Agnes Clerke

Agnes Mary Clerke
Credit: Hector Macpherson

Occupation: Astronomer and Writer

Year born: 1842

Research Areas: History of Astronomy, Biographies, Spectroscopy


" 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, Ireland. She was schooled at home and spent lots of time studying the things her parents enjoyed. Subjects like music, maths, and science. Her father loved astronomy and had a small telescope. Agnes, her father, and her siblings used it to look at the night sky. They saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. When Agnes was 15, she began to write about the history of astronomy. 

At the time, it was rare for women to go to college. Agnes' brother studied at Dublin University, so he became Agnes' tutor. He helped her to study maths, physics and astronomy at a high level. Agnes then spent 10 years living in Italy. While she was there, Agnes learned about languages, classics, and science.

Career Highlights

Agnes wrote many books and articles about astronomy. People praised her writing for being accurate but also easy to read. Her most popular astronomy books were written for the every-day person, not for experts. Agnes was also asked to write about the lives of famous astronomers for the 9th edition of the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'.

Agnes was a historian and is often called 'the founder of the history of astronomy'. But she also wrote about the discoveries that took place during her lifetime. Her most famous books were 'A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century' and 'Problems in Astrophysics'. 

Agnes was one of the first members of the British Astronomical Association. In 1903 aged 61, Agnes became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). This was at a time when women could not join the RAS to gain full membership. Agnes was also offered a job at Greenwich Observatory, UK. She turned down the offer because she had heard Greenwich was not safe at night for women. 


Many people have written about Agnes and the impact she had on astrophysics. There is also a crater on the Moon named 'Clerke', after Agnes. In the 21st century, the RAS created the 'Agnes Mary Clerke Medal' in her honour. This medal is given to those who have done outstanding work on the topic of the history of astronomy or geophysics. When Agnes died in 1907, her colleague wrote, “In all of her writings, Truth was ever her goal”.

Other Interests

Agnes loved music and played the piano and harp. She also wrote books about the rise of the mafia in Italy!