Mary Proctor: A Forgotten Populariser of Astronomy

In a recent History & Philosophy of Science seminar, SHAPS Research Fellow Dr Martin Bush presented his work on British-American populariser of astronomy, Mary Proctor, and her intriguing relationship to Australian history. From 1912–1914, Mary conducted a high-profile public lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand at the invitation of astronomer Walter Duffield. The purpose of the tour was to generate popular support for a solar observatory in the southern hemisphere, which ultimately came to fruition with the construction of Mt Stromlo Observatory near Canberra. In this interview, Martin spoke to Samara Greenwood about his research.

You have a background in science communication. Could you tell us a little about this and how you came to transition over to research?

I studied physics for my undergraduate degree. However, I decided that I wanted to be involved in promoting science in society rather than in pure research, so I undertook a Masters in Science Communication at ANU. When I moved to Melbourne, I got a job as a Curator for Museums Victoria and worked there for over 13 years, developing planetarium shows and working with the Antarctic history and scientific instruments collections.

Shortly before leaving the Museum I was introduced to the astronomical lantern slide collection – beautiful nineteenth-century wood-framed slides, showing animations of eclipses, the Earth’s tides, the orbits of the planets and more. I decided I wanted to learn more about how astronomy was communicated to the public in the nineteenth century, so I took up a PhD on that.

A lantern slide depicting the ‘Newtonian System’ and ‘Earth’s Shadow’ used for public lectures on astronomy, England, circa 1847. Photograph: Jon Augier. Museums Victoria, MM 112613

Your interest in Mary Proctor was first sparked while you were completing your PhD. Could you tell us a little of how this interest first developed?

As part of my PhD, my research looked at the 1880 public lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand conducted by Mary Proctor’s father, Richard Proctor. Richard Proctor was the most famous science communicator of the late nineteenth century and his tour was very successful, incredibly high-profile at the time, and also the centre of a major public controversy in Sydney. [Martin won the Mike Smith prize in 2017 for an essay on this topic.]

Mary Proctor’s tour from 1912–1914 was a bit late for my thesis, which was based in the nineteenth century. However, I was struck by the success of Mary’s tour and wanted to find out more.

How did Mary Proctor come to be a populariser of astronomy?

While in her early life Mary lacked an interest in astronomy, she tells how she became fascinated after “my father took me up nights with him to the observatory and let me look through the big telescope, telling me all the time such wonderful things about the stars”.

By the time she was 23, Mary was penning articles about North American astronomical mythology for her father’s journal Knowledge. However, her breakthrough occurred at the 1893 World’s Fair. She was invited by the Women’s Program to speak at the Children’s Pavilion, but when she arrived she found the audience was not children but adults. As Mary later described it

it was my first attempt to talk from a platform, you can imagine my state of mind. I was determined, however, that my first effort should not be a fiasco, so I stepped out upon the platform and talked about the things that had most interested me in my father’s books and conversations.

The talk was an instant success. Mary was immediately offered a three-year speaking contract and conducted talks across the country, winning particular praise in New York and New England. She also continued writing and was made editor of a column for a small New England Journal.

Sketch of Mary Proctor (1862–1957) from the New York Times, 9 September 1894. Via Wikimedia Commons

Her first book, Stories of Starland, was published in 1898 and was picked up by the New York Board of Education as a supplementary reader. Mary continued with her newspaper and magazine work through the 1900s. She wrote special science columns for The New York Times on a near-weekly basis and was special correspondent for the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet.

What has your research revealed about Mary’s connection to the history of Australian astronomy?

Between October 1912 and February 1914 Mary Proctor conducted a public lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand in order to promote the Commonwealth Solar Observatory Project, on the behest of Geoffrey Walter Duffield, the man who would become the first Director of that Observatory.

This tour was high profile – Proctor lectured in all states of Australia but Tasmania, and both islands of New Zealand, raised hundreds of pounds in funding and met with government ministers, State governors and the New Zealand Governor General in her advocacy. Indeed, the tour appeared to be a complete success when in April 1913, wealthy philanthropist Thomas Cawthron undertook to fund the establishment of a solar observatory in Nelson, New Zealand. And yet Proctor’s tour is absent from almost all major histories in both Australia and New Zealand.

I argue this absence is revealing of historiographical biases. Although Duffield saw popularisation as important in achieving scientific goals, traditional histories of science downplay it. Moreover, I suspect that Mt Stromlo historians have been reluctant to talk about Proctor because of her enthusiastic advocacy for the New Zealand site, while Cawthron historians have not wished to draw attention to a project that was ultimately shelved.

What aspects of Mary Proctor’s life and career do you find most compelling in terms of research?

From a personal aspect, Mary had quite an interesting life. One of the things that doesn’t get studied very much is what inspires scientists to enter the profession, but it seems clear that family support is a common thread for many. Very few science communicators have been brought up within a family tradition, so while it may not be very typical, Mary’s life is interesting in that regard.

The kinds of opportunities she had as a woman in the profession, and how she was able to pursue them, is interesting. And finally, her role in early science journalism at the New York Times, and in the campaign for the Mount Stromlo Observatory, were both quite significant at the time, but have been rather excluded from the history since – so that’s always fascinating.

I was interested in how you found Mary Proctor’s work spans two traditions in science communication. Could you briefly describe how science communication in the nineteenth century differed from its current form?

At the start of the nineteenth century, there was not really a profession of ‘scientist’, in Britain at least. Most scientific research was still the province of gentleman amateurs and the clergy. In this context, there also wasn’t a defined area of ‘science communication’, and books written by these people often had both public and scientific audiences.

There was, however, a commercial tradition of ‘science showmen’, travelling entertainers who put on theatrical displays of science lecturing and performance. As research became increasingly specialised through the century, so did the separate tradition of popular science writing. Much of this was based around ideas of social reform – educating women, or the working classes. You also had the few scientists, like Richard Proctor, who were committed to writing for a public audience, and the commercial tradition continued.

At the end of the nineteenth century the rise of cinema largely ended the travelling shows, the ‘rational recreation’ ideology behind the reform movements withered away, and the rise of the ‘new journalism’ shifted the practice of popular writing onto a more professional footing. The last of these particularly accelerated after World War Two with the rise of ‘science journalist’ as a defined speciality.

Mary Proctor can be seen as spanning these traditions – she practised professional writing in The New York Times (in particular) and in fact embodied many of the values that science journalists would later explicitly adopt, yet many of her books are written in the older-style morality based science popularisation of the nineteenth century.

What’s next for your research?

My main work is with the Interdisciplinary Metaresearch Group here in HPS. Our major project is repliCATS, and I’ve got a research interest in public trust in science. However, there is a lot more to do on the history of popular astronomy as well. Currently I’m finishing writing up my research on Mary Proctor. I’m also continuing to look through some collections of astronomical lantern slides. The National Film and Sound Archive has a recent acquisition which includes some unusual slides of the Southern Hemisphere skies.

The next project I want to move onto is an examination of how Australians understood technologies of distance in the nineteenth century. The colonial Australian experience at this time included both a sense of isolation, and yet connectedness to Britain and other parts of the world. More than most places, Australians had a strong sense of their place on the globe and embraced technologies that made sense of this. I think that this underlies some of the particular Australian relationships to science.

Martin Bush is a Research Fellow in the Interdisciplinary MetaResearch Group (IMeRG) at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Martin’s metaresearch interests focus on public trust in science and draw on his expertise in the cultural history of popular science and professional experience in science communication and the museum sector.

The History and Philosophy of Science program runs a weekly seminar series (currently run as a webinar on Zoom) at 1pm Wednesdays during semester. For further information and to join the mailing list, see the HPS Seminar Series page on Forum.

 Feature Image: Article by Mary Proctor on the return of Hailey’s Comet for The San Francisco Call, 23 August 1908, 2. Library of Congress