The Contributions of Women to the United States Naval Observatory: The Early Years.

Mrs. Isabel Martin Lewis
Isabel Martin was born in Old Orchard Beach Maine on July 11, 1881. She received her A.B. from Cornell in 1903 and her A.M. in 1905 specializing in mathematics. In 1904 she taught school in Summit New Jersey.
Miss Martin became a computer for Prof. Simon Newcomb in 1905 and learned to work on eclipse data under his guidance, a task which her fellow employees recall her as being "very fine at". Miss Martin worked for Newcomb until 1907 a few months of this duty included work for the Naval Observatory as a miscellaneous computer. In 1908 Miss Martin became the first woman hired in the NAO as an assistant astronomer.
On December 4, 1912 Miss Martin married Clifford Spencer Lewis who was also with the Observatory, they both continued their employment however Mrs. Lewis became a part-time employee in order to care for her home and eventually her son Robert Winslow Lewis. While working part-time, Mrs. Lewis published three books, the first in 1919 entitled "Splendors of the Sky" and the second in 1922 was "Astronomy for Young Folks". Both of these books are written on the popular astronomy level, and reveal her strong interest in educating the public and especially children to the wonders of astronomy. Of her second book, Isabel Lewis said;
"If the writer succeeds in arousing the child's interest in the stars so that he may look forth with intelligence at the heavens and greet the stars as friends and at the same time grasps some of the simplest and most fundamental astronomical truths such as the distinction between stars and planets, the motions of the heavenly bodies and their relative distances from us and the place of our own planet-world in the universe, this book will have served its purpose."
Lewis' third book was "A Hand Book Of Solar Eclipses" which was published in 1924. This book had one and a half chapters devoted to The eclipses of January 1925, and June 1927, but most of the book was focused on the phenomena which accompany a solar eclipse and therefore has remained a valuable resource even today. Chapter six of this handbook gives the reader valuable insight to the work of an astronomical computer. Here we learn that an experienced computer could perform the necessary computations for a total eclipse of the moon in two working days of 7 hours each. A total solar eclipse would be much more difficult and that to assure accuracy two computers would work on the calculations using different methods. The check performed on these calculation alone took Mrs. Lewis between ninety and one hundred and twenty hours of "exacting work", and she had the responsibility of making the check computations for most of her career. The fact that Mrs. Lewis described this task as a privilege is testimony to her devotion to duty.
After the Death of her husband in 1927, Mrs. Lewis returned to work full-time and was promoted to Assistant Scientist followed by a second promotion to Astronomer in 1930. Her contributions to the NAO included a new method which she developed to calculate the northern and southern limits of visibility for an eclipse which was more accurate and required less time and labor than the previously employed method. She devised a procedure to increase the number of moon occultations predicted in the Almanac when this occurrence became more important for investigating the motions of the moon. She developed the formulae for computing solar eclipses at the level needed to investigate ionospheric phenomena. She improved the current method for correcting eclipse predictions at one location so that a position could be obtained at a nearby location. Later in her career when the NAO was upgrading to electric calculating machines Mrs. Lewis adapted and improved the existing equations for that transition.
Through her whole career Mrs. Lewis was a prolific writer and published articles in The New York Evening Sun, Science and Invention, Popular Astronomy, The Astronomical Journal and many others. For thirty years Mrs. Lewis had a regular monthly series of articles published in Nature Magazine. Her editor noted that "She had an abiding respect for deadlines. Her articles were clear and concise." He also took the liberty to add that "She was mighty sweet too." She gave lectures on the local National Broadcasting Company radio station (WRC), and traveled to local schools and churches to give presentations to the children.
Isabel Lewis specialized in eclipses, she was a member of the eclipse expeditions to Russia in 1936, and to Peru, in 1937. In 1918 she was elected a member of the American Astronomical Society, she was also a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Mrs. Lewis retired from service at the Naval Observatory in 1951 but continued to publish in newspapers and magazines until 1955. Isabel Lewis favored women's suffrage and enjoyed walking, swimming, skating, rowing, and tennis. She opposed the use of animals in scientific experiments and supported all efforts to prohibit it. Mrs. Lewis was described by one of her colleagues as "One of the staunch workers in the office until the time of her retirement". As well as "Unquestionably intelligent" and "Very capable in an era when women were given a very minor role in astronomy."

Return to Homepage.
Return to First Biographical Sketch.