Clerke, Agnes Mary (1842–1907)

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Clerke, Agnes Mary (1842–1907)

Prolific Irish-born writer of popular astronomy articles and books. Pronunciation: Clark. Born Agnes Mary Clerke on February 10, 1842, in Skibbereen, County Cork; died on January 20, 1907, in London; daughter of John William (a bank manager) and Catherine Mary (Deasy) Clerke; sister of Ellen Mary Clerke (1840–1906) and Aubrey St. John Clerke; received home schooling by parents; self-study in Italy and London; never married; no children.


Acton Prize (1892); honorary member, Royal Astronomical Society (1903).

Selected publications:

A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century (1885); The System of the Stars (1891); Problems in Astrophysics (1903); The Herschels and Modern Astronomy (1895); Modern Cosmogonies (1906). Freelance astronomy writer (1877–1907).

A self-taught Irish astronomy writer, Agnes Mary Clerke contributed significantly to the popular astronomy literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was born on February 10, 1842, in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, the daughter of John William Clerke, a bank manager, and Catherine Mary Deasy Clerke. Her brother Aubrey St. John Clerke was educated at a boarding school and later at Trinity College, becoming a barrister. Agnes and her older sister Ellen Mary were educated at home. Ellen would also become a successful writer, though never achieving the fame of her sister. The family relocated to Dublin in 1861 when Aubrey entered college. Agnes and Ellen then resided in Italy from 1867 to 1877 where they studied in the libraries. During these years, Agnes began to write. Her first two articles—"Brigandage in Sicily" (concerning the rise of the Mafia) and "Copernicus in Italy"—were published in 1877 in the Edinburgh Review. She would continue to contribute articles to the Review until her death. In 1877, the entire family moved to London.

Clerke, Ellen Mary (1840–1906)

Irish-born translator. Born in 1840; died in March 1906; daughter of John William and Catherine Mary Deasy Clerke; sister of Agnes Mary Clerke (1842–1907).

Ellen Mary Clerke published poetry, novels, and astronomical pamphlets. In 1899, she published her translation of Italian verse, Fable and Song in Italy.

While writing popularized science articles, in 1881 Clerke began her most famous work, A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, which was published in 1885 to rave reviews. She became well known in astronomical circles and spent two months working at the Cape of Good Hope Observatory in 1888 at the invitation of director David Gill. Clerke made further observations aboard the yacht Palatine in the Baltic Sea. Her experiences were incorporated in her 1891 work, The System of the Stars. A prolific writer, Clerke made numerous contributions to popular journals and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and authored a number of popular books, including The Herschels and Modern Astronomy and Modern Cosmogonies. Wrote T.J.J. See of her work: "In the line of popular writing Miss Clerke had no superior. Her style was classic, her imagery clear, her thought lucid, original and suggestive."

Clerke never held an official astronomical position, although she turned down a position at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and she was nominated to succeed Maria Mitchell as professor of astronomy at Vassar College. She was awarded the Acton Prize in 1892 and was the fourth woman elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1903). None of the Clerke children married, and Ellen and Agnes were close until Ellen's death in March 1906. Agnes died in London shortly after her sister, on January 20, 1907, from pneumonia.


Bruck, M.T. "Agnes Mary Clerke, Chronicler of Astronomy," in Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Vol. XXXV, no. 1. March 1994, p. 59–80.

Dent, Elsie A. "Agnes Mary Clerke," in The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Vol. I, no. 2. March–April 1907, p. 81–84.

Huggins, Margaret Lindsay. "Agnes Mary Clerke," in Astrophysical Journal. Vol. 25, 1907, p. 226–230.

Macpherson, Hector, Jr. Astronomers of Today. London: Gall and Inglis, 1905.

See, T.J.J. "Some Recollections of Miss Agnes M. Clerke," in Popular Astronomy. Vol. XV, no. 6. June–July 1907, p. 323–326.

suggested reading:

Bruck, Mary T. "Companions in Astronomy: Margaret Lindsay Huggins and Agnes Mary Clerke," in Irish Astronomical Journal. Vol. 20, no. 2, 1991, p. 70–77.

Weitzenhoffer, Kenneth. "The Prolific Pen of Agnes Clerke," in Sky and Telescope. Vol. LXX, no. 3. September 1985, p. 211–212.

Kristine Larsen , Associate Professor of Physics and Earth Sciences, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut

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Clerke, Agnes Mary (1842–1907)