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‘Agnes Mary Clerke – from Skibbereen to the Universe’ – History of Astronomy Talk

Agnes Mary Clerke

Agnes Mary Clerke was born in Skibbereen in Co Cork in and grew up in the midst of the horrific Irish Famine. Her mother Catherine was one of the talented and wealthy family of the Deasy’s and her father John Clerke was a talented amateur astronomer and general scientist who ran the local bank. She was the middle of three children – elder sister Ellen and younger brother Aubrey. When John Clerke was later offered a better position and they all moved to Dublin and her brother attended Trinity College Dublin to study mathematics and astronomy, but he became a lawyer.

Agnes and Ellen were home schooled by her parents and they both continued their self-education to an extraordinary degree throughout their lives. When the family lived in Florence, Agnes extended her knowledge of languages and began researching in the national library in Florence, reading many tests in their original Latin, Greek, German, Italian etc. which gave many of her writings an authenticity rarely encountered. Upon their return to England they lived eventually in 68 Redcliffe Square until the death of the last of the family, Aubrey, in 1923.

Agnes published 7 books starting with her hugely successful, “A Popular History of Astronomy in the 19th Century, which went into reprint within 2 months of first appearing. She had the ability to assimilate vast amounts of information and then to reproduce it in a logical and accessible format. When the US edition was published she then began expanding her contacts with well-known American astronomers. This ability to communicate and to gain the trust of all the great and the good in the field of astronomy was fairly unique and certainly unknown for a woman in her era. She could count among her close friends Margaret and William Huggins, Edward Holden, Norman Lockyer, Edward Pickering and David Gill, all of whom were anxious to correspond or meet with her, to share their researches and to be included in her literature. All would send her their latest papers which she easily assimilated, interpreted and reproduced in her books. She also had her own theories in this age of spectroscopy and which she developed in her papers and literature. She continued throughout her life to write two essays per year for the Edinburgh Review, was the acknowledged expert on the life of Galileo, whose biography she produced for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and which is still referred to in current papers on his live and works.

She wrote on many other subjects too and had a book on, ‘Familiar Studies on Homer’ published. Refused membership of the RAS on the grounds of her gender she was one of the founding Council members of the British Astronomical Association in 1890 and sat on Council for many years. Although not a keen public speaker and quite a shy personality she was invited to guest events at the RAS and attended the Royal Institution which extended her network of practical scientists. She did observe but it was not her chief interest – she loved being surrounded by her books.

She died within a year of her beloved sister Ellen and is buried in the family grave at Brompton Cemetery in West London near where she had lived.  She has a crater named after her on the Moon and a prize awarded in her name by the RAS, after they finally recognised her huge contribution to modern astrophysics.

Pictures by Bobby Manoo:

Janice McClean

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