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Women’s History Month – Hertha Marks Ayrton

Women’s History Month – Hertha Marks Ayrton

Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) was a distinguished British scientist who was the first woman to receive the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society for a scientific work that was exclusively her own. She was also and physicist, mathematician, inventor, and outspoken suffragette who advocated for social justice. Named Phoebe Sarah Marks by her parents Levi Marks and Alice Theresa Moss. Aryton was raised Jewish. In her teens she declared herself agnostic and adopted the name Hertha, after a Teutonic earth goddess featured in an anti-religious poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne.

She studied mathematics at Cambridge and completed all requirements for a degree, but at that time women were allowed only to attend, not graduate at Cambridge. So she received her degree by special test at the University of London in 1881.

Ayrton made significant improvements to the efficiency and design of direct current electric arc (a source of bright illumination), and wrote a widely respected textbook on the topic. She discovered the relationship between pressure in the arc and current length, and later studied the fluid dynamics of waves. In 1884 she invented the line divider, used by artists, architects, engineers, and surveyors to precisely divide a line into equal sections, and during World War I she invented the Ayrton flapper fan, used on the battlefront to dissipate poison gas attacks, and later adapted to improve ventilation for mine workers.

In 1899 she became the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the Institution of Engineering and Technology); at her death in 1923 she was still the IEE’s only female member.

She was the first woman to address the Royal Society, the first woman to win that group’s Hughes Medal. Her husband, physicist William Edward Ayrton, was a member of the Society, but when she was nominated for membership in 1902, she was rejected because: “We are of the opinion that married women are not eligible as Fellows of the Royal Society.”

Ayrton was also a long-time friend of Marie Curie, and in 1912 she took the ill Curie and Curie’s daughters into her home for several months. When the discovery of radium was attributed to Marie Curie’s husband, Hertha campaigned to have its discovery correctly attributed. She wrote that: “errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.”

Hertha Ayrton helped found the International Federation of University Women in 1919 and the National Union of Scientific Workers in 1920. She died of blood poisoning (resulting from an insect bite) on 26 August 1923 at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex.

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