<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback

Agnes Mary Clerke

Astronomer (1842-1907)

Click to enlarge

Clerke, AGNES MARY, astronomer, b, at Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, February 10, 1842; d. in London, January 20, 1907. At the very beginning of her study she showed a marked interest in astronomy, and before she was fifteen years old she had begun to write a history of that science. In 1861 the family moved to Dublin, and in 1863 to Queenstown. Several years later she went to Italy where she stayed until 1877, chiefly at Florence, studying at the public library and preparing for literary work. In 1877 she settled in London. Her first important article, “Copernicus in Italy“, was published in the “Edinburgh Review” (October, 1877). She achieved a world-wide reputation in 1885, on the appearance of her exhaustive treatise, “A Popular History of Astronomy in the Nineteenth Century”. This was at once recognized as an authoritative work. Miss Clerke was not a practical astronomer; in 1888, however, she spent three months at the Cape Observatory as the guest of the director, Sir David Gill, and his wife. There she became sufficiently familiar with spectroscopic work to be enabled to write about this newer branch of the, science with increased clearness and confidence. In 1892 the Royal Institution awarded to her the Actonian Prize of one hundred guineas. As a member of the British Astronomical Association she attended its meetings regularly, as well as those of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1903, with Lady Huggins, she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, a rank previously held only by two other women, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. Her work is remarkable in a literary as well as in a scientific way. She compiled facts with untiring diligence, sifted them carefully, discussed them with judgment, and suggested problems and lines of future research. All this is expressed in polished, eloquent, and beautiful language. With this scientific temperament she combined a noble religious nature that made her acknowledge “with supreme conviction” the insufficiency of science to know and predict the possible acts of the Divine Power. Her works, all published in London, include, “A Popular History of Astronomy in the Nineteenth Century” (1885, 4th revised ed., 1902); “The System of the Stars” (1890; 2nd ed., 1905); “The Herschels and Modern Astronomy” (1895); “The Concise Knowledge Astronomy“—in conjunction with J. E. Gore and A. Fowler (1898); “Problems in Astrophysics” (1903); “Modern Cosmogonies” (1906). To the “Edinburgh Review” she contributed fifty-five articles, mainly on subjects connected with astrophysics. The articles on astronomers in the “Dictionary of National Biography”; on “Laplace” and some on other astronomers and astronomical subjects in the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”; and on “Astronomy” in THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, were from her pen, as well as numerous contributions to “Knowledge“, “The Observatory”, the London “Tablet”, and other periodicals. ELLEN MARY, sister of preceding, journalist and novelist, b. at Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, 1840; d. in London, March 2, 1906. A gifted and accomplished writer, she was for many years an editorial writer for the London “Tablet”. Her knowledge of the intricacies of the religious and political problems of Continental Europe was remarkable. A seven years’ stay in Italy made her intimately familiar not only with its language and literature, but also with every phase of its public life. She contributed a series of stories, perfect in Italian phrase, idiom, and local color, to periodicals in Florence. Her pamphlets, “Jupiter and His System” and “The Planet Venus”, were valuable additions to the literature of popular astronomy. In 1899 she published “Fable and Song in Italy“, a collection of essays and studies and specimens of Italian poetry rendered into English in the original metres. A novel, “Flowers of Fire” (1902), was her last work.


Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate