Linda Hall Library
Science Engineering Technology

Agnes Mary Clerke, an Irish astronomical writer, was born Feb. 10, 1842. She was one of those iconic Victorian maidens who populated contemporary novels–frail and in continual poor health, and finding her sole pleasure in reading. Agnes read astronomy; she began to write articles on the history of astronomy in the 1870s, and then in 1885, at the age of 43, she published a book for the general public called A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century. It was an amazingly competent book, surveying the accomplishments of the Herschel family and Bessel’s measurement of the distance to a star and all those other striking achievements of the era. The book was read by professionals as well as the public, and so impressed were the professionals that Clerke was welcomed into their field. She was granted interviews, and allowed to make extended visits to observatories, and so the later editions of A Popular History of Astronomy just got better and better. The second edition of 1887 had astrophotographs, pasted in, on the title page (second image) and as a frontispiece (first image). The latter shows A. A. Commons’ photograph of the Orion nebula, which Clarke considered to be a discipline-changing event in astronomy. Clerke wrote other books that were equally well received, on the stars, and cosmogony, and the rising science of astrophysics. We have all of these in the Library’s Collections.

Lady Margaret Huggins, another remarkable Victorian woman astronomer, wrote an admiring obituary when Clerke died in 1907. Clerke and Huggins were elected honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1903, only the 3rd and 4th women to be so honored. There is a nice photograph of Clerke in the Dibner portrait collection at the Smithsonian (third image). And there is a plaque on their birth house in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, commemorating Agnes and her sister Ellen (fourth image).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.