Three Girton astronomers
2021 May 31
Girton College, located on Girton Road running north-west out of Cambridge, was founded in 1869 by Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, as the first women’s college in Cambridge University. Although they could attend lectures and sit exams, women were not allowed to receive Cambridge degrees until 1948. Other colleges for women followed (Newnham in 1871 and New Hall, now Murray Edwards, in 1954) and in 1976 Girton became co-educational, a trend followed by most of the Cambridge colleges.
It turns out that Girton College was the alma mater of three of the Association’s early members – Annie Maunder, Alice Everett and Lilian Martin-Leake; three young women who studied together and went on to succeed in diverse fields. We present here pen portraits of their careers.
Annie Scott Dill Russell (1868–1947), later Annie Maunder, was one of our most accomplished and distinguished members. She was a founder member of the BAA and the second editor of the Journal, a post she held from 1894–’96 and again from 1917–’30. Annie was born in Strabane, Northern Ireland. She matriculated to Girton in 1886 to study mathematics and achieved the rank of Senior Optime (second-class degree) in her final exams.
Annie was one of the first cohorts of women to be hired by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (RGO). The women were hired as computers, reducing the observations made overnight by the observers, and were paid on the lowest civil service grade, regardless of qualifications. Annie excelled in the job, adding observational and photographic skills as part of the solar department.
Her boss was Edward Walter Maunder, one of the prime movers of the Association and the first editor of its Journal. In 1888 Maunder’s first wife died, leaving him to bring up five children. Maunder proposed to Annie, and she accepted – but this meant that she had to give up her professional post at Greenwich, which was only open to unmarried women. Nevertheless, she continued to do research as an unpaid assistant to her husband.
The Maunders attended five solar eclipses together, mostly as part of BAA expeditions. Annie’s expertise in solar photography extended to eclipses; her photograph of the coronal streamer at the Indian eclipse of 1898, taken with a camera bought with a grant from Girton and customised by Annie for eclipse photography, was said to be of the longest such streamer ever recorded to that date. The patient analysis of decades of sunspot observations resulted in the publication (in Walter’s name only, though the likelihood is that Annie did most of the work) of the famous ‘butterfly diagram’ showing, for the first time, how sunspot latitudes vary during the solar cycle. The Maunders also wrote a very successful popular astronomy book, The Heavens and Their Story, and Annie also wrote on astronomy in the Bible.
During the Great War, Walter was re-recruited to the RGO, and Annie rejoined him as his assistant. When the Royal Astronomical Society voted to admit women, in 1916, Annie became one of the first female fellows.
Annie Maunder has received much well-deserved recognition in recent years – the RAS named a prize for her, for example – but her two compatriots are less known. Alice Everett (1865–1949) was also among the first group of four women to be recruited by the RGO, a year before Annie Russell. She was therefore among almost the very first professional women astronomers in Britain (after Caroline Herschel, who received a government pension, and one or two assistants at the Cambridge Observatory). The other Greenwich assistants didn’t last long – the work was arduous and poorly paid. Edith Rix, a Newnham graduate who was a founder member of the BAA and seconded Annie Maunder’s application, fell ill during her year at the RGO, and had to resign from the position. Harriet Maud Furniss, also a BAA founder member and another Girton graduate, also left after a year to pursue a (successful) career in teacher training. But Annie Russell and Alice Everett were durable and determined to make a career in astronomy. Alice joined the Carte du Ciel team, part of a multi-observatory astrophotographic project.
Alice Everett also grew up in Northern Ireland, although she was born in Scotland; her father, Joseph David Everett, was a professor at Glasgow University who took up a post at Queen’s University when Alice was two years old. Alice, after studying science at Queen’s, also took the Maths Tripos at Girton between 1886 and 1889, achieving a second-class degree just like Annie Russell.
Astronomers at the Royal Observatory would normally be expected to become fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, but that organisation did not accept female fellows until 1916 (when Annie Maunder was admitted). Fortunately, the BAA had just been founded, and welcomed women. Alice Everett was BAA Secretary 1893–’96. In her excellent survey of Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy, the late Mary Brück painted an appealing portrait of Everett and Maunder, the two enthusiastic young graduates, running the Association in the mid-1890s.
After Greenwich, Everett was offered a post at the Dunsink Observatory in Ireland, but went instead to the Potsdam Observatory in Germany, where she also worked on the Carte du Ciel project. She then moved to the United States and spent a year at Vassar College, one of the first generation of women’s colleges in the USA. After this she wrote to James Keeler, who tried to get her a post at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, California, but was unable to secure funding.
Alice Everett returned to the UK and assisted her father in research into optics. She attended the BAA expedition to the solar eclipse of 1905, in Majorca, and wrote papers on subjects such as the Spectre of the Brocken and anticrepuscular rays. Formal job opportunities were few but eventually in 1917 she joined the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, working as an optical physicist. After her retirement from the NPL, Everett took an interest in electrical and wireless engineering, particularly the nascent technology of television, and joined the Baird Company. She held several patents in television design, though not for the system finally adopted. Nonetheless, she was a founding fellow of the Royal Television Society.
Lilian Martin-Leake (1867–1962) appears in the illustrations for the Maunders’ The Heavens and Their Story, posing alongside a refracting telescope on the roof of the Hotel de la Regence, Algiers, during the BAA’s expedition to Algeria to observe the total solar eclipse of 1900 May 28. The official report of that expedition contains watercolour observations of solar prominences made by Martin-Leake; they are a little stylised, but not bad for a first eclipse observation.
Martin-Leake started at Girton the same year as Annie Russell and Alice Everett, but her degree in natural sciences took longer to complete. She was secretary of the college’s Natural History Society (GCNHS). We have no direct evidence that Russell or Everett were also members of this society, but it is a strong possibility. Among the talks given to the GCNHS were ‘The reason of the colour of the sky’ and ‘The origin of earthquakes’ (given by Martin-Leake); there were also discussion meetings, including one on ‘Sun spots’ which she led.
As far as we know Martin-Leake never pursued a career in astronomy, although she did join the BAA, nominated by Alice Everett and seconded by Annie Maunder. Instead, after a short period teaching at Kensington School, she taught chemistry at Newnham (under Ida Freund, also of Girton) and became the first woman to do research at the university’s chemical laboratory. After a spell in the United States as an assistant to the chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr (another women’s college), from 1896 to 1900, she was science mistress at Winchester High School. Poor health forced her to give up teaching full-time, but for the rest of her life she was an occasional inspector for the Board of Education, and a leading light in the School Science Supply Association and similar organisations. She also had interests in agriculture, of particular use during the first and second world wars.
Girton College archives hold a fascinating profile of Martin-Leake from the Western Morning News for 1954 Nov 3, which details much of her life. She was a great cricket fan, teaching the sport at Winchester and attending matches at Lords and the Oval, and then in retirement at Bideford. And, one final note – the Morning News article reveals that she had finally received her degree from Cambridge University; the only one of our three Girton astronomers to live long enough to receive the qualifications they had earned over half a century earlier.
It is fascinating to see how these three women, with a common interest in astronomy, went on to lead productive lives in so many different fields.
We are grateful to Jenny Blackhurst (librarian) and Hannah Westall (archivist) of Girton College for information on Lilian Martin-Leake.
References & further reading
Brück M., Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy: Stars and Satellites, Springer, 2009. Chapter 13, ‘Slave wage earners’, covers the RGO computers and the later career of Alice Everett. Chapter 14, ‘Sunspots and Corona’, continues Annie Maunder’s story.
Brück M., ‘Alice Everett and Annie Russell Maunder: torch bearing women astronomers’, Irish Astronomical Journal, 21(3/4), 281 (2004)
Brück M. T., ‘Lady Computers in Greenwich in the 1890s’, Quarterly Journal of the RAS, 36, 83–95 (1995)
‘No Decline’, Western Morning News, 1954 Nov 3 (cutting courtesy of Girton College Archive, ref GCAS2-6-2-3-8pt)
Girton Review 1886–1890 (courtesy Girton College Archive)