To mark International Women’s Day 2017, we collaborated with The Royal Society to celebrate and record the stories of groundbreaking women of science. While many great men of science have memorials and statues in their honour, the achievement of women has been less widely told.
Here are 5 out-of-this-world women who made cosmic waves in the world of astronomy:
Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet, the first woman to be awarded a prize by the Royal Astronomical Society (1835), and the first woman to be paid for her contribution to astronomy.
Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1750. At age 22, with little education and only a few words of English, she moved to Bath to live with her brother – astronomer William Herschel. Caroline worked alongside William, who in 1781 discovered the planet Uranus. Over the course of her astronomical career, Caroline discovered several comets, and has six named after her.
The home that Caroline and William lived in, at 19 New Street in Bath, now houses the Herschel Museum of Astronomy and is Grade II* listed.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock was born in London in 1968, and is a space scientist and science educator. In the 90’s she worked for a branch of the Ministry of Defence, initially on aircraft missile warning systems, and later on project developing instruments to detect landmines.
Aderin-Pocock founded “Tours of the Universe”, a scheme set up to engage school children and adults in the wonders of space. In 2009, she was appointed an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for her services to science and education.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943) is a Northern Irish astrophysicist, credited with discovering radio pulsars, one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. Radio pulsars are rotating neutron stars, which scientists can use to search for planets beyond the solar system.
At different times in her career, Bell Burnell was president of the Royal Astronomical Society, president of the Institute of Physics, and was the first woman President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1999 she was appointed CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to astronomy and promoted to DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) in 2007.
Somerville (1780 –1872) grew up in Burntisland, Fife, and was an outstanding mathematician and science writer of the Victorian era. At the time, formal training for women in these subjects was largely unavailable, and Somerville was mainly self-taught. She gained the respect of her peers and came to public attention upon the publication of her book, The Mechanism of the Heavens, in 1831 and subsequent publications.
Along with Caroline Herschel, Somerville was elected to be the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. When she died in 1872, Mary Somerville was hailed by The London Post as ‘The Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science’.
In 2016, Somerville was chosen by public vote to feature on the Scottish £10 note, representing science and innovation.
Annie Russell Maunder
Annie Russell Maunder (1868 – 1947) was a Northern Irish astronomer and mathematician. She was employed as one of the first female ‘human computers’ at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in the solar department. This was a special department set up in 1873 to photograph the sun.
She worked with and eventually married Walter Maunder, the pair collaborating on the publication The Heavens and their Story in 1908. Though Annie had to give up her job due to restrictions on married women in public service, she carried on her own solar expeditions.
She returned to the Royal Observatory Greenwich as a volunteer during the First World War, working there from 1915 to 1920. Many of her observations were published in popular journals under her husband’s name before she was named as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. The Maunder Crater on the moon is named after both Annie and Walter.
Royal Society Fellows have put forward 28 remarkable individuals, each personally championing the achievements of ground breaking female scientists. Their hidden stories are being added to the National Heritage List for England.
We’ve also mapped the 28 women and places associated with them so you can explore the full story here.
- Women in Science: 10 Minutes with a Maritime Archaeologist
- News Story – Groundbreaking Women of Science Celebrated
- Read more about Women’s History on our inclusive heritage webpages
Header image courtesy of Ruben Moreno Montoliu, via Flickr