Remember the Ladies: Madge Adam

Solar physicist acclaimed for her work on sunspots and magnetic fields
Kay Williams, The Guardian

Madge Gertrude Adam, solar astronomer, born March 6 1912; died August 25, 2001.

Photo Credit: DiaboloDeus via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: DiaboloDeus via Compfight cc

In 1935, Madge Adam, who has died aged 89, became the first of a long line of postgraduate research students in solar physics at the University of Oxford Observatory. The new director of the observatory, Professor HH Plaskett, was about to establish solar physics as its chief research object, and the Sun was Adam’s particular interest. Having just found herself in possession of a first, she heard that Plaskett was asking for research students. “So I knocked on his door and said, ‘How about me?’.”

The woman who became a dedicated researcher, internationally known for her work on the nature of sunspots and on their magnetic fields, was to be a key figure at the observatory for the rest of her life.

The youngest of three children, Adam was born near Highbury, north London, where her father taught at Drayton Park School. In 1915, he volunteered, and after his death in action three years later, his widow and children moved to Yorkshire to live with their maternal grandparents. It was a “very Christian” environment that would greatly influence the children’s lives.

Later, Adam and her brother, a canon of Blackburn Cathedral, professed as Franciscan tertiaries – members of an Anglican order requiring them to follow a threefold rule of simplicity, chastity and obedience. Their sister became the wife of a canon and the mother of yet another. Thus, surrounded by family clerics, Adam was inspired to adapt Tennyson: “Canon to right of them, canon to left of them . . .”

At the age of nine, she was diagnosed with rickets and skeletal tuberculosis in an elbow, and spent a year in the Liverpool Open-Air Hospital for children with TB. Returning to her Yorkshire elementary school, she was awarded a scholarship to Doncaster High School, where her burgeoning interest in science and mathematics was fostered. In 1931, she went up to St Hugh’s College to become the only female Oxford undergraduate in that physics year.

The beginning of her research studentship in 1935 coincided with the installation of the Oxford University Observatory’s first solar telescope. Two years later, she was appointed research assistant there, and an assistant tutor at St Hugh’s. When Plaskett was drafted early in the war to a research post with the ministry of aircraft production, Adam was made acting director of the observatory. She also taught astronomy courses, with an emphasis on astronavigation, to Royal Navy and RAF cadets. Appointed a university demonstrator in 1947, she later also took over the observatory’s financial accounts.

When DWN Stibbs arrived at the observatory as Radcliffe fellow in 1952, he had a high regard for Adam’s research: “It was Plaskett’s meticulous work on motions in the Sun at the photospheric level, and Miss Adam’s work on the Fraunhofer lines in the solar spectrum, supported by her work on solar and stellar magnetic fields, that kept the Oxford work in the forefront of spectroscopic astrophysics research in the United Kingdom.”

Adam was also influential in enhancing the productivity of mathematicians, by directing their attention to some of the key problems in theoretical astrophysics. As an external examiner in astronomy for the University of St Andrews, she also contributed greatly to the scope of the courses and quality of the examinations.

Photo Credit: Sergei Golyshev via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Sergei Golyshev via Compfight cc

Gentle and self-effacing, Adam applied the same scrupulous care to people as she did to science. Though not herself ready to experiment with the “newfangled” electronic computer installed by the university in 1958, she always encouraged her students to use it. Her generosity to postgraduate research students was legendary. One former student recalled the absence of comment even mildly critical of her: “In the academic environment, with its traditional sniping, that was quite an achievement and spoke volumes as to her character. It was, simply, quite impossible not to like her.”

By now living on Oxford’s Woodstock Road, Madge still ate in college – she “couldn’t be bothered” to cook. She was a familiar sight perched atop her very large bicycle, vigorously pedalling to and from the observatory. In the mid-1960s, she spent a sabbatical year in Australia, studying magnetic stars at Mt Stromlo. While there, she learned to drive, and on her return, replaced the bicycle with an elderly small car that became equally well known locally.

Adam loved hymns, Bach and Gilbert & Sullivan, the religious writings of William Johnstone and crosswords. She read no modern literature, but had an encyclopaedic knowledge of virtually every minor character in the novels of Anthony Trollope, who ranked equal in her estimation with Jane Austen. There was no television set in her retirement apartment; she visited her sister’s flat nearby to watch University Challenge and snooker, which fascinated her. “I think,” she said of her fascination for the game, “that it might be the mathematics of it.”

Despite the onset of rheumatoid arthritis and the loss of hearing in her later years, she remained great fun, too.

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