Agnes Mary Clerke

Agnes Mary Clerke (10 February 1842 – 20 January 1907) was an Irish astronomer and writer, mainly in the field of astronomy. She was born in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, and died in London.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

Agnes Mary Clerke
Clerke Agnes Mary.jpg
Born(1842-02-10)10 February 1842
Died20 January 1907(1907-01-20) (aged 64)


Agnes Clerke was the daughter of John William Clerke (c. 1814–1890) who was, at the time, a bank manager in Skibbereen,[8] and his wife Catherine Mary Deasy (b. c. 1819) whose father was a judge's registrar.[9][10] She had two siblings; her older sister, Ellen Mary (1840-1906) and her younger brother, Aubrey St. John (1843-1923).[11] All of the Clerke children were entirely home schooled.[11]

Life and workEdit

Following in her father's footsteps—while studying classics, he had also taken courses in astronomy—she developed an interest in astronomy from an early age, using her father's 4-inch telescope in her observations and had begun to write a history of astronomy at the age of 15.[8] In 1861, aged 19, her family moved to Dublin, and in 1863 to Queenstown. At the age of 25, partly for health reasons[12] together with her elder sister Ellen, she went to Italy where she stayed until 1877, chiefly at Florence, studying science, languages, and other subjects that would be useful in their later lives. In 1877 she settled in London.[8]

Upon her return, she was able to get two articles, "Brigandage in Sicily" and "Copernicus in Italy", written while she had been in Italy, published in the Edinburgh Review of October 1877. This led to her being asked by Adam and Charles Black, publishers of the Review, who also published the Encyclopædia Britannica, to write biographies of a number of famous scientists for the ninth edition of the encyclopedia.[13] This work let to a number of other commissions, including the publication of the article on astronomy for the Catholic Encyclopedia.[8] During her career she wrote reviews of many books, including some written in French, German, Greek, or Italian.[14]

In 1885, she published her best known work A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, which has received recognition beyond the time it was written.[8]

Clerke was not a practical astronomer, instead collating, interpreting and summarising the results of astronomical research. In 1888 she spent three months at the Cape Observatory as the guest of the director, Sir David Gill, and his wife, and there became sufficiently familiar with spectroscopic work to be able to write about this newer branch of the science with increased clearness and confidence.[citation needed]

In the autumn of 1890 Clerke and, her brother Aubrey St. John, were founder members of the British Astronomical Association.[15] In 1893 she was awarded the Actonian Prize of 100 guineas by the Royal Institution. 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 three other women, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville in 1835, and Anne Sheepshanks in 1862.[16]

Her sister, Ellen Mary Clerke (1840–1906), also wrote about astronomy.[17]

She was a devout Catholic all her life.[18]

The lunar crater Clerke is named after her.[19]

In 2002, the retired astronomy lecturer Mary Brück wrote a book on her, Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics.[20]

In 2017, the Royal Astronomical Society established the Agnes Clerke Medal for the History of Astronomy or Geophysics, which is awarded to individuals who have achieved outstanding research into the history of astronomy or geophysics.[21] The first person to receive the medal was Clive Ruggles.[22]

Selected writingsEdit

She also wrote 55 articles for the Edinburgh Review, mainly on subjects connected with astrophysics, and articles for the Dictionary of National Biography, the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia, and several other periodicals. Her articles in the ninth edition (1875–89) of the Britannica included Galileo Galilei, Alexander von Humboldt, Johannes Kepler, Antoine Lavoisier and the zodiac.[13]


  1. ^ For details of the life and work of Agnes Clerk, see Weitzenhoffer, Kenneth (1985). "The Prolific Pen of Agnes Clerke". Sky and Telescope. 70 (9): 211–212. Bibcode:1985S&T....70..211W.
  2. ^ Huggins, Margaret L. (1907). "Agnes Mary Clerke". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 67 (4): 230–231. Bibcode:1907MNRAS..67..230.. doi:10.1093/mnras/67.4.230.
  3. ^ "Obituary–Agnes Mary Clerke". The Observatory. 30: 107–108. 1907. Bibcode:1907Obs....30..107.
  4. ^ Lynn, William T. (1907). "Miss Agnes Mary Clerke". Journal of the British Astronomical Association. 17 (4): 188–189. Bibcode:1907JBAA...17..188.
  5. ^ Huggins, Margaret L. (1907). "Agnes Mary Clerke". Astrophysical Journal. 25 (3): 226–230. Bibcode:1907ApJ....25..226H. doi:10.1086/141436.
  6. ^ Dent, Elsie A. (1907). "Agnes Mary Clerke". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 1 (2): 81–84. Bibcode:1907JRASC...1...81D.
  7. ^ See, Thomas J. J. (1907). "Some Recollections of Miss Agnes M. Clerke". Popular Astronomy. 15 (6): 323–326. Bibcode:1907PA.....15..323S.
  8. ^ a b c d e O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Agnes Mary Clerke", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews
  9. ^ "Miss Agnes Mary Clerke (transcription)". The Times (38236). London. 22 January 1907. p. 12; col D. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
  10. ^ England 1871 census Class: RG10; Piece: 870; Folio: 118; Page: 24; GSU roll: 827769.
  11. ^ a b Ogilvie, Marilyn; Harvey, Joy, eds. (1 January 2000). The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science A-K. 1. Routledge: New York and London. pp. 269–271. ISBN 978-0-415-92039-1.
  12. ^ Cliver, E W (2007). "Agnes Mary Clerke: Real—time historian of astronomy". Astronomy & Geophysics. 48 (3): 25–26. Bibcode:2007A&G....48c..25C. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4004.2007.48325.x.
  13. ^ a b Important Contributors to the Britannica, 9th and 10th Editions Important Contributors to the Britannica, 9th and 10th Editions, Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  14. ^ Brake, Laurel; Demoor, Marysa, eds. (2009). "Clerke, Agnes Mary". Dictionary of Nineteenth-century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland. Academia Press. pp. 127–128. ISBN 9789038213408.
  15. ^ "1907JBAA...17..188. Page 188". Retrieved 11 June 2021.
  16. ^ Bailey, Mandy (2016). "Women and the RAS: 100 years of Fellowship". Astronomy and Geophysics. 57 (1): 19–21. Bibcode:2016A&G....57a1.19B. doi:10.1093/astrogeo/atw037.
  17. ^ Clerke, Ellen (1893). The Planet Venus. London: Witherby and Sons. pp. 59 p. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  18. ^ The Messenger Monthly Magazine 1907
  19. ^ Haines, Catharine (2001). International women in science: a biographical dictionary to 1950. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 67. ISBN 978-1-57607-090-1. madge adam oxford.
  20. ^ Brück, Mary T. (2002). Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521808446.
  21. ^ Bowler, Sue (2016). "Maunder and Clerke medals". Astronomy and Geophysics. 57 (4): 10. doi:10.1093/astrogeo/atw143.
  22. ^ Royal Astronomical Society. "Agnes Mary Clerke Medal for Historical Research (A/G)". Archived from the original on 15 October 2018. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  23. ^ Brown, Ernest W. (1904). "Review: Problems in Astrophysics by Agnes M. Clerke". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 10 (4): 205–206. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1904-01096-4.

Further readingEdit

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