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Fiametta Wilson

Fiammetta Wilson
Credit: care of Royal Astronomical Society

Fiammetta Wilson (1864 – 1920)

Fiammetta was born in Lowestoft. She was educated at home with a governess and then went to Switzerland and Germany to “finish” her education. She was very good at languages and music, becoming a successful conductor of an orchestra, often writing the music herself. She also wrote a lot of short stories that appeared in magazines. Fiammetta didn’t become interested in science until after she married and attended lessons in astronomy for general interest. She became fascinated by it and gave up her music so she could do more astronomy.

Fiammetta was a very determined person and built an observing platform – her “perch”, so she could get a clearer view of the skies above the trees surrounding her garden. It was not unusual for her to stand on her perch in all weathers looking at the sky for most of the night even when it was very cloudy. As a result she often saw and recorded fireballs and meteors, on clearer nights she also observed the Aurora Borealis, the zodiacal light and comets. In between 1910 and 1920, she observed about 10,000 meteors and accurately calculated the paths of 650 of them.

Fiammeta would not let the inconvenience of a world war interrupt her work and on one occasion she was almost arrested as a spy by a special constable who thought she was signalling to Zeppelins with the flash light she used for recording meteors. As she could speak German and Italian and it was a wonder she avoided being arrested! On another occasion she narrowly escaped injury from bomb splinters and when observing from the roof of a friends observatory (to get a better view) she almost fell from the ladder! She wrote scientific papers on her observations, two of which were published by the Royal Astronomical Society.

Fiammetta joined the British Astronomical Association in 1910 and became an acting director of its Meteor Section during the war. On 14 January 1916, Fiammetta became one of the first four women to be elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Astronomy Society. She also became a member of both the Société astronomique de France and the Société d'astronomie d'Anvers and in July 1920 she was given an E.C. Pickering Fellowship, which was a one-year research position at Harvard College in America. Unfortunately, Fiammetta died that month and didn't know she had been given that honour and opportunity.