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Hertha Ayrton: A Persistent Experimenter James J. Tattersall Shawnee L. McMurran Hertha Ayrton, EngUsh sdentist-inventor, received the Royal Sodety of London's prestigious Hughes Medal a century ago for her work on the electric arc and the origin of sand ripples. She remains the lone woman to have recdved that award as weU as the first woman ever to be nominated to be a feUow of the Royal Sodety, an organization founded in 1662. Her inventions include a device for measuring the pulse, a geometric line-divider, an antigás fan, and more reliable and efficient Uluminators used in searchUghts and motion picture projectors. An active suffragist, her personal motto, CAi dura vince,1 ideaUy described her Ufe as a struggle from humble beginnings against intolerable Umitations placed on women in Victorian England to a respected and valued member of the European sdentific community. Several brief accounts of her Ufe and work can be found in the Uterature as weU as a biography written shortly after her death,2 but these faü to go into any great depth. The third of eight chüdren, Phoebe Sarah (Hertha) Marks was born to Levi and AUce Theresa Marks (née Moss) on April 28,1854, in Portsea, a suburb of Portsmouth, England. Her father, the son of an innkeeper, fled Poland to escape the Jewish persecution during the Tsarist régime. A sküled but unsuccessful watchmaker-jeweler, Marks struggled to support his farrdly. He died when Sarah was only seven leaving her mother, six sons, and many debts. When Sarah Marks was nine years old, her Aunt Marion, Mrs. Alphonse Hartog, and Aunt BeUe, Mrs. Louis Leo, invited her to attend their school in London. AUce Marks, who recognized her daughter's potential, accepted her sisters' offer, even though a less enUghtened mother might have kept her only daughter home to help with household responsibüities. The early influence of an independent mother played a key role in the development of her own determined, generous, and Uberal nature. At first, Marks's strong personaUty made it rather difficult for her to fit in with the more conventional students of her aunts' school. Her tomboyish behavior, outspokenness, and stubborn persistence were not characteristic of the typical docile schoolgirl of the Victorian era. However, these quaUties later served her weU as an original thinker and energetic © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 7 No. 2 (Summer) 1995 James J. Tattersall & Shawnee L. McMurran 87 Girton College, Class of 1877. Hertha Ayrton is in the first row, third from the right. Reproduced with the permission of the Mistress and FeUows of Girton College, Cambridge. experimenter. Sarah Marks adjusted to her new home with the Hartogs and their household provided a stimulating environment for her. Her Uncle Alphonse taught her French, Aunt BeUe taught her music, and she learned mathematics and Latin from her cousin, Numa. Marks became proficient in Greek and Hebrew and loved to read the classics in their original languages; nevertheless, her strongest areas were mathematics and art. The five cousins with whom she Uved in the Hartog household were aU notable individuals and innovators in their chosen fields. The eldest brother, Numa, had attended Trinity College, Cambridge and had the distinction of being the first Jew to achieve the position of Senior Wrangler3 when he outdistanced all other candidates on the 1869 Mathematical Tripos examination. (Students who placed in the first class were referred to as "wranglers" and were invited to vie for the Smith's Prize. The student who placed first was referred to as the Senior Wrangler.) Unfortunatdy, Numa's career was cut short when he died from smaUpox two years after graduating from Cambridge. 88 Journal of Women's History Summer Marcus Hartog was a free-thinking Cambridge graduate who encouraged Sarah Marks's independence and talent for learning. He went on to become professor of natural history at University CoUege in Cork, Ireland, a feUow of the Linnean Sodety, and an honorary member of the Royal Horticultural Sodety. The youngest brother, Phihp, became the first vicechanceUor of Dacca University (Bangladesh) and was knighted in 1930. The elder daughter, Helena, moved to Paris and became a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 86-112
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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