Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor finalist – Agnes Clerke, science writer

5 Jul 2013

Prolific science writer Agnes Clerke. Photo via 'Stars, Shells and Bluebells'

Agnes Mary Clerke was an expositor whose writings explained and promoted astronomy. Her Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century (1885), which went into four editions and was reprinted after her death, is still indispensable.

Agnes Clerke was born in Skibbereen, Co Cork, in 1842, one of three children of JW Clerke and his wife Catherine Deasy. A young Agnes was shown the planets through her father’s telescope and she learned to interpret the motions of the celestial sphere. Thus began a lifelong fascination with astronomy.

The Clerke family moved to Dublin in 1861 and to Queenstown (now Cobh), Co Cork, in 1863. Agnes’ health was not good, and on this account she and her older sister Ellen went to live in Italy in 1867. They were based in Florence for 10 years where the two young women devoted themselves to study. In 1877, Agnes settled in London.

In 1877, the Edinburgh Review published Clerke’s first important article, Copernicus in Italy. Throughout her writing career, she also went on contribute to the Dictionary of National Biography, write book reviews and about new developments in astronomy for the journal Nature, and was engaged to contribute to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Being fluent in every major European language, she consulted only primary sources, often quite obscure ones. She worked bycollating, interpreting and summarising the results of astronomical research.

It was her 1885 book, A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, however, that earned Clerke a worldwide reputation.

Three years later, she went to spend three months in South Africa at the Cape Observatory, as the guest of the director, Sir David Gill, and his wife. There, Clerke learned the art of night observing and made some spectroscopic observations. The results were published in the Observatory. From then until the end of her life, Clerke was to be a regular contributor to that journal, too.

Clerke wrote other books as well.  Her second book, The System of the Stars, was published in 1890, followed by Problems in Astrophysics (1903).

In 1905, Clerke brought out a revised edition of The System of the Stars and also published a shorter book, Modern Cosmogonies, an historical account of the theories of the evolution of the universe.

Clerke earned accolades throughout her life, as well. In 1892, she was awarded the Actonian Prize of 100 guineas by the Royal Institution. In 1903, she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and also became a member of the British Astronomical Association.

Clerke died on 20 January 1907, having worked to the end of her life. She is buried in London with the other members of her family.

Agnes Clerke is commemorated in a crater on the moon. Clerke is a small crater on the border of the Sea of Serenity, close to the spot where Apollo 12 landed on 11 December, 1972.

To vote for Clerke as Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor, click here.

Read about the other finalists in our Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor competition:

Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli

Lilian Bland

Phyllis Clinch

Margaret Lindsay Huggins

Cynthia Longfield

Kathleen Lonsdale

Annie Maunder

Dorothy Stopford Price

Alicia Boole Stott

With thanks to Mary Mulvihill of Ingenious Ireland for providing the material for this profile from her book Stars, Shells and Bluebells (1997).

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths