Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor finalist – Margaret Lindsay Huggins, pioneering astrophysicist

5 Jul 2013

Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins, pioneering astrophysicist. Photo via 'Stars, Shells and Bluebells'

Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins’ 30-year collaboration with her husband William Huggins laid the foundations for the development of astrophysics.

She was born Margaret Lindsay Murray in 1848 in Dublin. She was educated at home and for awhile at a school in Brighton, England.

Margaret developed an early interest in astronomy, reading books on the subject and experimenting with her small telescope.

Then in 1873 in the magazine Good Words she read an article on the exciting new field of astronomical spectroscopy and the work of William Huggins. Even before she met him in person she was an ardent admirer of her future husband.

It was through Howard Grubb that William Huggins met Margaret Murray. The couple were married in 1875 when he was 51 and she was 27.

The couple had no children, and their London home served as their workplace. They began their scientific life together by pioneering one of the major tools of observational astronomy, the dry gelatine photographic plate. William and Margaret were the first to apply it to astronomical spectroscopy.

Their first jointly published papers, beginning in 1889, were studies of the spectra of the planets. They also studied the spectra of the Orion Nebula and Wolf-Rayet stars, and observed the bright nova of 1892, Nova Aurigae.

One of their projects concerned the spectra of calcium and magnesium, two conspicuous elements found in the spectrum of the sun and of sun-like stars. They investigated how the relative strengths of spectral lines vary depending on the physical conditions of the source, in the hope of explaining the behaviour of the same lines in the spectrum of the sun. Their observational data were the earliest illustration of the Saha law, formulated as recently as 1920.

Margaret also contributed items to the Observatory magazine and articles on astronomical instruments to the 11th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The couple wound up their observing life with their Photographic Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra published in 1897, and thereafter concentrated on laboratory spectroscopy.

Also in 1897, William was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. His citation was “for the great contributions which, with the collaboration of his gifted wife, he had made to the new science of astrophysics”. Those honoured were all men; this reference to the-now Lady Huggins made her the only woman even remotely mentioned in that honours list.

Other accolades bestowed on the couple include the Royal Institution’s Actonian Prize for science writing. Margaret was also elected to the British Astronomical Association. She became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1892, and was admitted to fellowship on the same terms as men in 1915.

The couple’s last piece of scientific research was on the spectra of certain radioactive substances, from 1903-1905, which was published in four papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

In their retirement, William and Margaret collected and edited their scientific papers which were published in 1909 in a volume illustrated by Margaret’s pen drawings.

William died the following year and Margaret donated her scientific and artistic treasures to Wellesley Women’s College in the United States. She had always taken an interest in the cause of women’s education and admired the achievements of American women in the academic world.

Margaret died on 24 March 1915 at the age of 66. A plaque erected in 1997 marks the house at 23 Longford Terrace, Monkstown, Dublin, where she was raised and lived until her marriage.

To vote for Huggins 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

Agnes Clerke

Phyllis Clinch

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