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Elizabeth Brown

Elizabeth Brown
Credit: care of Royal Astronomical Society

Elizabeth Brown (1830 – 1899)

Elizabeth Brown was a British astronomer who specialized in solar observation, especially sunspots and solar eclipses. She was the first British Quaker to make a contribution to the study of astronomy.

Elizabeth was born in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Her father, Thomas Brown, was a wine merchant and meteorological recorder. He encouraged Elizabeth to share his scientific interests, which was rare as women were not encouraged to study science back then. Elizabeth helped her father record the daily rainfall for the Royal Meteorological Society. When he died in 1883, Elizabeth, now free of her domestic duties caring for her father had the time and the money to be able to follow her interest in solar astronomy.

Elizabeth joined the new Liverpool Astronomical Society in 1883, travelling the 140-mile round journey from her home to attend its meetings in Liverpool. She soon became the Solar Section director for the society and encouraged other women to take up astronomy. She had her own observatory – probably the first woman to do so – and travelled the world on scientific expeditions to observe solar eclipses. Amongst her travels was a trip was to Russia in 1887 and then to the West Indies in 1889. She wrote two books about these trips; ‘Pursuit of a Shadow’ and ‘Caught in the Tropics’.

Her work on the daily recording of sunspots, including detailed drawings, earned her a distinguished reputation among other astronomers. She played a key role in helping to set up the British Astronomical Association (BAA) in 1890, directing its Solar Section until her death in 1899.

Elizabeth was elected as a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1893 and she also had memberships in the astronomical society of France, the astronomical society of the Pacific and the astronomical society of Wales. However, in 1892 she was one of the first women to be put forward for election to the Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society but unfortunately none of the women gained enough votes and so they could not join the society. The Royal Astronomical Society finally admitted women in 1916.