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Alice Everett (1869 - 1949):
Astronomer and astrophysicist

Alice Everett was an astronomer who specialised in astrophysics and later a physicist specialising in optics. Her career took her to Europe and the USA as well as the UK.

She was born in Glasgow where her father Joseph David was Lecturer in Natural Philosophy at the University, but when she was two her father took up the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Queen’s College, Belfast, later Queen’s University, where he was to remain for three decades (and was a popular and highly regarded teacher and producer of educative books on scientific subjects for students as well as the general reader). Alice attended the nearby Methodist College, and in 1882, an obviously very bright student, proceeded to attend lectures at Queen’s College in preparation for taking the examinations of the Royal University of Ireland, of which Queen’s was a constituent College. At the time the question of gender equality in tertiary education was a controversial one and Alice’s achievement in taking first place in the first year examinations in science prompted the College to approach the Law Officers of the Crown regarding the non-eligibility of College scholarships to women. It helped the argument that another woman placed fourth in the second year examinations (this was Florence Hamilton, later the mother of author and academic CS Lewis). The argument was however rejected and it was not until 1895 that equality in this sphere was granted. 

In 1886 she entered Girton College, Cambridge, and in 1889 was successful in the mathematics tripos, with honours. Concurrently she sat the Royal University’s examinations in mathematics and mathematics and graduated MA. Also while at Girton she befriended another student who would become a celebrated astronomer, Annie Maunder (née Russell). 

Alice’s first post after graduation was at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, as a “Lady Computer” in the astrophysics department This was a fairly menial job and correspondingly poorly paid, as the Civil Service rules applying to employing women made this difficult. (The starting remuneration was £4 per month, or some £330 in 2017.) The Astronomer Royal, William Christie, sought to circumvent this by employing these supernumerary women as second assistants, who undertook both observations and computing, of whom Everett was the first, in 1890. She was the first woman to work at the Royal Observatory. Annie Maunder soon joined her there on Everett’s advice – however low the pay, the opportunities to develop, skills and knowledge, access to the best equipment, were not inconsiderable. She joined the British Astronomical Association in 1891, and began to produce papers on astrographic subjects, which appeared in the leading journals in the field.

In 1895 she took up a post at the “Astrophysikalisches Observatorium zu Potsdam” (Astrophysical Observatory at Potsdam), near Berlin, and the leading institution of its kind at the time in Europe. She was the first woman to be employed by a German observatory. She was partly involved with the international astrographic catalogue project she had worked on at Greenwich, the Carte du Ciel, launched in Paris in 1887. During her time in Potsdam she measured stars on photographic chart-plates and in one year, 1897, helped measure the positions of 22,000 stars. She departed Potsdam in 1898 for a one-year post at the observatory of Vassar College in the USA, where she studied the movements of small planets. However, on expiry of the post she failed to obtain another, perhaps due to gender bias and the difficulty of obtaining funding. She returned to England in 1900. 

Unsuccessful despite her talents in furthering her astronomical career she turned instead to optical science, partly researching, writing and translating jointly with her father, including an important German work, Heinrich Hovestadt’s  Jenaer Glas und seine Verwendung in Wissenschaft und Technik (“Jena glass and its scientific and industrial applications”, 1902). In 1903 she became the first woman to publish in the Journal of the Physical Society of London. Her father died in 1904. The outbreak of war in 1914 saw a rise in opportunities for women generally to replace men at the front, and Everett was able to avail, working in optical firms and in 1917 she joined the National Physical Laboratory as an assistant in the physics division.

In 1925 she retired and thereafter took an interest in wireless technology, taking courses before beginning on research in the electronic engineering department of City & Guilds College. She also took an interest in the new medium of television, becoming a founder member of the Television Society. She left her scientific library to the Society on her death in 1949.

Born: 15 May 1869
Died: 29 July 1949
Richard Froggatt