Sir William Huggins was born on February 7, 1824 in London, the only surviving child of a silk mercer and his wife. He received his only formal education at the City of London School. Afterwards he continued his studies of mathematics, classics, and modern languages under private tutors. During his university years he worked in the shop of his father. An independent learner he devoted much of his spare time to the study of chemistry and physics, collecting apparatus by which he conducted experiments. For several years he devoted himself to the microscopical study of plant and animal physiology and he was appointed to the Microscopical Society in 1852.
In the mid 1850's his parents sold their business and in 1856 Huggins built an observatory at his residence in at Upper Tulse Hill in Lambeth, London. His first observations were of double stars and he made detailed drawings of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. On September 7, 1857 Huggins married Margaret Murray of Dublin, Ireland. Twenty four years his junior, Margaret was an avid astronomer and photographer in her own right. With their marriage the couple began a collaboration that lasted until William's Death. Evidence of the couple's collaboration include a change from William's terse notebook entries to Margaret's more detailed write-ups and a switch to the use of photography to record observations. Starting in 1862 he began working with chemist William A. Miller of Kings College, London taking the stellar spectra of Sirius which they reported to the Royal Society in 1863.
Although Huggins was not the first to study the spectra of astronomical objects, he was the first to employ an apparatus by which the spectral lines could be compared with the spectral lines of chemical elements. As he wrote, "The observatory became meeting place where terrestrial chemistry was brought into direct touch with celestial chemistry." In 1864 he was the first to observe the spectra of nebula when he observed the planetary nebula of Draco. He was surprised that he saw only the spectral lines of gaseous elements and this eventually allowed him to be the first to distinguish the difference between nebula and galaxies in which the other spectral lines of the non-gaseous elements found in stars could be observed.
In 1865 Huggins was elected to the Royal Society and in 1866 he received one of their gold medals. In 1867 the Royal Astronomical Society awarded him a gold medal jointly with Dr. Miller. Starting in 1875 he extended the range of his spectra, observing into the ultra-violet range of the spectrum. For this research and research into the motion of stars he received a second gold medal from the Royal Society, which also awarded him the Rumford medal in 1880. He received a second gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1885. He was awarded the Bruce Medal by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1904. He served as president of the Royal Society from 1900 to 1905.
Huggins died on May 13, 1910.
Becker, Barbara J.; "Dispelling the Myth of the Able Assistant: Margaret and William Huggins at Work in the Tulse Hill Observatory" (1992); available online at eee.uci.edu
Plarr, Victor; "Huggins, Sir William"; in Men and Women of the Time: a Dictionary of Contemporaries 15th edition; George Routledge and Sons; 1899
von Geldern, Otto; "Address to the Retiring President of the Society, in Awarding the Bruce Medal to Sir William Huggins"; Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; (1904)16:49-62
"Sir William Huggins" Nature (1910) 83:342-343