• Observations

Women in the British Astronomical Association NSW Branch – Cecilia Maclellan, Edith Deane & Dr Lucy Gullett

Dr Toner Stevenson was manager of Sydney Observatory from 2003 to 2015, prior to that she managed the Exhibitions program for MAAS. Her Doctoral Thesis about Australia’s significant participation in the Astrographic Catalogue and Carte du Ciel, revealed the substantial role a significant number of women undertook in identifying, measuring and computing star positions on the Astrographic plates at Sydney, Melbourne and Perth Observatories from 1890 through to 1961. Toner is currently Head of House Museums for Sydney Living Museums, where she manages six of the state’s most important heritage properties and collections. She is Vice-President of Sydney City Skywatchers, an amateur astronomy society which meets at Sydney Observatory.

To round off our month of women in astronomy, Toner discusses three case studies of women in amateur astronomy.

Women have contributed to astronomy in many ways in Australia. Research for my doctoral thesis uncovered a significant number of unknown women who worked on the Astrographic Catalogue from 1890 at Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney Observatories (1). The character of the individuals and the extent and originality of their work revealed many of them to be far more involved in the identification of stars, their magnitude and positions than the clerical pay scale and the title of their positions, in most cases ‘computer’ implies.

The establishment of amateur astronomy societies in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and the involvement of women in these societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a colonial and global phenomenon. The popularity of these societies has been linked to a Transit of Venus in 1882 and naked eye comets in 1882 and 1887 as well as the growing capability of amateur astronomers in the major cities (2). The acceptance of women into these societies was during an era when popular astronomy books by Agnes Mary Clerk (3,4), Agnes Giberne (5) and Mary Ackworth Orr (6) were published. A few women, for example Mary Proctor, gave lecture tours around the globe. Proctor visited Australia in 1912 and received considerable media attention in the popular press (7). My research for this blog post has focussed on three of the earliest women who were admitted to the New South Wales Branch of the British Astronomical Association (BAA NSW).

One of the first women to be elected to the BAA NSW from its inception in 1895 was Cecilia Maclellan (1876-1957) who was admitted n 1896 (8). In 1898 the Branch report, published in the BAA Journal, stated that MacLellan ‘handed in a number of meteor observations’ (9). She was elected to the council on 18 April 1899 in the honourary librarian position and listed as a Council member ‘ex officio’ in the annual reports (2,10,11). Maclellan held these positions until 1906.

Maclellan was an active member, as demonstrated by the report of the total lunar eclipse of Friday 23 June 1899 where Maclellan was named as amongst those who viewed the Moon from Bondi Beach (11). She appears to have been the only woman who held a position in the BAA NSW until Edith Deane (1881 – ?) , who was accepted as a member in 1902. In October 1903 Deane was also elected to the committee and there were now two women of twelve committee representatives (13). The Branch reports around that period state that women attended the regular meetings in significant numbers. Nonetheless it was very unusual for a woman to present a paper or observation at the meetings and I will therefore note the instance where an accomplished female amateur astronomer’s paper was tabled.

Mary Ackworth Orr (1867-1949) was a temporary resident in Australia from 1890 to 1895 travelling with her sister and mother. She had made herself known to John Tebbutt prior to moving to Queensland. During her five years in Australia she was elected to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and acquired knowledge of the Southern Stars (14). She published the first ‘Easy Guide to the Southern Stars’ in 1896, with a preface by John Tebbutt (6). Although she had departed Australia before the BAA NSW Branch was fully established, at the monthly BAA NSW Branch meeting held 20 October 1896 Orr’s report on her expedition to Vadso, Norway, for the total Solar Eclipse which occurred on 9 August, was read (15). Orr continued her work in astronomy with her astronomer-husband John Evershed. Orr was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1923.

Dr Lucy Gullett (1876-1949) and her sister, Minnie Gullett (1975-1943), were admitted into the BAA NSW on 28 March 1917, their father Henry Gullett (1837-1914) was a keen amateur astronomer and a member of the society who, it was reported in the popular press, had spoken at Mary Proctor’s reception in Sydney during her visit to Australia in 1912. It is likely the sisters were present. Dr Lucy Gullett was very active in the Women’s Movement and she is remembered as one of the first women medical doctors in Australia (16). Her service in WWI and the concerns she shared with her sister in the need for mental health reform have been well documented. Most notably Dr Gullett’s dedication towards providing medical services for women and children, especially her work in the administration of the Rachel Forster Home for Women and Children, establishing the Lucy Gullett Concalescent Home in Bexley, and the NSW Association of Registered Medical Women has been recognised in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The University of Sydney Medical Students, 1897. Lucy Gullett is back row on the far left.
Image credit: photo G3_224_2659, University of Sydney Archives.


These are just a few stories about women in amateur astronomy in Sydney. The NSW Branch of the BAA is now called the Sydney City Skywatchers. The membership is balanced by gender and the monthly presentations are delivered by women as well as men. In the library you can find well-thumbed books about astronomy written by Agnes Clerke, but there is very little written about the women who were members. I have not yet uncovered to what extent Gullett and her sister contributed to, or attended, the BAA NSW Branch meetings, nor why Maclellan disappears from the reports of the NSW Branch of the BAA after 1906.

In conclusion, it appears that from the late 19th Century there were opportunities for women to actively participate in astronomy. Acknowledgement of their activities and findings were limited, not by their ability and enthusiasm, but by the gender-prejudiced culture of the era.


1. Stevenson, T 2016, Measuring the stars and observing the less visible: Australia’s participation in the Astrographic Catalogue and Carte du Ciel, thesis The University of Sydney, http://hdl.handle.net/2123/15762
2. Orchiston, W 1988, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, vol.98, no.2, p.75-84, http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1988JBAA…98…75O
3. Clerke, A M 1893, A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century, 3rd edition
4. Clerke, A M 1890, The System of Stars, Longmans Green and Co., London
5. Giberne, A 1879, Sun, Moon and Stars: Astronomy for Beginners, 1893 revised edition, New York Americaln tract society, https://archive.org/details/sunmoonstarsastr00gibe
6. Orr, M A 1897, An Easy Guide to the Southern Stars (2nd Edition), Gall and Inglis, London
7. 1912 ‘POPULAR ASTRONOMY MISS PROCTOR’S VISIT.’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 20 August, p. 8. , viewed 04 Mar 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article28131011
8. Creese, M & Creese, T M 2010. Ladies in the laboratory III: South African, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian women in science : nineteenth and early twentieth centuries : a survey of their contributions, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., p. 59
9. Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 1898 vol. 8, pp.373-373
10. 1899 ‘The Sydney Morning Herald.’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 19 April, p. 6. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article14210012
11. Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 1899 vol. 9, pp.311-314
12. 1899 ‘TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE MOON.’, Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), 26 June, p. 3. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article113274518
13. 1903 ‘ASTRONOMICAL ASSOCIATION.’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 23 October, p. 8. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article14574579
14. Brück, M T 1998, ‘Mary Ackworth Evershed née Orr (1867–1949), solar physicist and Dante scholar’, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 45–59
15. 1896 ‘British Astronomical Association.’, Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), 22 October, p. 4. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article108218119
16. Mitchell, A M 1983, ‘Gullett, Lucy Edith (1879-1949)’,Australian Dictionary of Biography National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gullett-lucy-edith-6505/text11161

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *