Mary Bruck

Astronomer and historian of astronomy

Born: 29 May, 1925, in Ballivor, Irish Republic.

Died: 11 December, 2008, aged 83.

MARY (Maire) Bruck (she used the anglicised version of her first name in public life) made major contributions to astronomy, as a researcher into the life history of stars, as an inspiring and loveable teacher and, in later life, as an outstanding historian of her subject, with particular emphasis on the under-recognised role of gifted women.

The eldest of eight talented children, born in County Meath in the Republic of Ireland to Thomas and Margaret Conway (both were teachers), Bruck graduated in physics from University College Dublin. She then completed a PhD on solar spectroscopy at Edinburgh and obtained her first post as an astronomer at Dunsink Observatory, near Dublin. At Dunsink, she continued her work on solar spectroscopy, creating the ultraviolet extension to the fundamental Utrecht Solar Atlas. The director of the observatory, then recently appointed by Eamon de Valera to rejuvenate astronomy in Ireland, was Hermann Alexander Bruck, a widower whom Mary Conway married in 1951. With him came his children, Peter and Mary, as her new family.

In 1957, Professor Bruck became astronomer royal for Scotland, in charge of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh and of the teaching of astronomy at the university. Mary devoted herself to looking after the family, now including her own children, Anne, Catherine and Andrew. They were the last "astronomer royal family" to live at the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill.

In 1962, she returned to science with her appointment as a part-time lecturer in astronomy, the post becoming full-time as the children grew up. She formed an important part of a small core of teachers in a subject that was to expand rapidly, and she set her particular stamp on the methods and style of the teaching.

One of the big new teaching tasks Bruck undertook was to run the undergraduate laboratory, which had been set up by Michael Smyth for the newly started astrophysics degree. Her expertise was in devising exercises to replicate the processes used by professional astronomers, particularly those using the UK Schmidt survey photographs, which, in the 1970s, were revealing new and exciting aspects of the universe. This work gave rise to two texts, one produced in collaboration with Sue Tritton of the UK Schmidt Telescope Unit. In running these practical courses, she again set her style: no sloppy work, everything smoothly organised, and the whole class looked after like family.

Her research at Edinburgh used the new facilities, the UK Schmidt telescope photographs and the then front-line computer-controlled measuring machine Galaxy. With these she determined the brightnesses and colours of huge numbers of stars. The research was into the nature of stars in clusters, and she focused her efforts on those in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy caught in our own gravitational field. She was able to use her data to infer the star formation history and dynamics in this intriguing astronomical neighbour.

Unambitious career-wise, Bruck was undeservedly modest about her achievements. Yet in 1976 she had been invited to give a review of her work at a triennial meeting of the International Astronomical Union. In her research career, she supervised many research students, many of them female, and some of whom now occupy important positions in astronomy.

Her full retirement in 1987 following a three-year university fellowship led to her next career: astronomical history, which she started in collaboration with her husband. The major work from this time is The Peripatetic Astronomer: the Life of Charles Piazzi Smyth (1988). She quickly achieved a reputation in her own right for her work, concentrating on the lives of women in astronomy. Latterly, Bruck considered this her best work.

The outstanding work so far is her book Agnes Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics (2002), which was warmly received by her peers. Her final book, Stars and Satellites, is to be published shortly. Bruck contributed to several journals on the history of science, and to the Dictionary of National Biography, and was on the editorial board of the Journal of the Society for the History of Astronomy.

This part of her career was celebrated on her 80th birthday by a small symposium gathering people from around the globe. Edinburgh University recognised her excellence by awarding her a fellowship at this time.

However, her publication was not all in learned journals. She was a charming public speaker, had broadcast children's programmes on RTE in Ireland and wrote an influential Ladybird book, The Night Sky (1965). In 2001 the Edinburgh Astronomical Society awarded her the Lorimer Medal for her public outreach. One of her final public acts was to deliver a successful public lecture in May 2008 at the Royal Astronomical Society in London on the subject of women in astronomy in the past two centuries.

Without any feminist flag flying, Mary Bruck has done a tremendous amount, by her scholarship and by her example, for the place of women in science.

She was lively and intent – and organising – until the very end. She had been sustained through her life and at her death by a strong religious faith which she was not frightened to lay alongside her scientific understanding.

In some ways her greatest contribution is her spirit. Her colleagues continue to strive for the intellectual and ethical rigour and the family warmth and good humour that were her hallmarks, and in which she unknowingly educated us. She was tremendous fun, and everyone I know loved her.

PETER W J L BRAND