top of page
  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

The Secrets Stars Keep: Lady Margaret Huggins, Pioneer of Spectral Photography

The history of science boasts a robust roster of Vanished Women, wives and sisters who did the work of full partners but received the recognition of mere Lab Helpmates (if they received any recognition at all). Each discipline has its share of vanished women, but in the early history of modern astronomy, as we have seen, they are absolutely legion. Great astronomers leaned on women as co-observers, analysts, technicians, and theorists, but when it came time to write up their mutual results, it was the rare fellow indeed who placed anything but his own name under the title.

Two of the great exceptions to that trend elegantly exchanged the baton of life mid-Nineteenth Century: comet hunter extraordinaire Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), sister to astronomy legend William Herschel, and spectral astrophotographer Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins (1848–1915), wife of stellar spectroscopy founder Sir William Huggins. Both women outlived their famous male counterparts, and spent much of their remaining energy loyally fighting to preserve their deceased’s legacy instead of bringing attention to their own work, diligent acts of self-removal from the history of science that we are only now starting to undo.

Huggins, for her part, downplayed her importance so successfully that for a full century we knew nothing about her early life beyond a few stock anecdotes and hardly anything about the depth of her scientific contributions beyond the Victorian role of ‘dutiful helpmate’. It took William eight years to acknowledge her co-equal role in their laboratory by placing her name on the reports of their joint work, and after his death she never attempted to outline her own role in the technical and theoretical development of their pioneering work in spectral astrophotography.

But she DID leave behind notebooks, and the story they tell is decidedly at odds with the Victorian face the Hugginses showed to the British astronomical community. We still know virtually nothing of her life before she married William. The two main facts that seem well established are that she picked up her devotion to astronomy from her grandfather and from popular science stories in Christian children’s periodicals, and that she took an early interest in the emerging art of photography.

For a woman of the era, photography offered a socially approved way to engage in chemical experiments (mid 19th century photo development involved solutions and apparatus of almost alchemical grandeur), learn optics and the technical care of fine machinery, and develop her artistic abilities. Banned from the halls of experimental science, a significant number of young British women found their itch for research at least nominally scratched within the confines of a private darkroom. Young Margaret Lindsay Murray didn't know it at the time, but her gift for nuanced photographic experimentation would be just the skill she needed to contribute fundamentally to her first intellectual love, astronomy.

As a child, Margaret had read about William Huggins’s foundational work in stellar spectroscopy in one of her favourite magazines. Huggins was an amateur astronomer who had jumped early on the promise of spectroscopy (by which light from a star is spread out and examined for lines characteristic of different elements) to wrest from stars the secrets of their chemical composition. Pushing the science further, he had been the first to use Doppler Shift in a star’s spectrum as a way of figuring out whether that star was moving towards or away from Earth, and how quickly, thereby giving humanity a moving, breathing picture of the motion of those seemingly still stars above.

His work had been so important that the Royal Society took the unprecedented step of spending two thousand pounds to set up an observatory in his home to allow him to continue and deepen his work. A completely self-taught man, he has the distinction of being the Royal Society president possessing the absolute least amount of formal schooling. A brilliant amateur and outsider, he carried on a robust program of investigation into the sun’s corona, the spectrum of planetary nebulas, and a host of other passing fancies besides.

To a young astronomy enthusiast, he was the stuff of heroes – an independent man blazing his own way along a path that compelled the stars themselves to sing their secrets. And so, when William and Margaret met at last it was perhaps a foregone conclusion that the famous stargazer and the star-struck astronomy and photography enthusiast would be drawn to one another.

They married in September of 1875.

She was twenty-seven.

He was fifty-one.

They would spend the next thirty five years of William’s life together, united in their curiosity about what more spectroscopy might reveal about the structure of stars and other celestial phenomena. She came at precisely the right moment in William’s career. Spectroscopy requires minute comparisons of the bright and dark lines of terrestrial and stellar spectra, comparisons that can at best only be roughly communicated in pen and paper representations jotted down mid-observation. Far better to harness the power of photography to create permanent records of each spectrum that can be analyzed and compared at one’s leisure, but what types of plates should one use, at what exposure times?

William, spectroscopic master though he was, had little knowledge of the science of the photographic techniques he would need if his laboratory was to stay competitive in an increasingly clustered scientific discipline. Margaret’s expertise proved crucial in allowing him to turn the corner on the second phase of his career, and soon she was handling technical aspects of all the observatory’s apparatuses and striking out on research projects of her own while simultaneously lending crucial aid, insight, and interpretation to his own work.

Together, they would pursue a varied and eclectic research program that included attempts to photograph the solar corona without the benefit of an eclipse by using violet light filters, investigations of the spectrum of radium’s strange and wondrous blue glow, the discovery of doubled helium lines in the spectrum of the sun, and a prolonged fight against the almost bottomless dickishness of Norman Lockyer as he attempted to foist his Basically Everything Is Meteorites theory of the galaxy on the astronomical community via his journal Nature. Some researches were crowned with success, and others crumbled under the weight of insufficient tools or theoretical structures, but what nobody could doubt was the solidity and reliability of the work coming out of the Hugginses’ lab.

William and Margaret Huggins, by virtue of their careful cultivation of a younger generation of astronomical talent, and boundless curiosity untempered by old age (they began their radium studies when William was crossing into his eighth decade), stayed at the centre of astronomical research until the sheer scale of professional astronomy pushed them at last to retirement. Huge endowments for massive telescopes in America, and the growth of spectroscopy in university programs, made the tight craftsmanship of the Hugginses appear increasingly quaint as the years went by. Eventually, they decided to return the telescope that William had been loaned by the Royal Society so many years ago, standing hand in hand as they watched the box bearing its object glass closed and taken away, leaving behind an empty room where once was the site of their greatest work together.

William died in 1910 at the age of 86, and Margaret devoted the rest of her life to correcting inaccuracies in the official accounts of his life and work, and ensuring that his equipment and notes found safe homes. Securing his legacy became the object of her remaining years, but then of course, when her time came in 1915 at the hands of cancer, there was nobody to do the same for her. She died the quintessential Victorian helper only to be reborn a century later as an innovator and technical master in her own right, steadfast in adversity, relentless in the search for truth, Lady Margaret Huggins.


A great debt is owed to Barbara J. Becker, whose Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy (2011) went back to the Hugginses’ original notebooks and letters to present not only previously neglected aspects of William’s research, but brought about an entire re-evaluation of Margaret’s role in his work. It is meticulously researched, engagingly written, and inspiring on multiple fronts.

And if you'd like to read more about women astronomers like Jill Tarter, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.


bottom of page