Mary Emma Byrd

Quick Info

15 November 1849
Le Roy, Calhoun, Michigan, USA
13 July 1934
Lawrence, Kansas, USA

Mary Byrd was an astronomer and mathematician. She was director of the Smith College Observatory for nineteen years. She was one of the first seven women to join the New York Mathematical Society in 1891.


Mary Byrd was the daughter of John Huntington Byrd (1816-1897) and Elizabeth Adelaide Lowe (1821-1912). John Huntington Byrd, born 28 December 1816 in Vergennes, Addison, Vermont, was a Congregational minister and a staunch abolitionist arguing forcefully to abolish slavery. Elizabeth Adelaide Lowe, born 30 August 1821 in Vienna, Oneida, New York, was descended from John Endicott, an early governor of Massachusetts [17]:-
One of her brothers, David Low, in early days a prominent judge in Kansas, served in Congress one term, but did not seek re-election because he found "politics and ideal honesty incompatible."
John Byrd married Elizabeth Lowe on 10 May 1847 in Lorain County, Ohio. John and Elizabeth Byrd had eight children: Abbie Elizabeth Byrd (born 1848); Mary Emma Byrd (born 1849, the subject of this biography); Clara Margaret Byrd (born 1851); William Thomas Byrd (born 1854); Charles Henry Byrd (born 1856); E Charles Byrd (born 1857); Alice Huntington Byrd (born 1862); and N Adam Byrd (born 1864).

The first few years of Mary Byrd's life were particularly difficult given the active role played by her father in opposing slavery. John Byrd had received a degree from Oberlin College in 1846 and was ordained shortly afterwards. He joined the American Missionary Association, a missionary society which preached evangelical Christianity and the end of slavery. He went to Le Roy, Calhoun, Michigan in 1847 to carry out this preaching and soon pro-slavery Methodists tried to have him barred from preaching in public buildings in Michigan. In 1851 the family settled in Sicily, Ohio where at first John Byrd did not preach but tried to help his family with various health problems. He resumed missionary work in Ohio in October 1853 and, in 1855, he applied to go to Kansas as a missionary for the American Missionary Association. They family moved to Leavenworth City, Kansas in July 1855 when Mary Byrd was five years old.

The following years in Kansas were very difficult ones for the young Mary. She did not attend school until she was ten years old and the dangers that the family suffered due to John Byrd preaching anti-slavery must have had a large influence on her. You can read more about the dangers that the family endured in Kansas from opposing slavery at THIS LINK.

At the time of the 1860 US Census (23 June), the family are living in Atchison, Kansas, about 30 km north east of Leavenworth City. Clara Byrd is not listed and we assume that she had died. The family had one domestic servant, Hanna Ingram, and 24-year old Timothy Stevens, with no occupation, is living with them. In the autumn of 1861 the family moved to a government farm at Fort Leavenworth where John Byrd served as Superintendent for thirteen years. On all subsequent Census, John Byrd's occupation is given as "Farmer."

After the family moved in 1861, Mary attended Leavenworth High School and, by the time she was fourteen, as well as studying at the school, she was teaching the elementary classes there. In the Catalogue of the Rockford Female Seminary in Rockford, Illinois, both Mary E Byrd and Abbie E Byrd with Residence Leavenworth, Kansas, are listed as in the Junior Class - Section A for the year 1865-66. Mary is also listed in the same catalogue in the Department of Drawing and Painting. At the time of the 1870 Census, Mary, then nineteen years old, is in Fort Leavenworth, still "At school" as is her 21-year old sister and all her younger siblings. The census data also records 18 men living with the Byrd family, all listed with occupation "Farm Hand." In 1871 Mary Byrd entered Oberlin College in Ohio where her father had studied. She was there for a year and a half but left without graduating. Louise Barber Hoblit writes that she left Oberlin College [18]:-
... as one calamity followed another in Kansas and family needs were met first.
After teaching mathematics for a short while in a school, Mary Byrd entered the University of Michigan; she graduated with a B.A. in 1878. In the following year she was appointed as the principal of Wabash High School in Indiana. This school had been founded by Joseph John Mills in 1869 with Mills as the first principal. Byrd remained as principal until 1882 when she left and went to study astronomy at Harvard College under Edward Charles Pickering. While at Harvard, Byrd became friendly with Mina Fleming and with Anna Winlock who had worked there since 1875. In fact, after Anna Winlock died in January 1904 Mary Byrd wrote an obituary which you can read at THIS LINK.

Patricia Whitesell writes [29]:-
Byrd's associations at Harvard were important elements in her development as an astronomer, and she particularly valued the mentoring she received from E C Pickering, who was well known for his conviction that women should receive support and recognition in the scientific world.
In 1883 Mary Byrd was appointed as an Assistant in Mathematics and Astronomy at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. The director of the Carleton College Observatory was William Wallace Payne (1837-1928) who had been appointed to Carleton College as Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1866. Payne had pressed for an observatory and a wooden structure had been erected in the summer of 1877. Byrd used this observatory from the time of her appointment in 1883. She also provided time signals twice daily for the railways of the region. On 21 October 1886 the corner-stone for a new observatory was laid. This was quite an event with a large number of people present. At the event, Byrd gave the lecture Popular Fallacies about Observatories which was published as [8]. She began with the words:-
During the years that my life has been well nigh lived in an observatory, I have felt that some things are viewed differently by those without and those within the walls. One does not willingly try to dispel pleasant illusions, and yet, since an observatory with all its domes and piers, appliances and instruments, is designed for the search of truth, standing so near its cornerstone, I ask your leave to speak the truth frankly for a few minutes.
Her lecture ended with the words:-
... it is not to found a palace for dreams, a place where the fancy may feast on swift-changing star pictures, that the walls of an observatory go up. It is to establish a place where truth is sought. I know that there are those who think that an observatory is a monument to human pride and human intellect, and the truth found here appears cold and visionary, without power to warm the human heart or make the world better. To me it seems that God made human minds hungry for all truth and that he says to the observer here, as well as to the disciple of old - "Seek, and ye shall find."
For a version of the whole of Byrd's lecture, see THIS LINK.

Interestingly, a French translation of this paper was published as Erreurs populaires au sujet des observatoires with author Marie E Byrd, and a Portuguese translation was published as Sobre alguns erros populares relativos aos observatorios with author Maria E Byrd. Both of these translations were published in 1887 and, in the same year, Byrd published the paper Hints on the Popular Study of Astronomy in which she demonstrated her skill of encouraging everyone to take an interest in astronomy. For a version of this paper, see THIS LINK.

For a list of 40 papers by Byrd, see THIS LINK.

In 1887 Byrd was appointed as director of the Smith College Observatory at Smith College. This women's college was founded in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1871 and had taken in its first students in 1875. The Observatory had just been founded in 1887 so the College was appointing its first director. We should note that Anna Winlock was also considered for the post of director of the Smith Observatory but Byrd was the preferred candidate. It is not difficult to see why. Smith College was much more interested in teaching than in research and Anna Winlock had no teaching experience at all while Mary Byrd had proved herself a remarkably good teacher of both mathematics and astronomy. The Observatory that Byrd was now the director is described in [20]:-
The Smith Observatory had an 11-inch equatorial telescope and a small meridian circle, but no regular income for maintenance and for purchase of books until an endowment was given by Elizabeth Haven in 1898. The equatorial lacked electric lighting for the micrometer (an instrument attached to the telescope eyepiece for measuring the angular distance between two objects such as a comet and a star) until students raised money for it by voluntary contributions in 1891-92.
We should note that Byrd was not appointed as Professor of Astronomy (many biographies wrongly state that she was). She wrote to Pickering in 1888:-
It is, I understand, contrary to the traditions of this institution to give any woman the title and pay of professor.
Byrd retained her interest in mathematics and, in 1891, she applied for membership of the New York Mathematical Society which, six years later, changed its name to the American Mathematical Society. The New York Mathematical Society was founded on 24 November 1888 at a meeting attended by only six people and a year later it was still very small with only eleven members. All these eleven were men but Charlotte Angas Scott began attending meetings of the Society soon after it was founded but could not join as membership was only open to those from New York. She was the first of seven women to join the Society, all seven becoming members in 1891. It was in 1891 that membership became open to those living outside New York. The other six women were Charlotte Angas Scott, Achsah Ely, Susan Jane Cunningham, Mary Watson Whitney, Ellen Amanda Hayes and Amy Rayson.

Byrd was keen to be undertake research with the Observatory, but as we mentioned above, Smith College saw her role as mainly teaching. Byrd wrote the following in the 1892-93 Annual Report:-
Except in bitter midwinter weather this year, there have not been more than three or four nights a term when I could handle a telescope for any purpose save to adjust for students until after ten o'clock at night; and my work begins in the morning at eight or half past eight. May I beg you to consider how short, under such circumstances, must inevitably be the time during which a teacher can keep fresh springs of inspiration for her students. I have put off the evil day by working late at night, on very cold nights, and by spending since last Commencement, seven weeks of vacation time at the observatory.
In order to have a programme of useful research at the Observatory, it was necessary to obtain a precise value for its longitude. Byrd had undertaken this work jointly with Mary Watson Whitney and they published the results in the joint paper Longitude of Smith College Observatory (1893). The paper begins as follows [6]:-
The following description of the observations made in 1888 for determining the difference of longitude between the observatories of Smith College and Harvard College comprises three parts. Part I, by Mary E Byrd, gives an account of the instruments and of the telegraphic arrangements at Northampton, and includes the observations made by the writer at both stations. Part II, by Mary W Whitney, contains a description of the Cambridge instruments and of all her observations. Part III, which has been jointly prepared by both authors, discusses the clock-rates, the exchange of signals, the personal equation of the observers, and the result obtained for the required difference of longitude.
Most of the research papers that Byrd wrote related to comets, and these were published in the Astronomical Journal. For example, in 1901 her observations of Comet b 1900 (Borrelly-Brooks) made with the 11-inch refractor and filar micrometer were published in the Astronomical Journal. In 1905 she sent observations of Comet 1905 II (Borrelly) to the Astronomical Journal that she had made with her assistant Harriet Williams Bigelow (1870-1934) but the journal did not publish them. Byrd wrote to Pickering [20]:-
The truth is that we work so hard here to carry on a little independent work, living, I might almost say, for the sake of comets that come within the reach of our glass until observations and reductions are completed, that this attitude on the part of the 'Journal' is no small disappointment.
Pickering suggested she sent the observations to Astronomische Nachrichten with a letter of introduction from him. They were published there in August 1905: Astronomische Nachrichten 169 (1905), 191.

In 1906 Byrd resigned from her position at the Smith College Observatory. The reasons for her resignation are explained in [5]:-
After a most successful directorship of the Smith College Observatory, at Northampton, Massachusetts, lasting nineteen years, Miss Byrd has voluntarily severed her connection, because of the acceptance by the Smith College authorities of money from Rockefeller and Carnegie.

Miss Byrd's devotion to principle and those principles the high old Puritan ones, is what might be expected from her ancestry and early environment, for her father's was the church known as "the abolition" one in Kansas' antislavery days and many were the persecutions suffered.

With this background in her life it is easy to see that for conscience sake she would yield the position she has long held with honour, and upon which she was dependent for support, and whether accepting her logic or not, no one not hardened by the commercialism of today can fail to respect her fidelity to principles and to admire her courage.
This article chooses not to criticise Rockefeller and Carnegie but many, certainly including Byrd, believed that their fortunes had been made by driving many of their competitors to ruin.

Byrd went back to her home in Kansas and continued to write articles on teaching astronomy. On 12 October 1920, fourteen years after she retired, she wrote to a friend [20]:-
It is almost 40 years to the month since I met my first class in astronomy, at Wabash High School, Indiana. Never was the outlook darker in all that time for practical elementary astronomy. Ah, I have worked hard, given up so much to do my best to bring in better ways of teaching, and now the conviction comes home that I have failed. I should like to write just one more article, a scathing review of the unutterable indifference of astronomers, most of them, to the teaching of the elements of their science. I could do it too, I could say things in a way to make even the astronomers in the big observatories 'sit up and take notice' but I don't suppose I shall. It would mean hard work and probably would not do much good. Then too I am too kind-hearted really to enjoy more than the first few sentences.
In fact Byrd did not publish any further articles after writing this letter except the note Meteor Observed (1930) in which she described a meteor which had been observed by her sister Alice H Byrd.

Byrd wrote two books, the first being A Laboratory Manual of Astronomy published in 1899 when she was Director of the Smith College Observatory, and the second First Observations in Astronomy published in 1913, seven years after she retired as Director of the Smith College Observatory. She was a Teacher in Astronomy at the Normal College of the City of New York at the time of its publication. In fact she spent 1913-14 in New York City where in addition to teaching at the Normal School, she taught at Hunter College.

We mentioned above that Byrd joined the New York Mathematical Society in 1891, which became the American Mathematical Society three years after she joined. Also in 1891 Byrd was elected to the British Astronomical Association. She was also a member of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America which, in 1915, changed its name to the American Astronomical Society. She was also an active member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, organising events for them. In addition to these mathematical and astronomical societies, it is not surprising that she was also a member of a political one, namely the Anti-Imperialist League of Northampton which opposed the colonial expansion of the United States. The Anti-Imperialist League of Northampton had been formed in 1899 with Mary Byrd as its secretary.

After retiring, Byrd lived for a while in Dunedin, Florida but returned to Lawrence, Kansas where she died of a cerebral haemorrhage in July 1934, She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

References (show)

  1. R G A, Review: A Laboratory Manual of Astronomy, by Mary E Byrd, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 11 (67) (1899), 90-91.
  2. Anon, Review: First Observations in Astronomy, by Mary E Byrd, Popular Astronomy 22 (1914), 195.
  3. Anon, Review: First Observations in Astronomy, by Mary E Byrd, The Journal of Education 79 (26) (1914), 737.
  4. Anon, Review: A Laboratory Manual of Astronomy, by Mary E Byrd, The Journal of Education 50 (10) (1899), 179.
  5. Anon, Miss Mary E Byrd's Resignation, Popular Astronomy 14 (1906), 447-448.
  6. M E Byrd and M W Whitney, Longitude of Smith College Observatory, Annals of Harvard College Observatory 29 (2) (1893).
  7. M E Byrd, Astronomy in the High School, Popular Astronomy 11 (1903), 550-552.
  8. M E Byrd, Popular Fallacies about Observatories, The Observatory 9 (1886), 389-392.
  9. M E Byrd, A Pleasure Without Price, Publication of the Pomona College Astronomical Society 5 (1916), 86-89.
  10. M E Byrd, Hints on the Popular Study of Astronomy, Sidereal Messenger 6 (1887), 151-156.
  11. Byrd, Mary E. (Mary Emma), 1849-, Social Networks and Archival Context.
  12. Byrd, Mary E. (Mary Emma), b. 1849, Smith College. Libraries.
  13. Byrd Family,
  14. O C, Review: A Laboratory Manual of Astronomy, by Mary E Byrd, Revue des Publications Astronomiques 16 (1899), 206-207.
  15. J E Clayton, An Antislavery Mission: Oberlin College Evangelicals in "Bleeding Kansas", Honours Thesis (Oberlin College, 1990).
  16. M R S Creese and T M Creese, Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900: a Survey of Their Contributions to Research (Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  17. Death of Mrs Byrd, The Daily Gazette. Lawrence, Kansas (Saturday, 3 February 1912).
  18. L B Hoblit, Mary E Byrd, Popular Astronomy 42 (1934), 496-498.
  19. P C Kenschaft, Change is Possible. Stories of Women and Minorities in Mathematics (American Mathematical Society, 2005).
  20. P E Mack, Straying from Their Orbits: Women in Astronomy in America, in Patricia Farnes, Gabriele Kass-Simon and Deborah Nash (eds.), Women of Science. Righting the Record (Indiana University Press, 2010), 72-116.
  21. Mary E Byrd, Alchetron.
  22. Mary E Byrd, in John William Leonard (ed.), Woman's Who's Who of America (American Commonwealth Co., New York, 1914), 152.
  23. Mary E Byrd, in J McKeen Cattell (ed.), American Men of Science: A Bibliographic Dictionary (Science Press, New York, 1910-1933),
  24. A P McKenney, What Women Have Done for Astronomy in the United States, Popular Astronomy 12 (1904), 171-182.
  25. Miss Mary E Byrd, Lineage Book. Daughters of the American Revolution XIV (Washington D.C., 1907), 171.
  26. Notes, Bulletin of the New York Mathematical Society 1 (1892), 124.
  27. W W Payne, Carlton College Observatory, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 3 (157) (1891), 84-87.
  28. K S Rumstay, The Astronomical Pedagogy of Mary Byrd, American Astronomical Society meeting #235, id. 172.01, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society 52 (1) (2020).
  29. P S Whitesell, Detroit Observatory: nineteenth-century training ground for astronomers, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 6 (2) (2003), 69-106.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2023