Hertha Ayrton awarded the Hughes Medal

In 1902 Hertha Ayrton was proposed as a fellow of the Royal Society but the Society decided not to consider the proposal since she was a married woman. However, in 1906 the Royal Society decided to award her their Hughes Medal:-
... for her experimental investigations on the electric arc, and also on sand ripples.
Now in fact she may never have been awarded this Medal if the William Huggins had not caught a cold. William Huggins (1824-1910) was an astronomer who had done outstanding work on astronomical spectroscopy. His wife, Margaret Lindsay Murray (1848-1915), was also an astronomer and worked with her husband. Many today consider that William Huggins' contributions owe considerably more to his wife than was acknowledged at the time. Despite having a wife who was an outstanding scientist, Huggins seems to have been strongly opposed to women in science. He was President of the Royal Society from 1900 to 1905, so was President when the proposal that Hertha Ayrton was rejected on the grounds that as a married woman she was not eligible. After Huggins, Lord Rayleigh became President of the Royal Society so he was President when the Council considered Hertha Ayrton for the Hughes Medal. The Secretary of the Council of the Royal Society at this time was Joseph Larmor. When the Council met to discuss the award of the Hughes Medal to Hertha Ayrton, Huggins, who was still a Council member, was unable to be present due to chill. After the Council's decision to award the Medal to Hertha Ayrton, Larmor informed Huggins of the decision. He replied:
Dear Secretary,
Thanks for the information which surprises me.
There will be great joy and rejoicing in His Majesty's jail, among the women in prison. I suppose Girton and Newnham will get up a night of orgies on the 30th in honour of the event! I am thankful you will be safe in town then. The papers will teem with publications from all the advanced women! I suppose the President will invite her to the dinner, and ask her to make a speech. As the only lady - I should say woman - present, the President will have to take her in, and seat her on his right hand!
And all this comes from what appeared as the pure accident of my taking a chill on Wednesday. It was considered that I should run a considerable risk if I had gone to town yesterday. Now, "What the Gods send, I must bear" but, which of the two Ds sent me the cold - Deus or Diabolus?
Was it Providence on her behalf or was it "the D-- taking care of his own" - which?
Can we now refuse the fellowship to a Medallist?
[Notes: (i) The "women in prison" were ten suffragettes imprisoned after a demonstration on the Lobby of the House of Commons. Hertha Ayrton had written a letter of sympathy to one of them.
(ii) The reference to "the 30th" is to the date on which the awards were presented.
(iii) Lord Rayleigh was known as someone who encouraged women in science.

Huggins' wife, Margaret Huggins, took a very different view from her husband. She wrote to Hertha Ayrton:
I lose not a moment in warmly congratulating you upon the award of the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society. You have worked both hard and well, and deserve reward - though I am sure you never worked for reward. I deeply sympathise with the gratification you have the right to feel; and I truly rejoice in the encouragement and heartening which this success must bring you.
After receiving Margaret Huggins' letter, Hertha Ayrton wrote to a friend:
... I have had the most charming letter from Lady Huggins, sent off the moment she heard. It is particularly generous of her, because she has done some splendid work in astronomy herself, with her husband, and has not had a bit of recognition for it just because no one will believe that if a man and a woman do a bit of work together the woman really does anything. That's where the Professor [her husband] has always been so generous. He has never joined with me in any bit of work just because he knew that it would be all ascribed to him, and he wanted me to get the full kudos for all I did, not only for my sake, but for the sake of all women.
[Note: The letters from which the quotations are taken are given in:

J Mason, Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) and the admission of women to the Royal Society of London, Notes and Records Roy. Soc. London 45 (2) (1991), 201-220.]

Last Updated August 2016