Science history: Hertha Marks Ayrton, woman of substance

She was the first woman to deliver her own paper to the Royal Society. 

Hertha Ayrton, an able scientist rather an “an active, useful sort of person”.

US Library of Congress

By Jeff Glorfeld

In a December 1923 issue of the journal Nature, Henry E Armstrong, a highly regarded British chemist and researcher, wrote an obituary for Hertha Ayrton, wife of his “former colleague” William Ayrton.

She had died in Sussex, southeast England, on 28 August that year – nearly 15 years after her husband, a successful electrical engineer, researcher and educator, and a fellow of the Royal Society.

“He should have had a humdrum wife, ‘an active, useful sort of person’, such as Lady Catherine recommended Mr Collins to marry, who would have put him into carpet-slippers when he came home, fed him well and led him not to worry either himself or other people, especially other people; then he would have lived a longer and a happier life and done far more effective work, I believe,” Armstrong writes.

Along with ruminating upon Mr Ayrton’s choice of spouse, Armstrong’s article takes up the question of whether women in general are capable of contributing to the sciences, and specifically if Mrs Ayrton was, indeed, an able scientist.

The answer in both cases is negative. “Though a capable worker, she was a complete specialist and had neither the extent nor depth of knowledge, the penetrative faculty, required to give her entire grasp of her subject.”

That is, it has to be said, a rather strange conclusion.

Hertha Ayrton was born Phoebe Sarah Marks on 28 April 1854, in Portsea, England.

According to an article in the 1993 book Women in Chemistry and Physics, in her teens she adopted the name Hertha, “after a Teutonic earth goddess as eulogised by Swinburne in a popular poem that attacked conventional religious views”.

Another source, however, suggests a friend “called her Hertha after the heroine of a novel by feminist Fredrika Bremer who describes the struggles of her ‘soul which seeks freedom, life, and happiness for herself and her many sisters’.”

She entered Girton College in 1876 after having passed the Cambridge University Examination for Women in 1874 with honours in English and Mathematics. She completed the Cambridge undergraduate exams in 1881, although at that time women were not eligible for the university degree.

She began studies at the Technical College, Finsbury, in 1884, studying under Professor William Ayrton, a widower with a young daughter. They were married on 6 May 1885.

The Guardian newspaper, in its obituary for Mrs Ayrton, told how in 1893 her husband “had been approached by the Board of Trade on behalf of the Admiralty with a request that he should investigate the question of ‘roaring’ searchlights, which was being examined concurrently by the Admiralty’s own experts”.

“Professor Ayrton had begun the investigation but ill-health prevented him from pursuing the intricate questions involved, and at a very early stage he handed the subject over to his wife. He then ceased to work at it himself.”

She proved to be a most adequate replacement. Between 1895 and 1896, she published 12 articles on her analysis, research and technical advances in the field of electric arc lighting.

A 2018 article by Elizabeth Bruton in the Science Museum Group Journal, says Ayrton’s publisher, The Electrician, was “the premier electrical engineering periodical of the age” and that “[w]ith these articles, she overtook her husband’s earlier work in this field and established her own credentials as an expert on the workings of the electric arc and in the field of electrical engineering more generally.”

As a result, she was invited to deliver her own paper on electric arcs before the Institution of Electrical Engineers – the first woman to do so. In 1899, she became the institution’s first female member.

That same year, Malley says, Ayrton “read a paper at the British Association meeting, demonstrated the electric arc at the Royal Society's evening Conversazione, and presided over the science section of the International Congress of Women. The following year she read a paper on the arc at the International Electrical Congress in Paris.”

In 1902, Ayrton’s paper “The Electric Arc” was published and she was proposed for a Royal Society Fellowship. However, Bruton says, society president William Huggins “was against women ‘trivialising’ his elite scientific institution and Ayrton’s increasingly outspoken commitment to women’s suffrage probably did not help matters”.

“Officially Ayrton’s application was turned down by the Council of the Royal Society based on legal advice that married women were ineligible to be Fellows of the Royal Society as they had no independent legal standing in law.”

In 1904, however, Ayrton became the first woman to deliver her own paper, “The Motion of Ripples in Sand and Wave”, before the Royal Society.

In 1906 she was awarded the Royal Society’s Hughes medal. This was, Bruton says, “prestigious within and without the society and eligibility for it was defined in progressive terms as being ‘without restriction of sex or nationality’. Despite these claimed lack of restrictions, Ayrton was the first woman awarded this prestigious medal.”

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles