Alice Everett, a woman in science
Rebekah Higgitt reveals the life of Alice Everett, one of the first paid women to work at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Lucinda Blaser: Hi, I’m Lucinda Blaser, and today I’m talking to Rebekah Higgitt, Curator of the History of Science and Technology. What are we talking about today, Becky?
Rebekah Higgitt: Well, we’re still carrying on the series of looking at the lives of some of the assistants at the Royal Observatory in the past, and because March is Women’s History Month, I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about one of the women who worked at Greenwich. And she in fact the first one to have had a sort of regular paid job, as it were — as opposed to someone who was a wife or took part-time, calculating-type work. Her name was Alice Everett and she lived from 1865 to 1949, and she began working at Greenwich in January 1890.
Lucinda: So what kind of a woman did it take to be the first at Greenwich?
Becky: It took a lot, I think, a lot of determination and a lot of real talent and skill as well. She was employed — the title of the job she had was a Supernumerary Computer, which really put her on the same level as kind of boys who joined the Observatory straight out of school, and did fairly basic, repetitious kind of work, dealing with number-crunching, calculating what they called ‘reducing the observations’ so they could be printed. So that was her title and she was paid on that kind of level and yet she had the qualifications of one of the top astronomers there — a First Assistant or a Chief Assistant at the Observatory. So she had been to Cambridge, she went to Girton College, and she took her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees while she was there, although she actually took them from the Royal University in Ireland because Cambridge wasn’t actually awarding degrees to women at all at that stage. So she took the Cambridge exam, the Mathematical Tripos, and got Honours doing that, but she wasn’t allowed a degree, and no one, no woman got a degree at Cambridge until 1928.
She was, as I say, extremely well qualified, she’d already been to Queen’s College in Belfast; she’d taken, in fact, first place in the scholarship exam there. And it obviously surprised them so much that they were forced, for the first time, to really sit and think about whether women ought to be allowed to do this and whether they should be awarded scholarships. And they thought ‘No, she shouldn’t’, so she actually didn’t win that scholarship even though she’d won first place in the exam.
Lucinda: Not many women were university educated. How did Everett manage to get even this far in her career?
Becky: Well, a great deal of it was evidently down to her own talent and determination to do this in her career. And, of course, the fact that there are beginning to be openings for women, so you do have a Girton College at Cambridge now open — that was in 1873. So still relatively early days for women’s education at that sort of period at all, and only a very few women got that far.
So I think it didn’t exactly harm the fact that her father was a Professor of Natural Philosophy in Belfast, which was where she began her education. But it’s interesting that she was the only one of a family of six, which included three boys and three girls, who actually developed any kind of career in science. So it was obviously something, not that she was pushed to do, but that she very much felt the desire to do.
Looking at her biography I think she also benefitted from her schooling in Belfast — she was at the Methodist College there. And it was a place that had developed a very good academic reputation, even for girls, in the kind of work they did, and apparently encouraged ‘plain living’ and ‘high thinking’. And I think that’s something that probably helped her with the career that she wanted, to give her an acceptance of hard work and poor remuneration, definitely.
Lucinda: Was this what she found at Greenwich?
Becky: Yes, I think so. And as I was saying, she’s paid at the same level as the boys who come in straight from school, you know, they’re 15 or something, and she’s a woman who has a degree and so on — she’s as well-qualified as she possibly could be. And she’s been given something that essentially is an insecure job; it doesn’t have long-term prospects, fairly unrewarding work a lot of the time, and nowhere obvious for her to go, and in fact it was clear in the end, that she wasn’t going to stay there particularly long.
Lucinda: What did she work on at Greenwich?
Becky: She was assigned to work in the Astrographic Department, which was a relatively new department at Greenwich at the time, and it’s a kind of sign of the fact that they’re really expanding the type of work that they do at Greenwich — beyond the obvious time-determining and navigation-kind of observations that was the core work that the Observatory was founded to do — and beginning to look at new techniques like photography and spectroscopy and so on. So they were expanding at this time, which I think is one of the reasons why even women were being brought on board by William Christie, the Astronomer Royal at that time.
And within that department she was contributing to a big international project that was just taking off called the Carte du Ciel, which was aiming to map the skies, but rather than doing this in the sort of old-fashioned way by doing Meridian observations, they were using the still fairly new technique of stellar photography. So, unlike the boys who were Computers really on her pay grade, she was being trained to observe and also to use these new telescopes, to take the photographs herself, and then also to do the painstaking work of measuring the plates, the photographic plates that were produced, and calculating all the coordinates of the stars on each and every plate — you can imagine this is extremely time-consuming stuff. And then taking those numbers and reducing the data, doing calculations, so that you could have a printed catalogue of them as well.
We know that she did other kinds of observations as well — transit telescope observations on the Airy Transit Circle — which means that she probably had to do observing at night. Which was an interesting thought for a woman in the late 19th century, whether she stayed on site — she may have had sleep between observations if they were done at night — or make her way through the Park when it was dark and so on. It’s interesting, we don’t know much about the life that she had and where she was living, and so on, but I imagine that this was quite risky stuff for a woman to be doing at that period.
Lucinda: So how long did Everett spend at Greenwich and what happened to her after?
Becky: She was here for five years, and it seems that the opportunities here ended. She was fairly well-supported by colleagues, and so on, and she was doing s
ome quite important work, she was actually managing to publish work as well, research sort of off her own bat beyond just the work she had to do at Greenwich. And she was nominated, in fact, for a Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society by two of her male colleagues at Greenwich. But she wasn’t actually elected, she didn’t achieve enough — I can’t remember what the number, two-thirds or something of the Fellowship have to agree — and she didn’t get that. So she may have felt that prospects weren’t getting her far, or possibly, I think, just the fact that once the Observatory managed to get more funding from government — which is something that William Christie, the Astronomer Royal, had been asking for — they decided that they could employ men instead at a higher rate, rather than these, actually, bargain-price women who were incredibly well-qualified but cost them a lot less. But evidently they felt that it wasn’t an experiment worth sort of pushing for, so she left after five years and she moved, temporarily, to the Astrophysical Observatory in Potsdam, which is you know a top place and a sort of real, leading place for astrophysical research in a way that Greenwich wasn’t. But it was only a temporary cover post while another member of staff was doing other research. And she continued doing the same work on the Carte du Ciel maps. And again, it provided her opportunities for publication but, again, it was clearly not a lasting post, she had to move on again.
She spent a year in an observatory in America, Vassar College, which is somewhere that provided opportunities for women in astronomy. There’s two women, first Maria Mitchell, who’s famous as a woman who was a Professor of Astronomy in the 19th century — an extremely unusual position to be in. And the next Professor there was also female, Mary Whitney. And Everett worked with her, again publishing. So she’s retaining, you know, a high position in the world of science, and being very active, but not, perhaps, getting the recognition or any kind of permanent post that you might expect in response to that.
And after that post she wasn’t able to find somewhere else to go to and she returns to London and her life actually becomes a bit obscure for a while. She’s still sort of working, getting interested in optics; she’s obviously not got the opportunity for practical observation any more. And just, kind of, existing there, probably supported by her family, until after the First World War, which is the first chance — or, in fact, during the First World War, she gets the chance to get a paid job again — obviously many women did at that period. And in 1917 she joined the staff of the National Physical Laboratory where she continued work in optics, which had become her new interest, and stayed there until she retired in 1925.
Lucinda: That’s quite a varied career!
Becky: It really is, and I think she was clearly irrepressible and determined to do what she wanted to do, even though it wasn’t being made easy for her. And she was active even after retiring from the National Physical Laboratory, and still learning! She took new qualifications in electrical engineering, which is obviously a new field opening out at the time. And became extremely interested in television and joined the Television Society and was also involved with the Baird television company working on improvements to John Logie Baird’s designs, and so on. So an extraordinary new step, again, from where she’d been, in optics. And she was involved with those right up until her death in 1949.
I don’t think she was paid for any of that work, but she did, finally I’m glad to say, receive recognition for all the work she’d achieved in her life — in 1938 she got a pension of £100 a year, which was in recognition of her contributions but also her father’s, who was long dead, but obviously they felt there needed to be a man’s name in there as well, or something! But I’m glad she got that, at last, and I hope, you know, it made her life a bit easier towards the end of it.
But I think we can really safely say that if she had been a man she would be much, much better known than she is. She would have had so many more opportunities, she would have been a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, she would have been a Fellow of the Royal Society, and so on.
Lucinda: Rebekah, thank you.
Becky: Thank you.