was quoted as saying:

‘We’ve waited a long time,’ said Dr Margaret Burbidge, a University of California astronomer who headed the scientific team. ‘Of course, the scientific results of the observations will only be known after intensive data analysis.’

Having published over 370 research papers, and working into the twenty-first century, Margaret Burbidge was a leading light in the world of astronomy, continuing the fight for equality that had begun with the work of Caroline Herschel in the eighteenth century, and was exhibited by all of the six women astronomers celebrated by this blog.

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