• Jennifer Sanders-Tutt

Mary Proctor

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

“Once I was pondering over these solemn truths it seemed to me I had a dream that was not all a dream. I was a solitary watcher on the shores of eternity, and an unfathomable abyss stretched out ever before me. As I strove to peer into those mysterious depths, I saw floating on the surface, star system, cluster and nebulae, all majestically sweeping around in their orbits, their movements being in perfect harmony. The music of the spheres that are swayed and held in bondage by our own sun, was echoed by that of ten million moving worlds, singing their solemn chant as they winged their flight through infinite space. I strove in vain to grasp the idea of the immensity of these suns with which the ocean of ether was strewn, and the prodigious intervals separating one system from the other. Overwhelmed at these wondrous truths I admired in silence.”

Excerpt from “Wonders of the Depths” presented at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

Mary Proctor had been intent on becoming an artist, but growing up in the home of one of the world’s foremost authorities on astronomy, she was never out of reach of a scholarly journal or scientific text. Her father, Richard A. Proctor, had encouraged Mary’s keen mind from a young age. He even convinced her to publish in astronomy journals. She used the pen name Stella Occidens, as not to be overshadowed by the Proctor name. When Richard Proctor succumbed to yellow fever in 1888, Mary found herself in a position that allowed her independence to flourish. She would become an authority on the subject of astronomy in her own right.

In 1893 she was invited to be a presenter at the Congress of Women and the Congress of Authors. The audience at her first major public speaking engagement was intended to be children. However, when Mary arrived on stage, she saw that her audience was primarily educators of young children. As Mary Proctor took the stage to present with notes in hand, the entire auditorium went dark.

The electricity had gone out. In the battle for who would have the privilege of illuminating the testament to modernity that was the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Nikola Tesla prevailed over Thomas Edison. However, Tesla’s system was prone to burning out, leaving sections of the Worlds’ Fair in darkness periodically.

After the sensation that was her first public address, she would go on to tour the world, presenting her research. She became known for her mastery of presenting complex concepts of astronomy in ways that children could understand.

"Are there any little planets which are red?" asked one of the goblins.

"Yes, indeed," replied the goblin who had been to Star- land; "and some are blue, and green, and yellow; but we are so far away from them that we can scarcely see these colors, even with a telescope."

"I would like to live on one of those little planets," said one little goblin, who was balancing himself on a blade of grass; "but how small are the smallest planets?- If there are ever so many, we might have a planet all to ourselves."

"Some of the planets are only ten and twenty miles across, while others are more than a hundred miles wide. If you lived on an asteroid near the sun, the year would last nearly as long as three years on our earth, and if you lived on Thule, the asteroid which is at the greatest distance from the sun, the year would last nearly as long as nine years on our earth."

Excerpt from “Goblins in Starland” by Mary Proctor

In 1895 she published her first book titled Stories of Starland. In it, a young girl named Mary entertains her ill brother, Harry, by telling him stories and lore of the cosmos. She continued to publish books as well as articles for newspapers and journals throughout her lifetime. Though she came to be known as the “childrens’ astronomer,” she occasionally addressed older audiences, such as her widely published article on Halley’s Comet in 1910. Her prolific presence in the astronomy led to a crater on the moon being named after her. In 1927 she became a sensation for viewing a total solar eclipse from the cockpit of a biplane. She would reflect on her experiences in Romance of the Sun published after the eclipse. Her last work, Comets, Meteors and Shooting Stars, was published in 1940. She passed away in England in 1957.

58 views0 comments