Katherine Clerk Maxwell

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Katherine Mary Clerk Maxwell
Katherine Mary Dewar

1824 (1824)
Died12 December 1886 (aged 61–62)
Resting placeParton Kirkcudbrightshire
ResidenceAberdeen, London
Spouse(s)James Clerk Maxwell (m.1859)
Scientific career
Fieldsphysical sciences
InfluencedJames Clerk Maxwell

Katherine Mary Clerk Maxwell (née Dewar) (1824 – 12 December 1886), was a Scottish physical scientist best known for her observations which supported and contributed to the discoveries of her husband, James Clerk Maxwell. Most notable of these are her involvement with his colour vision and viscosity of gases experiments. She was born Katherine Dewar in 1824 in Glasgow[1][2] and married Clerk Maxwell in 1859.[3][4] Her contributions are largely recorded in writings on her husband, partly due to a fire at the Maxwell family estate which destroyed many of the family papers.[1]

Early life and marriage[edit]

Katherine Mary Dewar was born in 1824 In Glasgow,[1][2] the daughter of Susan Place[1] and the Presbyterian Rev. Daniel Dewar,[5] Principal of Marischal College, Aberdeen.[3] Little of her early life appears to be recorded.

When she was in her early thirties Katherine met James Clerk Maxwell (7 years her junior) during his tenure as Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College (1856–1860).[1] Her father, Rev. Daniel Dewar developed a friendship with James which resulted in his frequent visits to the Dewar household as well as an invitation to join them on a family holiday.[6] James announced their engagement in February 1858[7] and they were married in the parish of Old Machar, Aberdeen on 2 June 1858.[3][4] The couple never had any children.[8]

Scientific contribution[edit]

Before and during their marriage Katherine aided James in his experiments on colour vision and gases.[1][7] Katherine's observations were valuable to James' scientific work. In his publication in the Philosophical Transactions titled On the Theory of Compound Colours, and the Relations of the Colours of the Spectrum, James records the observations of two individuals. He reveals himself as the first observer labeled J, but describes the second individual anonymously as "another observer (K)."[9] Lewis Campbell confirms that the observer K was indeed Katherine.[7]

Colour vision experiments[edit]

Colour Light Instrument
This is a diagram of the instrument used by James and Katherine in the Colour Light experiments as it appeared in James Clerk Maxwell's Philosophical Transactions publication titled "On the Theory of Compound Colours, and the Relations of the Colours of the Spectrum." Vol. 150 pp. 57–84. 1 January 1860.

The apparatus used in the colour vision experiments is depicted in Fig. 1. It was constructed by joining a 5-foot box (AK) with a 2-foot box (KN) at a 100-degree angle. A mirror at M reflects light coming through the opening at BC towards a lens at L. Two equilateral prisms at P diffract light coming from the three slits at X, Y, and Z. This illuminated the prisms with the combination of the spectral colors created by the diffraction of the light from the slits. This light was also visible through the lens at L. The observer then peered through the slit at E while the operator adjusted the position and width of each slit at X, Y, and Z until the observer could not distinguish the prism light from the pure white light reflected by the mirror. The position and width of each slit was then recorded.

James and Katherine performed this experiment in their home. Their neighbors supposedly thought that they were "mad to spend so many hours staring into a coffin."[7] Katherine's observations differed from Jame's on several accounts. James described these differences in section XIII of his publication, noting that there was a "measurable difference" between the colors perceived by each observer.[9] Campbell also cites readings by C. H. Cay to be different from Katherine's, although a third observer is not listed in this particular Philosophical Transactions publication.[7] This led him to develop his theory of colour vision and to discover the (commonly occurring) blindness of the Foramen Centrale to blue light.

Viscosity of gas experiments[edit]

In a letter to P.G. Tait, James Clerk Maxwell wrote about Katherine's contribution to measurements of gaseous viscosity associated with his paper "On the Dynamical Theory of Gases", saying that Katherine "did all the real work of the kinetic theory" and that she was now "...engaged in other researches. When she is done I will let you know her answer to your inquiry [about experimental data]".[1][10] Some of the more arduous work performed by Katherine in these experiments involved keeping a fire continuously stoked for hours on end for the purpose of producing steam from a kettle.[7]

A fire at Glenlair destroyed the majority of Maxwell's papers, which has made it more difficult for historians to reconstruct further details of Katherine Clerk Maxwell's scientific contribution.[1]

Personal life[edit]

An image showing Katherine Clerk Maxwell (seated), with her husband James Clerk Maxwell and the couple's terrier.
An image showing Katherine Clerk Maxwell (seated), with her husband James Clerk Maxwell and the couple's dog Toby.

After the merger of Marishal College with Kings College to form the new University of Aberdeen in 1860, James Clerk Maxwell lost his position and the couple moved to London for five years whilst Katherine's husband took up the role of Natural Philosophy Chair at King's College. Katherine nursed her husband through smallpox in September 1860 at the Maxwell family estate, then through erysipelas following a riding incident in September 1865.[7] The Maxwells were avid riders. In a letter to a friend and colleague, James mentioned their regular outings to the Brig of Urr, mounted on their horses Darling and Charlie.[7] Charlie was a bay pony that James bought for Katherine at a horse fair where James allegedly contracted smallpox.[6] Charlie was named after Charles Hope Cay, the very friend to whom James wrote.

The couple moved to the Maxwell estate, Glenlair, in around 1865, with James using this time to write up some of his key work.[7] In 1871 James Clerk Maxwell became Cambridge University's first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.[4] During this time the couple lived in Cambridge but continued to spend summers in Glenlair.[2]

Katherine had a number of health issues[7] and suffered a prolonged illness in 1876, which her husband nursed her through.[11] Despite this, and Katherine's role in caring for her husband, Margaret Tait (wife of P. G. Tait) is said to have accused Katherine of derailing her husband's career because of her illness and James Clerk Maxwell's care for her.[1]

An image of Katherine Clerk Maxwell's grave in Parton, Dumfries and Galloway.
An image of Katherine Clerk Maxwell's grave in Parton, Dumfries and Galloway, where she is buried with her husband James Clerk Maxwell and his parents.

Katherine was widowed when James Clerk Maxwell died of stomach cancer on 5 November 1879.[7] On the day of his death James expressed concern for Katherine's health.[7] Little is known about Katherine's life during the seven years between her husband's death and her own.[1]

She died on 12 December 1886 and is buried with her husband James Clerk Maxwell, in Parton, Kirkcudbrightshire, Galloway.[12] She did not have any children.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lightman, Bernard (2004). The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Scientists: Volume 3: K-Q. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Continuum. pp. 1381–2. ISBN 978-1855069992.
  2. ^ a b c Flood, Raymond; McCartney, Mark; Whitaker, Andrew (2014-01-09). James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on his Life and Work. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191641251.
  3. ^ a b c O'Conner, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F. "James Clerk Maxwell (biography)". MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland. Archived from the original on 28 January 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2016.
  4. ^ a b c "Facts about James Clerk Maxwell". James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. Retrieved 31 October 2016.
  5. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "Katherine Mary Dewar". The Peerage. Retrieved 31 October 2016.
  6. ^ a b Basil., Mahon (2003-01-01). The man who changed everything : the life of James Clerk Maxwell. Wiley. OCLC 52358254.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Campbell, Lewis; Garnett, William (2010-06-03). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: With a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and a Sketch of His Contributions to Science. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108013703.
  8. ^ "James Clerk Maxwell". Westminster Abbey: History (People). Retrieved 2016-10-31.
  9. ^ a b Maxwell, J. Clerk (1860). "On the Theory of Compound Colours, and the Relations of the Colours of the Spectrum". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 150: 57–84. doi:10.1098/rstl.1860.0005.
  10. ^ Clerk Maxwell, James (1877). Letter to P.G. Tait. Maxwell Papers, Cambridge University Library. my better 1/2, who did all the real work of the kinetic theory is at present engaged in other researches. When she is done I will let you know her answer to your enquiry [about experimental data]
  11. ^ Everitt, C. W. F. (1975). James Clerk Maxwel: Physicist and Natural Philosopher. New York.
  12. ^ "James Clerk Maxwell's burial place at Parton". www.clerkmaxwellfoundation.org. James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. Retrieved 2016-10-31.