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Jessica Piazzi Smyth

Jessica with Charles

Jessica with husband Charles

Jessica Duncan was born in Aberdeen in 1812. Her mother Jannet married Harry Leith Lumdsen the owner of a large estate near Rhynie, Aberdeenshire following the death of her husband Thomas who had made his living as a lawyer.

Following her stepfather’s death, Jessie who was now in her early twenties, and her mother decided to move to Edinburgh. Highly intelligent with a keen interest in science and photography, Jessie studied geology with Alexander Rose the founder of the Edinburgh Geological Society. In addition to taking part in field trips in the U.K., Jessie travelled to France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland to extend her scientific knowledge.

Jessie and Professor Charles Piazzi Smyth may have met when she attended the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting held in Belfast in 1852. Jessie got on well with her fiancé’s family as they shared an interests in science.

Three years later, Charles and Jessie decided to get married on Christmas Eve. In 1856 the Piazzi Smyths travelled to Tenerife to explore the slopes and summit of Mount Teide and to assess the possibility of setting up an observatory on the mountain.

The Piazzi Smyths travelled around the Mediterranean and North Africa, making astronomical observations and collecting data, particularly in mountainous locations. In addition to recording information and making sketches, Jessie learned to prepare and preserve local foods in order to supplement the expedition’s rations. She also took and processed hundreds of photographs which were used to illustrate the reports and publications produced by her husband.

In November 1864 the Piazzi Smyths sailed to Egypt. They spent four months under canvas beside the Great Pyramid of Gizah while carrying out a thorough survey of the pyramid, taking photographs of both the exterior and interior.

The Piazzi Smyths visited observatories in Germany, Russia, Sicily and France before retiring to Ripon, Yorkshire in 1888. Jessie died eight years later. She was buried in a pyramid-shaped monument in the churchyard at St. John's, Sharow, North Yorkshire. When Professor Piazzi Smyth died in 1900, he was buried beside his wife.