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
in 1903 and her A.M. in 1905 specializing in
mathematics. In 1904 she taught school in Summit
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.
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."
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