Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Elizabeth Brown

1830 - 1899

Elizabeth Brown was a British Quaker and amateur astronomer who made important observations of sunspots and the solar eclipse.

Brown was largely self taught, reading widely in both literature and sciences. She joined her father in making detailed meteorological observations. In 1871, she took over his work of daily rainfall recording for the Royal Meteorological Society (RMS). From 1881, she published notes on aurorae and other atmospheric effects in the journals Nature and Observatory. In 1893, she was elected one of the first women fellows of the RMS.

After the death of her father in 1883 – free from domestic duties and able to travel – she became active in the Liverpool Astronomical society. In December that year, she presented a paper on sunspots. Shortly after, she became director of the society’s Solar section.

At first she had very little equipment to work with.
When I first took up solar work, I possessed no observatory ... only an old refractor of 3 inch aperture, which had already seen a good deal of service.

Her technique for observing the sun was to project images from the telescope onto white card in a darkened room.

Soon, however, she had built two observatories in the grounds of her house, one for her telescopes and one for her meteorogical equipment. By then she had acquired an equatorially mounted refractor with a driving clock and a 6.5 inch reflector and an astronomical clock.

In 1884, she attended a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Montreal, and afterwards travelled widely in Canada and the USA.

Brown made two lengthy expeditions to observe solar eclipses – one to Russia in 1887 and one to Trinidad in 1889 – which she described in her books In Pursuit of a Shadow and Caught in the Tropics. (The title of the former is a tribute to Quaker meteorologist Luke Howard, who used the expression to describe his own observations of clouds.)

The journey to Russia took her to a small community 200 miles northeast of Moscow, where with leading astronomers from around the world, she observed the eclipse from a beautiful dacha. However they were frustrated by clouds that kept drifting over.

For a second or so we had a view of the coronal light ... and a glimpse of the rose-coloured prominences... but it was all over before we had realised it.

In Trinidad, they were again troubled by clouds, but at the last moment, she saw “the silvery light of the corona, encircling the death-like blackness of the moon’s orb.”

In 1890, she became active in founding the British Astronomical Association – a London based association which, unlike the Royal Astronomical Society at that time, would admit women. On its foundation, she immediately became the director of its solar section and a member of its governing council. She strongly encouraged other women to become astronomers, especially solar astronomers.

The sun is always at hand. No exposure to the night air is involved and there is no need for a costly array of instruments.

The early 1890s were a period of strong sunspot activity and Brown’s detailed daily observations brought her a distinguished reputation. Her drawings were prized for their precision, detail and clarity, and she proposed a classification system for sunspots. In 1892, she was proposed for members of the Royal Astronomical Society, along with two other women, but did not receive the required votes from the male membership.

In 1896, she made a third trip to observe a solar eclipse, this time to Vadsö in northern Norway.

Brown remained a member and regular attender at Cirencester Meeting in the west of England all her life. She died suddenly in 1899, while preparing for a fourth journey to observe a solar eclipse, this time to the western Mediterranean.

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