Heather died on the morning of 19 February 2020, at the age of 70, in the presence of her close friend and business partner, Nigel Henbest.
She joined the society’s Council in 1970. In time she went on to become internationally known, and we are proud that we were a part of her illustrious career as an outstanding populariser of astronomy.
Heather and the JAS/SPA
Heather Couper first came onto the astronomy scene in 1969. Her interest had been kindled at an early age when she saw a green meteor from her home in Ruislip, Middlesex. However, her lack of suitable A-Levels for a career in astronomy made her start on a retail career, and she began her working life at the Peter Robinson store in Oxford Street. Then she joined the British Astronomical Association, the West of London Astronomical Society and the Junior Astronomical Society (forerunner of the SPA), and things started to change.
It was immediately clear that she had a deep understanding of astronomy and she resolved to gain the extra A-Level needed for a degree, taking a job at the solar physics department of Cambridge Observatory and doing her maths A-Level at night school. In January 1970 she was elected to the society’s Council. At this time she started to write, and her first published astronomy article was in the society magazine, then called Hermes, which you can read here. Her skills in communication, both literary and in speaking, were apparent to all of us. She was the society’s president from 1987–89, when she was referred to in an editorial as ‘Couperwoman’! She succeeded John Ebdon, the Director of the London Planetarium. At that time, Heather was a familiar face on our TV screens.
Heather’s many accomplishments are well recorded elsewhere so here we will just recall a little of her personality. As well as astronomy she delighted in the countryside, and spent many hours investigating old churches around the country along with Nigel Henbest, with whom she shared a home as a platonic partner.
She loved dogs, although she never owned one other than her parents’ Dalmatian, Snowy. However, there was usually a visiting cat in the house.
She was a vegetarian, and the midsummer parties which she and Nigel held at their Buckinghamshire home were generously supplied with all manner of vegetarian quiches and large cheeses.
Although she was often a woman in a man’s world, as the first woman president of the British Astronomical Association (1984-86), Heather was not a feminist and didn’t believe in special rules for women, or even regarding herself as a woman rather than as a person. More than once some poor chap misinterpreted her interest in chatting to him!
As well as being the first woman BAA president, she also became the first female professor of Gresham College, in 1993. This post lasted until 1996. Her outreach work inspired many people to take up astronomy, particularly girls. ‘Heather was beautiful, clever and great fun. She was an inspiration to many young girls who had an interest in astronomy and I knew that when I grew up I wanted to be just like her. ‘ said Katrin Raynor-Evans, Popular Astronomy’s Features Editor.
She could be very mischievous. You never knew what she might come out with in a talk. Organisers who knew her could be on tenterhooks wondering what personal information might be revealed or even just hinted at. During the IAU meeting in Baltimore in 1988, she organised an Astronomers’ Hairy Chest competition. While at Cambridge she went into a clothes shop and asked the unsuspecting assistant if she had any Van Allen Belts in stock. ‘They’re coming in next week’ was the reply.
She was passionate about her writing, and was always looking forward to her next book even at a time when many people would have been happy to retire. Her final book, Stargazing 2021, in a series which she and Nigel had started in 2005, was largely complete when she died after a three-week illness in February 2020.