Margaret Huggins: Spectral specialist

Guest post by the Royal Astronomical Society, Platinum Sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day Live 2016.

Barbara Becker explores the vital research undertaken by Margaret Huggins in the field of spectroscopy, the latest in a series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics.

Photograph of Lady Margaret Huggins

Lady Margaret Huggins (Royal Astronomical Society)

Margaret Huggins’s renown is inextricably linked to that of her husband, the amateur astronomer, William Huggins (1824-1910). They married in September 1875, and collaborated at the Tulse Hill Observatory for the next thirty five years, focusing on spectroscopy and spectral photography. Margaret is most often presented as William’s subordinate assistant in a romanticised narrative of scientist and helpmeet that they themselves created. And yet the records that survive suggest Margaret may have been the driving force behind much of their work, and entered the marriage with considerable existing expertise in photographic observation. Much of William Huggins’s published work was based on their collaborative research and Margaret often produced the diagrams that appeared in these articles.

However, it wasn’t until 1889 that Margaret’s name appeared alongside her husband’s on a paper. Despite being awarded honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1903, she has rarely been recognised as a scientist in her own right. This is, in part, due to Margaret’s own efforts to establish a historical legacy for her husband, and her desire for her contributions not to overshadow his work and also to retain the image of a respectable Victorian woman. Historians are just beginning to fully uncover the significant role that Margaret Huggins played both in shaping her husband’s research and in directing and carrying it out herself.

You can read more on the Astronomy and Geophysics website. And to learn more about Margaret Huggins’ pioneering work on spectroscopy, watch Dr Jen Gupta’s talk from Ada Lovelace Day 2015 below.

Huggins, M. (2016), “Margaret Huggins and Tulse Hill Observatory”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(2) 2.13-2.14.

Posted in Women in STEM.