Women in Astronomy: Assistants and Instrumentalists

Raghda Abdel Khaleq is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory and a physics student at the University of New South Wales. To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018 Raghda looks at assistants and instrumentalists.

‘In my younger days, when I was painted by the half-educated, loose and inaccurate ways women had, I used to say, “How much women need exact science”. But since I have known some workers in science, I have now said, “How much science needs women’.
– Maria Mitchell

Maria Kirch
Born on the 25th February 1670, Maria Kirch’s interest in astronomy from a young age encouraged her father to begin educating her, as he believed young girls deserved the same level of education given to boys. After her father’s death, Kirch (sometimes referred to as Kirchin) began studying under local astronomer Christoph Arnold, and later under her then husband and German astronomer and mathematician Gottfried Kirch.

Women were not allowed to attend universities in Germany at the time, but Kirchin was able to hold the position of her husband’s assistant. Together their astronomical research allowed them to make valuable contributions: producing calendars, ephemerides and almanacs; recording weather data that was useful in navigation; and studying the phases of the moon and positions of planets. Despite the relatively equal amount of work Kirchin contributed, she was still not regarded as her husband’s equal.

In 1702 she became the first woman to discover a comet: C/1702 H1 – ‘the comet of 1702’. However, it is believed that her husband took credit for the discovery, possibly fearing the disdain of the scientific community at a woman making such a discovery, and only later rightfully acknowledged the prominence of her contribution in the discovery. Although she went on to publish important work under her own name, she continued to face gender discrimination. Eventually, she had to completely discontinue all her astronomical research due to complaints from members of the Royal Academy of Sciences that she was too prominent of a figure in their events.


Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins

Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins
Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Margaret Lindsay Murray was born on the 14th August 1848 in Dublin. She was deeply inspired from a young age by her grandfather, Robert Murray, to continue her own independent studies in astronomy. Her keen interests in astronomy and photography steered her to meet with astronomer Sir William Huggins, who was well-known at the time for his spectroscopic research and who later married Lady Huggins in 1875.

Sir William Huggins
Sir William Huggins. An image taken in 1910 which appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, volume 86A
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Their partnership and dedication to their research led them to make countless contributions. They conducted photographic experiments at the Tulse Hill Observatory in England, where they studied Sirius, Venus, Solar corona and nebula. Although she was documented to be primarily her husband’s assistant, Huggins’ labours were invaluable as an instrumentalist enhancing their observing equipment, as well as a researcher. She was later listed as a co-author alongside her husband for the first time, despite her earlier contributions and independent research efforts having clearly marked her as an equal collaborator rather than an assistant.

Comparison of visible magnesium spectrum with that of Orion nebula
Comparison of visible magnesium spectrum with that of Orion nebula
Image Credit: William Huggins, Margaret Lindsay Huggins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

She received considerable recognition for a woman towards the end of her life. She was elected into the British Astronomical Association, as well as included as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society on the same terms as her fellow male astronomers. Her achievements in the field of photographic spectroscopy have paved the way for women in science to be able to maintain their scientific and intellectual independence.


Wallal Expedition Instrumentalists
When Albert Einstein first published his ‘General Theory of Relativity’ in 1916, it was met with both excitement and doubt from the scientific community. This revolutionary theory challenged Newton’s ideas, and proposed that the well-known force of gravity occurs due to the curvature of the fabric of space-time, with massive objects like the Sun bending this fabric. Although a mesmerising and imaginative idea, it proved difficult to validate. A full solar eclipse was needed in order to accurately measure the apparent shift in the stars’ positions around the Sun due to this curvature in space.

Lick Observatory eclipse expedition
Lick Observatory eclipse expedition, 1.52 metre (5 foot) Einstein camera, Wallal, Western Australia, 1922
Image Credit: MAAS Collection, P3549-203


In response to this challenge, various teams of scientists over the years had attempted to make these measurements. W. W. Campbell’s expedition with Erwin Finlay-Freundlich to Russia proved fruitless as the political atmosphere saw their professional equipment being confiscated and never returned. Later on, Campbell’s results from the 1918 solar eclipse disagreed with Einstein’s theory, whilst Arthur Eddington’s 1919 calculations were in favour of it. It was evident that a final expedition was needed in order to settle the debate once and for all.

Lick Observatory eclipse expedition. The polar axis with spectrographs and Floyd telescope
Lick Observatory eclipse expedition. The polar axis with spectrographs and Floyd telescope, photographer Ernest Bud Brandon-Cremer, Wallal, Western Australia, 1922.
To the left a woman (who is now thought to be W.W. Campbell’s wife) is in control of the Floyd camera responsible for observing the Sun’s corona.
Image Credit: MAAS Collection, P3549-201


This confirmation came from the Wallal Expedition, conducted in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1922. A group of international astronomers set up their equipment along Eighty Mile Beach, and there they were able to finally observe the deflection of light coming from the stars adjacent to the Sun. Alongside these male astronomers stood female instrumentalists and assistants, who played a significant role in obtaining images of the eclipse and making calculations, and who were critical in the validation of one of the most ground-breaking theories of the 1900s.


In the next post we’ll explore the early astronomers who not only contributed to our knowledge of astronomy but also paved the way for women to be accepted as scientists and scholars.


Return to 2018 Women in Astronomy: Introduction


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