Fiammetta Wilson

Fiammetta Wilson
Credit: care of Royal Astronomical Society

Occupation: Astronomer and Musician

Year born: 1864

Research Areas: Meteors

 

"...My principal interest being engaged upon meteoritic observation, I have never liked to prolong the study of a cluster lest a fire-ball should escape me."

Source: Fiammetta WIlson: Mandolins and meteors, W. Barton (2019), The Antiquarian Astronomer, 13

 

Early Life

Fiammetta was born in Lowestoft, UK. Her father was very interested in science and worked as a doctor. He helped Fiammetta develop an interest in science and nature. She was taught at home by a governess and went to schools in Germany and Switzerland. This was common in wealthy families in the UK at the time.

Career Highlights

Fiammetta's love of astronomy started after she heard an astrophysicist talk at a local university. When she was 46, she joined the British Astronomical Association. She became an acting director of its Meteor Section during the First World War. She was also a member of astronomical societies in France and the Netherlands. 

Fiammetta was a very determined person. She did not have much equipment to help her view the night sky. The tool she used most often was a small pair of binoculars. Most of her observation were carried out using just the naked eye. But she did build a wooden observing platform, which she called her “perch”. This let her get a clearer view of the skies above the nearby trees.

Fiammetta often stood on her perch for hours to observe the night sky. It did not matter to her what the weather was like. On clear nights she saw the Northern Lights, zodiacal light and comets. But Fiammetta watched the night sky even when it was cloudy! As a result of her hard work, she saw and recorded a huge number of meteors and published her work.

Throughout the First World War, Fiammetta carried on observing, despite the risk from falling bombs. One time she was almost arrested! A police office thought the light of her torch meant she was a spy sending signals to enemies. In fact, she used the torch for light when recording her meteor sightings.

At the age of 56, Fiammetta was awarded a one-year research position at Harvard College in the USA. Sadly, she died that month and didn't know she had been given the honour and opportunity.

Legacy

Over 10 years, Fiammetta observed about 10,000 meteors and accurately calculated the paths of 650 of them. Aged 52, she became one of the first 4 women to join the Royal Astronomy Society as a Fellow.

Other Interests

Fiammetta was a talented musician. She taught and wrote music and conducted an orchestra.