Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Clerke, Agnes Mary

CLERKE, AGNES MARY (1842–1907), historian of astronomy, born at Skibbereen, co. Cork, on 10 Feb. 1842, was younger daughter of John William Clerke (1814-1890), by his wife Catherine, daughter of Rickard Deasy of Clonakilty, co. Cork, and sister of Rickard Deasy [q. v.], an Irish judge. Her elder sister, Ellen Mary, is noticed below. Her only brother, Aubrey St. John Clerke, became a chancery barrister in London. The father, a classical scholar and graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, was manager until 1861 of a bank at Skibbereen, owned land in the district, and practised astronomy as a recreation. Interested as a child by her father in astronomy, Agnes Clerke was highly educated at home. In 1861 she and her family moved to Dublin, and in 1863 to Queenstown. The years 1867-77 were spent in Italy, chiefly in Florence, where Agnes studied in the libraries and wrote an article, 'Copernicus in Italy,' which was published in the 'Edinburgh Review' in April 1877. Numerous articles on both astronomical and literary themes appeared in the 'Review' between that date and her death. In 1877 the family settled in London, which was thenceforth Agnes Clerke's home. A paper in the 'Edinburgh' on 'The Chemistry of the Stars' in 1880 was followed in 1885 by her first book, 'A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century' (4th edit. 1902). Nothing of the kind had appeared since 1852, when the 'History of Physical Astronomy' was published by Professor Robert Grant (1814–1892) [q. v. Suppl. I]. In the interval the spectroscope had been applied to astronomy and the science of astronomical physics inaugurated. Miss Clerke's work, which at once took standard rank, was especially valuable for its wealth of references. In 1888 she had the opportunity of practical astronomical work during a three months' visit to Sir David and Lady Gill at the observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. In 1890 her second book, 'The System of the Stars' (2nd edit. 1905), maintained her reputation. The third and last of her larger works, 'Problems in Astrophysics,' came out in 1903. Smaller volumes were 'The Herschels and Modern Astronomy,' in ' Century Science' series, edited by Sir Henry Roscoe (1895), 'Astronomy,' in 'Concise Knowledge' series (1898), and 'Modern Cosmogonies' (1905). Each annual volume of the 'Observatory Magazine ' from 1886 until her death contained reviews by her of books or descriptions of new advances in astronomy. She contributed many astronomical articles, including 'Laplace,' to the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' (9th edit.). In this Dictionary she wrote almost all the lives of astronomers from the first volume to the supplementary volumes in 1901. In 1892 the governors of the Royal Institution awarded to Miss Agnes Clerke the Actonian prize of 100l., and in 1903 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, a rare distinction among women, shared at the time with Lady Huggins; it had been accorded previously only to Mrs. Somerville, Caroline Herschel, and Ann Sheepshanks.

Miss Clerke's devotion to astronomy never lessened her interest in general literature, on which she wrote constantly in the 'Edinburgh.' In 1892 she published 'Familiar Studies in Homer,' which well illustrated her width of culture. An accomplished musician, she died of pneumonia at her residence in South Kensington on 20 Jan. 1907.

The elder sister, Ellen Mary Clerke (1840–1906), born at Skibbereen on 26 Sept. 1840, was her sister's companion through life, and shared her taste for music, literature, and science. In 1881 she published a collection of English verses, 'The Flying Dutchman and other Poems.' Residence in Italy (1867–77) gave her a complete command of the Italian language, which she wrote and spoke with facility, and she devoted much time to verse translations of Italian poetry. Some specimens appear in Garnett's 'History of Italian Literature' (1898) and in her own book, 'Fable and Song in Italy' (1899). 'Flowers of Fire,' a novel which graphically describes an eruption of Vesuvius, appeared in 1902. A regular contributor to periodicals, she wrote a weekly leader for twenty years for the 'Tablet.' Like her sister she interested herself in astronomy. Small monographs on 'Jupiter' and on 'Venus' from her pen appeared in 1892 and 1893; her short note on 'Algol' in the 'Observatory Magazine' for June 1892 gives evidence of acquaintance with the Arabic language. Miss Ellen Clerke died after a short illness at her home in South Kensington on 2 March 1906.

[An Appreciation of Agnes Mary and Ellen Mary Clerke, by Lady Huggins, with Foreword by Aubrey St. John Clerke, 1907 (printed for private circulation); Roy. Astr. Soc.'s Journ., Feb. 1907; Observatory Mag., Feb. 1907; The Times, 21 Jan. 1907.]

H. P. H.