Elizabeth Alexander (astronomer)

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Frances Elizabeth Somerville Alexander
B.Sc. Ph.D.
File:Dr Elizabeth Alexander.png
Born (1908-12-13)December 13, 1908
Merton, Surrey, UK
Died October 15, 1958(1958-10-15) (aged 49)
Ibadan, Nigeria
Nationality British
Fields Geologist
Radio Astronomer
Alma mater Newnham College, Cambridge
Spouse Norman Alexander
Children 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 born geologist and radio astronomer. Alexander gained her PhD from Newnham College, Cambridge and worked in naval intelligence in Singapore. When World War II broke out she moved to New Zealand where she took a post as Head of Operational Research in Radio Development. In this role, whilst reviewing the tests of radar equipment, she discovered the "Norfolk Island Effect", that solar interference increased with solar flares. This discovery was pioneering work in the field of radio astronomy, making her one of the first female scientists to work in the field.


Alexander was born Frances Elizabeth Somerville Caldwell on 13 December 1908 in Merton, Surrey.[1] Her father, Dr. K. S. Caldwell, was a chemistry professor at Patna Science College in India, [2] where she spent her youth.[3] In 1918, Alexander returned to the United Kingdom and began secondary school. She went to Newnham College, Cambridge to study physics,[4] though she soon switched to geology, a subject in which she graduated with First-class honours in 1931. She remained at the college for a further three years, at which point she received a PhD based on her thesis on Aymestry Limestone.[3][1] Despite graduating and receiving a PhD, she was no allowed to be a full member of the university as she was a woman.[5]

In July 1935, Alexander married a physicist, Norman Alexander, from New Zealand. When her husband took a post at Raffles College in Singapore, Alexander travelled with him and studied 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.[3] Soon after Bernice was born, Alexander and her children evacuated from Singapore to New Zealand by flying boat.[6] Singapore fell after just a week, leaving Alexander and her family in New Zealand, with inaccurate news that her husband had been killed.[7]

In fact, her husband was interred in Changi,[7] he worked in the general hospital and was the only person who could operated the X-ray machine,[8] meaning he survived and reunited with the family in 1945.[9] Over the next two years, Norman Alexander spent time in both Singapore and New Zealand, whilst Elizabeth 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.[9][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 Alexander Senior Lecturer and Head of Department. Just three weeks into the new role, Alexander suffered a stroke and died a week later on 15 October 1958 at the age of 49.[11]


Between 1940 and 1941, Alexander held the rank of Captain in the Naval Intelligence Service, working on radio direction-finding with the Royal Navy in Singapore.[12] She became Head of the Operational Research Section of the Radio Development Laboratory in New Zealand in 1942, where she remained until 1945.[7] Her section was responsible for testing radar prototypes. Her investigations allowed her to discover the link between radar performance and meteorological data. She named one factor of this discovery as the "Norfolk Island Effect",[5] bursts of radio noise which occurred at sunrise and sunset. The radio noise was actually Type I solar bursts,[5] confirming that solar interference increased with sunbursts.[13][14] This effect was one of the earliest detections of radio astronomy, meaning Alexander was one of the first women to work in the field.[7] There is some controversy over whether Alexander or Ruby Payne Scott was actually the first woman to work in the field of radio astronomy.[15]

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 passion of geology, never again working in radio astronomy.[4] 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.[11]



  1. 1.0 1.1 Rigby, Rebecca (3 October 2012). "Alexander, Elizabeth (1908 - 1959)". Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Retrieved 4 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Gopal, Surendra (1999). "Establishment of Science College". In Chattopadhyaya, Debi Prasad (ed.). History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization: pt. 1. Science, technology, imperialism and war. Pearson Education India. p. 992. ISBN 9788131728185.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Orchiston (2005), p. 72.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Harris, Mary (26 November 2010). "Elizabeth Alexander" (PDF). Physics and Astronomy - University of Canterbury. 27 (44): 3–5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 "The Norfolk Island Effect". The World of Norfolk's Museum. 8 February 2011. Retrieved 4 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Harris, Mary. "Women and Children Evacuees & Escapees from Singapore up to 15th February 1942". COFEPOW. Retrieved 4 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Orchiston (2005), p. 73.
  8. Harris, Mary. "Women & Children Escapees from Singapore in January 1942 by air". COFEPOW. Retrieved 4 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Orchiston (2005), p. 74.
  10. Yoke Ho, Peng (2005). Reminiscence of a Roving Scholar: Science, Humanities, and Joseph Needham. World Scientific. p. 32. ISBN 9789812565884.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Orchiston (2005), p. 75.
  12. Orchiston (2005), pp.72-3.
  13. Dickey, Delwyn (1 February 2013). "Stars align for conference". Stuff: Auckland Now. Retrieved 4 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Orchiston, Wayne (September 1995). "Pioneering Radio Astronomy". New Zealand Science Monthly. Retrieved 4 January 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Alexander, Frances Elizabeth Somerville (February 1936). "The Aymestry Limestone of the Main Outcrop". Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society. 92: 103–115.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Orchiston, Wayne (2005). Dr Elizabeth Alexander: First Female Radio Astronomer (PDF). ISBN 978-1-4020-3723-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>