A Century Ago, Women Astronomers At Harvard Made Scientific History
By Jennifer H. Powell
Special to the Gazette
In a small room at the Harvard Observatory more than a century ago, a group of women spent their days searching the stars.
They weren't yet allowed to vote, but they quietly made history as they discovered new suns and deciphered their mysteries.
"It was really phenomenal to have a group of women scientists," said Barbara L. Welther, a historian of astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "This was seen as crossing a threshold that previously had been accessible only to men."
The women found a place at Harvard because Observatory Director Edward C. Pickering needed a work force to analyze thousands of photographs bearing the images of starfields.
The conditions in an observatory dome -- often cold, damp, and dark -- were considered inappropriate for women. Using photographs, however, they could study the stars in a relatively comfortable office during the day.
The women initially earned just 25 cents an hour, yet they were devoted to their work. They spent years doing complex computations to ascertain the positions of stars and analyze their spectra to determine their composition.
Much of the women's work is contained in a catalogue named in honor of Henry Draper, a noted American scientist whose avocation was astronomy. A revised version of that reference manual is still used in an electronic form today.
Harvard's female astronomers not only laid a foundation for modern astronomy, they also paved the way for women in science.
"Astronomy tends to be showy and grabs people's attention, so these women were showcased in newspapers more so than women in other sciences," Welther said.
More women were inspired to take up astronomy along with other sciences, even though the articles often treated the women as a curiosity.
"These young women deal with difficult problems quite as successfully as do the men in other observatories," said an 1893 Boston Globe article. "To be sure, not all women are capable of working in this field for the work demands special mental qualities."
Most of the women who worked under Pickering are forgotten faces on old photographs, but a few became famous later on, including:
Williamina Paton Fleming (1857-1911)
Fleming had been a schoolteacher in Scotland before coming to America with her husband in 1878. He abandoned her after they arrived, leaving her with a child to raise.
The young single mother found a job as a maid in the Pickering household. She was apparently very devoted to the family and named her son Edward Pickering Fleming in honor of her employer.
Pickering, recognizing Fleming's intelligence and education, asked her to work at the Observatory in 1881, according to the Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships 1839-1919.
She supervised other women at the Observatory and helped Pickering develop a system to classify the stars based on their spectrum -- a rainbow of starlight crisscrossed with a series of dark lines. The spectrum gives clues about the chemical elements in a star.
During her research, Fleming also discovered 22 new variable stars Ñ those that dim and brighten over time.
In 1899, she received the official title of Curator of Astronomical Photographs. Shortly before her death, she received the gold medal of the Astronomical Society of Mexico.
Antonia Maury (1866-1952)
Maury, niece of noted scientist Henry Draper, graduated from Vassar in 1887.
Pickering said he was reluctant to hire a Vassar graduate at the low salary he had to offer, according to The Harvard College Observatory History, but she was eager to work on the Draper Memorial program that honored her uncle.
She took up the complex problem of stellar classification, examining and making analyses of photographs of the northern stars. She also made a discovery that helped Pickering prove he had found a double star, the first spectroscopic binary. She later found a double star on her own.
In 1897, she left for a teaching post in New York. But she returned to the Observatory in 1919 when she received the Pickering Fellowship for Women. At the Observatory, she continued her work on double stars.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)
Leavitt, an 1892 graduate of Radcliffe College, had a personality of rare charm and was devoted to her family, according to her obituary.
"She had the happy faculty of appreciating all that was worthy and lovable in others and was possessed of a temperament full of sunshine and carrying with it a sense of poetic values which made all life beautiful and full of meaning," S.I. Bailey wrote at the time of her death for the Boston Evening Transcript.
She was also a remarkable scientist.
During her years at the Observatory, she discovered four new stars along with 2,400 variables. But her most important discovery was the "period-luminosity law" for variable stars -- a relationship between their brightness and length of period. This law was used to estimate distances to star clusters in our galaxy.
Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)
Cannon is, to this day, one of the best known of Harvard's early women astronomers. She specialized in using spectra to classify 50,000 to 60,000 stars a year.
"They aren't just streaks to me," Cannon once said about the lines of the spectra. "Each new spectrum is the gateway to a wonderful new world. It is almost as if the distant stars had really acquired speech and were able to tell of their constitution and physical condition."
Cannon became interested in astronomy as a young girl growing up in Dover, Del. She entered Wellesley College in 1880 at age 16, just five years after the school opened. She left higher education for several years but returned in 1894 to do graduate work at Wellesley before coming to Harvard as an assistant.
She was named curator of astronomical photographs at Harvard in 1911. Nearly three decades later, she was appointed the William Cranch Bond Astronomer, a post named in honor of the Observatory founder. The appointment of a woman was so rare that the letter announcing her post was addressed to "Dear Sir."
Her discoveries earned her six honorary doctorate degrees, including the first degree from Oxford University awarded to a woman. She was particularly proud of that honor. She was also the first woman recipient of the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences and one of few women elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979)
Payne-Gaposchkin, mother of three and expert on variable stars, found astronomy much easier than managing a household. Yet she was recognized for both roles.
She didn't work under Pickering, but she did research at Harvard using a fellowship named for him.
Payne-Gaposchkin came to Harvard in 1923 after earning an A.B. from Newman College. In just two years, she earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe. It was the first doctorate awarded for research at the Harvard Observatory. The University had not yet established a doctoral program in the field.
Payne-Gaposchkin became renowned as a teacher and researcher studying variable stars, but it was not until 1956 that she was named a tenured professor.
She was the first woman to attain full professorship by coming up through the ranks. She was also the first woman departmental chair.
During her career, she received several honorary degrees, the Graduate Medal of the Radcliffe Alumnae Association, and the Annie Jump Cannon Award of the American Astronomical Society.
The Legacy Continues
By the 1930s, some felt the struggle for women to find a place in science had ended.
Shortly after Annie Jump Cannon won the Ellen Richards Prize given by the Association to Aid Scientific Research by Women, the award was disbanded by organizers convinced that women had finally established themselves in science.
Cannon knew differently. She took her prize money and established a new award for women in astronomy.
"Annie realized that the battle was not over," Welther said. "She was far-sighted enough to realize that it would always be a struggle."
Cannon's award is still helping women find a place in the field. A recent recipient is Joan Najita, who worked on a post-graduate program at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics studying the winds of stars.
Although the field is no longer as limited as it was at the turn of the century, modern women astronomers face some of the same struggles as their predecessors. More women have taken up astronomy in recent years, but they have moved slowly into higher ranks, said Andrea Dupree, a stellar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
"I don't think the culture at the top has changed," she said. "There still is a strong 'old boy' network."
But those interested in astronomy should follow the examples of the early women astronomers, Welther said.
"If you are interested in astronomy, go ahead and pursue it and do your best," she said.
Paraphrasing Payne-Gasposchkin, Welther said, "It's not going to be a path of roses, but there are opportunities. You may not get a lot of accolades and rewards, but if you are doing what you enjoy, then it is worth the struggle."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College