Comment: Feedback Physics World  October 2020

First female fellows

Great minds Mary Blagg (left) and Fiammetta Wilson were among the first cohort of women elected as fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1916. (Unknown photographer, c.1896 (left) and Knowledge and Illustrated Scientific News, 1915)
In response to the “2020 summer quiz part 1” (July p56).

I enjoyed the summer quiz, but I wanted to clarify one of the questions, which asked “What society did astronomers Mary Blagg, Ella Church, Grace Cook and Fiammetta Wilson become the first elected fellows of in 1916?”. The answer to this question is c) The Royal Astronomical Society. However, in addition to the missing word “female” in the question, I’d like to point out that there was a fifth woman on the initial cohort of female fellows, namely Irene Elizabeth Toye Warner.

My interest in the pioneering women fellows of the RAS is twofold. First, I’m also a fellow of the society, and second, I run the historical section of the British Astronomical Association (BAA). All five of the women listed above were BAA members, which is no coincidence, as the BAA was the de facto professional network for women astronomers up until 1916. Since our foundation in 1890, we were graced with the presence of astronomers such as Annie Maunder, Agnes Clerke, Margaret Lady Huggins and Elizabeth Brown.

In the BAA we have designated 2020 as a year of highlighting women in astronomy. The historical section’s contribution to this campaign is to tell the stories of some of the pioneers from our early days. Mary Blagg was renowned for harmonic analysis of variable star light curves and for standardizing lunar nomenclature. Grace Cook was an independent discoverer of Nova Aquilae in 1918 and the extraordinary Fiammetta Wilson a prolific meteor observer. Cook and Wilson were co-directors of the BAA meteor section during the First World War. Ella Katherine Church was on the BAA Council for five years between 1918 and 1924, and contributed to the work of the Jupiter, Variable Star and Mars sections.

Irene Elizabeth Toye Warner (1882–1954) was a freelance journalist who wrote on astronomical matters for popular magazines, such as “Great events in the world during apparitions of Halley’s comet” (Knowledge, 1909) and “Ancient history and worship of the planet Venus” (Popular Astronomy, 1909). In the early 1920s she married a cousin from South Africa and lived the rest of her life there, although on a return visit she recorded a three-part radio series for the BBC on Trekking by Caravan in South Africa. In her later years she also took up spiritualism.

Mike Frost

Director of the British Astronomical Association’s Historical Section