Agnes Clerke

Agnes Mary Clerke
Credit: Hector Macpherson

Occupation: Astronomer and Writer

Year born: 1842

Research Areas: History of Astronomy, Biographies, Spectroscopy

 

"“...an attempt to enable the ordinary reader to follow, with intelligent interest, the course of modern astronomical inquiries…  The kind of knowledge it now chiefly tends to accumulate is more easily intelligible–less remote from ordinary experience."

Source: Preface pp v-viii (Clerke, 1885)

 

Early Life

Agnes was born in Skibbereen in Ireland where she was home schooled. She learned lots about subjects her own parents enjoyed, like music, maths, and science. When she was 15, she started to write a history of astronomy, encouraged by her father. Her father loved astronomy and had a small telescope which they would use to view the rings of Saturn. Agnes went on to study informally in both Dublin, Ireland and Florence, Italy. These studies included languages and classics, but her true passion was astronomy.

Career Highlights

Agnes wrote many books and articles about astronomy. These included several biographies of famous astronomers that appeared in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Her most popular books informed the every-day person about astronomy. Although she was a historian, many of her writings were about new breakthroughs in astronomy. Her most famous works were: A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century (1885) and Problems in Astrophysics (1903). She is often called the founder of the history of astronomy. When she died, her colleague wrote “In all of her writings, Truth was ever her goal”.

Legacy

Agnes became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1903, before women could join. In 2017, they named a medal after her. The medal is given to people who achieve outstanding research in the history of astronomy or geophysics. Agnes has herself had multiple books written about her and the impact she had on astrophysics.

Other Interests

She was a keen musician, playing both the piano and harp. She even wrote books about the rise of the mafia in Italy!