Elizabeth Alexander (astronomer)

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Frances Elizabeth Somerville Alexander
B.Sc. Ph.D.
Dr Elizabeth Alexander.png
Born (1908-12-13)13 December 1908
Merton, Surrey, UK
Died 15 October 1958(1958-10-15) (aged 49)
Ibadan, Nigeria
Nationality British
Alma mater Newnham College, Cambridge
Spouse Norman Alexander
  • Bill Alexander
  • Mary Harris
  • Bernice Jones

Frances Elizabeth Somerville Alexander (née Caldwell; 13 December 1908 – 15 October 1958), better known as Elizabeth Alexander, was a British geologist and physicist, better known for her brief but significant contribution to radio astronomy. Alexander gained her PhD from Newnham College, Cambridge and worked in Radio Direction Finding at Singapore Naval Base from 1938 to 1941. In January 1941, she evacuated to New Zealand on Navy orders where she took up the post of Head of Operations Research in New Zealand's Radio Development Lab, Wellington. Her correct interpretation in 1945 of anomalous signals picked up on Norfolk Island as coming from the sun was pioneering work in the field of radio astronomy,[1] making her one of the first female scientists to work in that field, albeit briefly.


Alexander was born Frances Elizabeth Somerville Caldwell on 13 December 1908 in Merton, Surrey.[2] Her father, Dr. K. S. Caldwell, was Professor of Chemistry and Principal at Patna Science College in India,[3] where she spent her youth.[4] In 1918, Alexander returned to the United Kingdom and began secondary school. She went to Newnham College, Cambridge to study natural science, initially focusing on physics,[5] graduating with First-class honours in 1931, then completing a PhD in geology for a thesis on Aymestry Limestone.[2][4] Like all women graduates of Cambridge University at that time, she could not become a full member of the university until after equal rights were granted post 1945.[6]

In July 1935, Alexander married a physicist, Norman Alexander, from New Zealand. When her husband took the post of Professor of Physics at Raffles College in Singapore, Elizabeth Alexander began a study into the effects of weathering in the tropics. Whilst in Singapore, the couple had three children, William in 1937, Mary in 1939 and Bernice in 1941.[4] On January 4, 1942, under Navy orders to take her children to safety and return with specialist equipment being made in Australia, Dr. Alexander and her children evacuated to New Zealand by flying boat.[7] After the Fall of Singapore on February 15, leaving her stranded in New Zealand with no news of her husband for six months, then the inaccurate information that he was dead.[8]

In reality, he had continued with his additional work of Scientific Adviser to the Armed Forces, moving to help out at Singapore General Hospital when Raffles College was on the front line. At the Hospital, he kept the X-ray machines going[9] until Singapore fell a few days later. He was then interred in Changi,[8] then Sime Road camps, along with the senior medical staff of the hospital. In September 1945 he was reunited with his family in New Zealand for six months compulsory sick leave, returning to Singapore in March 1946 to restart both Physics and Chemistry Departments at Raffles College. Both departments had been looted and the Professor of Chemistry and his senior lecturer were both dead.[10] Dr. Elizabeth Alexander wound up her work in Wellington and took her children to England, leaving them with her sister as guardian. She rejoined Norman Alexander briefly in England to buy equipment for the College, before they returned to Singapore together. She then took up the post of Government Geologist, restarted her work on tropical weathering and acted as registrar for the conversion of Raffles College to the University of Malaya.[11]

Over the next two years, Norman Alexander spent time in both Singapore and New Zealand, whilst Elizabeth Alexander returned to England. In 1947, when the children were old enough to attend boarding school, the couple returned to Singapore, both working at Raffles College.[10] In 1952, the couple moved to Ibadan, Nigeria, both accepting posts at University College Ibadan. The university opened a department of geology in 1958 and appointed Dr. Elizabeth Alexander Senior Lecturer and Head of Department. Just three weeks into her new role, Alexander suffered a stroke and she died a week later on 15 October 1958 at the age of 49.[12]


Between 1940 and 1941, Alexander held the rank of Captain in the Naval Intelligence Service, working on radio direction-finding at Singapore Naval Base.[13] She became Senior Physicist and Head of the Operational Research Section of the Radio Development Laboratory in Wellington, New Zealand in 1942, where she remained until 1945. There she was responsible for development of the microwave radar programme and research on anomalous propagation leading to the post-war international project, Project Canterbury.[8] In 1945, Alexander identified the "Norfolk Island Effect" as solar radiation, confirming that solar interference increased with sunbursts.[14][15] This discovery marked the beginning of Australian radio-astronomy after she left New Zealand when her contract ended with the end of the war in 1945[6] There has been some controversy over whether Alexander or Ruby Payne Scott was actually the first woman to work in the field of radio astronomy.[16] In contrast to Alexander, Payne Scott had an extensive career in that field, before eventually resigning when pregnant of her first child because her employer did not allow maternity leave.

Despite her progress in the field, Alexander only ever considered radio astronomy a job and as soon as the war was over she returned to her passion of geology, never again working in radio astronomy.[5] Alexander became the Geologist to the Government of Singapore in 1949, responsible for surveying the island and went on to publish a report in 1950 which included the first geological map of Singapore.[12]


Alexander published a number of geological papers between 1951 and 1957, derived from her PhD, along with some derived from her work as a soil scientist in Nigeria. In 1958 Alexander wrote a report on tropical weathering in Singapore, which was published posthumously.

  • Alexander, Frances Elizabeth Somerville (February 1936). "The Aymestry Limestone of the Main Outcrop". Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 92: 103–115. 
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1945) Long Wave Solar Radiation, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (New Zealand), Radio Development Laboratory
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1945) Report of the Investigation of the "Norfolk Island Effect", Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (New Zealand), Radio Development Laboratory.
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1946). The Sun's radio energy. Radio & Electronics, 1(1), 16–17.
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1947). A revision of the genus Pentamerus James Sowerby 1813 and a description of the new species Gypidula bravonium from the Aymestry Limestone of the main outcrop. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 103(1–4), 143–161.
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1947). On Dayia navicula (J. de C. Sowerby) and Whitfieldella canalis (J. de C. Sowerby) from the English Silurian. Geological Magazine, 84(05), 304–316.
  • Alexander, Frances Elizabeth Somerville (February 1948). "A revision of the brachiopod species Anomia Reticularis Linnaeus, genolectotype of Atrypa Dalman". Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 104: 207–220. 
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1949). A revision of the brachiopod species. Anomia reticularis.
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1950). The geology of Singapore and the surrounding islands. Report on the Availability of Granite on Singapore and the Surrounding Island. US Government Printing Office, 1950.
  • Alexander, F. E. S., & Jackson, R. M. (1954). Examination of soil micro-organisms in their natural environment. Nature 174, 750–751 (16 October 1954); doi:10.1038/174750b0
  • Alexander, F. E. S., & Jackson, R. M. (1955). Preparation of sections for study of soil microorganisms. Soil Zoology (pp. 433–441). Butterworth London.
  • Alexander, F. E. S. (1957). Differential insecticide damage in maize varieties. Nature 179, 109 (12 January 1957); doi:10.1038/179109a0


  1. ^ Sullivan (2009), p. 75.
  2. ^ a b Rigby, Rebecca (3 October 2012). "Alexander, Elizabeth (1908–1959)". Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  3. ^ Gopal, Surendra (1999). "Establishment of Science College". In Chattopadhyaya, Debi Prasad. History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization: pt. 1. Science, technology, imperialism and war. Pearson Education India. p. 992. ISBN 9788131728185. 
  4. ^ a b c Orchiston (2005), p. 72.
  5. ^ a b Harris, Mary (26 November 2010). "Elizabeth Alexander" (PDF). Physics and Astronomy – University of Canterbury 27 (44): 3–5. 
  6. ^ a b "The Norfolk Island Effect". The World of Norfolk's Museum. 8 February 2011. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  7. ^ Harris, Mary. "Women and Children Evacuees & Escapees from Singapore up to 15th February 1942". COFEPOW. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  8. ^ a b c Orchiston (2005), p. 73.
  9. ^ Harris, Mary. "Women & Children Escapees from Singapore in January 1942 by air". COFEPOW. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  10. ^ a b Orchiston (2005), p. 74.
  11. ^ Yoke Ho, Peng (2005). Reminiscence of a Roving Scholar: Science, Humanities, and Joseph Needham. World Scientific. p. 32. ISBN 9789812565884. 
  12. ^ a b Orchiston (2005), p. 75.
  13. ^ Orchiston (2005), pp.72–3.
  14. ^ Dickey, Delwyn (1 February 2013). "Stars align for conference". Stuff: Auckland Now. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  15. ^ Orchiston, Wayne (September 1995). "Pioneering Radio Astronomy". New Zealand Science Monthly. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  16. ^ Lichtman, Jeffery M. (1 August 2013). "Will the first Female Radio Astronomer Stand Up" (PDF). Journal of the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers: 14. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 


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