Looking back at the history of female astronomers, it was sure to be filled with some drama and struggles. Like many other professions over the centuries women have striven to be allowed to even study astronomy and have their findings honoured and accepted just as their male counterparts have had done. So I decided to delve into three of some of the most interesting female astronomers( in my humble opinion obviously) that have made significant contributions to the field of astronomy and take a peek into their lives and see if they had any problems preventing them from studying and sharing their astronomical knowledge.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt – Astronomy’s Brightest Star!
They say behind every great man there is a great woman and this could be no truer than with one of the ‘brightest’ women to have studied astronomy. Without this woman, distances to stars could not have been plotted by Ejnar Hertzsprung; Edwin Hubble would have found it much more difficult to determine the age of the Universe; and Harlow Shapley would been puzzled to find a way to estimate the true size of the Milky Way Galaxy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt was born on 4 July 1868, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. It is quite apt that she was born on the USA’s Independence Day as she would go on to excel within a male dominated profession, well as much as she was allowed. Whilst still a child she moved with her family to Cleveland in Ohio and here she attended Oberlin College and would go on to graduate from the Society for the collegiate instruction for Women. It was in her fourth year of college she began an interest in astronomy upon taking an astronomy course. To add a touch of sorrow to her story, whilst travelling in America and Europe, Leavitt lost her hearing, but this did not stop her ambitions. In 1893 she was hired by Edward Charles Pickering as basically, a ‘human computer’ at the Harvard College Observatory, measuring and cataloguing the brightness of stars using the observatory’s photographic plates collection. She was also responsible for the care of the telescopes. This of course was initially all unpaid work and Leavitt was merely a volunteer research assistant and Pickering was not obliged to pay her. In the early 1900’s women were not even allowed to use the telescopes. But Leavitt was not fazed and within a few years Pickering hired her as a permanent member of the staff and gave her a wage of 30 cents per hour.
What did Leavitt discover despite limitations on females with the astronomical field holding her back? She made two massive contributions to astronomy with her research. When Leavitt was studying the stars using the photographic plates, there was no standard for ascertaining the magnitudes of stars and therefore Leavitt decided to create her own system. This system was adopted enthusiastically by the scientific community and by 1913 it was adopted by the International Committee on Photographic Magnitudes.
But this was not Leavitt’s major discovery. Pickering assigned Leavitt to study variable stars, which are stars whose luminosity fluctuates. In 1908 she published findings in the Annuals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College after she was studying the variable stars within the Magellanic Clouds. She noticed that some of these variable stars had a pattern. The brighter variable stars had longer periods of brightness and were more predictable. If a star’s intrinsic brightness could be estimated from its pulsation rate then we could determine how distant any of these Cepheid variable stars were from Earth. This therefore meant that there was now a method to determine the distances of stars from the Earth, which in turn lead to many other discoveries.
Leavitt seemed to have completely devoted her time to her career and there are no records of her ever marrying or having children. Leavitt fell ill and died of cancer in Dec 1921, aged only 53. This was the same year Harlow Shapley took over as director of the Observatory. Four years after her death the Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler considered nominating Leavitt for the Nobel Prize for the work she had done on the Cepheid variables and was unaware of her death the four years prior. He wrote to Shapley requesting more information about her work. Shapley obviously replied stating the passing of Leavitt but tried to claim the real credit for the work belonged to him for the interpretation he did of her findings! Very self-serving but thankfully he did not get nominated. Unfortunately neither did Leavitt as the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.
Caroline Herschel – The First Lady of Astronomy
Previously I have written about the life of Caroline Herschel’s brother, William Herschel as he was the renowned astronomer who discovered the Planet Uranus, among other things. One of the most revealing acts in the life of William Herschel was the affection he had for his sister Caroline and how he helped her join him in the astronomical history books. Caroline Hershel is the Cinderella of Astronomy. She was born in Hanover, Germany on 16 March 1750 and was the eighth of ten children. At a young age Caroline was struck ill with typhus and this resulted in stunted growth, meaning poor Caroline never grew taller than four foot three! This tale is less about the limitations that men put on Caroline, but more so women. In fact it was Caroline’s mother, Anna Ilse Moritzen who felt she would never marry due to her perceived limitations, and even though her father Isaac Herschel wished her to be educated, her mother believed her to be only of use as a maid and so had her trained to be a house servant and convinced her father to believe the same! And how wrong Caroline’s mother was. Thanks to her saviour of a brother Caroline was to go on to make a significant contribution to astronomy and pioneer the beginning of acceptance of women within the field.
At the age of 22, when William Herschel had settled himself in Bath, England as an organist in a church, he went home to Hanover for a visit and upon returning to England he took Caroline with him to run his household. But he included her within his musical work, teaching her to sing. She became so good she was the principal singer at William’s concerts. When William decided to pursue his interest in Astronomy and Caroline fully supported him as his assistant. Thus began a very fruitful working relationship between the brother and sister. Caroline became extremely skilled at calculations from observations, despite never learning her multiplications table. She was an excellent assistant who was quick, professional and concise with her records of her brothers, and her work. In 1781 Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, which resulted in him being given the job of the King’s Astronomer which meant he could devote all his time to his hobby. This became a blessing to Caroline as well, as when she discovered her first comet in 1786, known as the ‘First Lady’s comet,’ Herschel was able to secure a wage for Caroline for being his assistant. So not only was Caroline the first woman to discover a comet, she was also the first woman to be paid to be an astronomer, which is remarkable as this was also an age where even men found it difficult to secure a wage in the field. Caroline was beginning to gain the self-sustaining independence she had longed for. Caroline went on to discover eight comets in total as well as three nebulae she discovered before her first comet. Caroline secured her place in the history books and was bestowed with honors including a gold medal from the Astronomical society of London. She was also elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society 1835, along with Mary Somerville, making them the first female members. She even became an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy a few years later.
After the death of her beloved brother William, Caroline was distraught, and returned to her home of Hanover in Germany and it was there she died at the mammoth age of 97. Caroline truly helped banish ideas of judging a book by its covers and that the concept that a woman with no believed prospect of a marriage is not very important to be extremely foolish. I would feel it would be safe to say not only did Caroline make history with her own work and observations, but was vital to her brothers success as well. A true heroine of astronomy.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell – The Unsung Hero of Astronomy
Returning to the modern day and close to home, my next pioneering female astronomer definitely widely accepted to have suffered at the hands of some unfair treatment, but maybe more so due to hierarchy than her gender. Jocelyn Bell Burnell (nee Bell) was born in Belfast on 15 July 1943. Her father was actually an architect who was involved in designing Armagh Planetarium. From an early age she would read books on astronomy and when in Lurgan College Preparatory Department she became one of the first girls allowed to study the sciences, with the former curriculum including those of cross-stitching and cooking. Surprisingly she failed the 11+ exam at 11 and this resulted in her parents sending her to the Quaker’s boarding school of Mount School, York and it was here she really developed her love of Physics which she credits to her admiration for her physics teacher, Mr Tillott, who, in her own words, showed her “…how easy physics was.” She pursued this interest into University, Graduating from the University of Glasgow with a Physics degree and then a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, and it was here she made her most important discovery.
At Cambridge as a postgraduate research assistant working under Antony Hewish, Bell spent her first two years helping with the construction of a 81.5-megahertz radio telescope that was going to be used to help track quasars. The telescope became active in 1967 and at this point, Bell was still a research assistant but given the responsibility of operating the telescope and analysing the massive amounts of data produced by it (over 120 meters of chart paper) every 4 days. After a few weeks Bell noticed a strange marking in her readings, something she referred to as ‘scruff’ and found it to be a radio source that was far too fast and regular (1 pulse per second) to be the quasars that they were tracking. It was quaintly named the “Little Green Man” for a short while until the realisation dawned that this was a new class of object which would be called a pulsar, now known to be rapidly rotating neutron stars. Keep in mind that of over 120 meters of chart paper produced every four days, this strange occurrence was only 2.5cm of it, so this was not a simple, easy discovery, but proof of how hard Burnell was working and how intelligent she is for realising it to be something of importance.
Burnell had discovered the world’s first pulsar and her findings were published in Nature but it would be her adviser Antony Hewish and his Cambridge colleague Sir Martin Ryle who would receive the Nobel Prize in 1974 for the first discovery of pulsars! It became an outrage to many that Burnell was completely snubbed. There was a feeling that she at the least deserved to be included in the award since she was the one who discovered a whole new class of celestial object. She described over the years how Hewish had dismissed her persistent initial reports of the ‘scruff’ as being interference and being a man-made anomaly. But despite this obvious brush-off, Burnell has gone on to become a great astronomer who was a Professor of Physics at the Open University and a visiting professor at Princeton University in the United States. Before she retired she was also the Dean of Science at the University of Bath. Throughout her years she has promoted the profile of females in astronomy and strived for equality within the field. Despite he lack of recognition of her hard work and discovery, she seems to bear no grudges stating that disagreements between students and advisors always happen and essentially the success or failure of projects lies with the supervisor and that it would demean the Nobel Prize if it was given to research students, except in exceptional circumstances. But in my opinion that really was an exceptional circumstance and she, at the least, deserved a share in the award.
From just the lives of these three female astronomers we can see the difficulties that have plagued female astronomers for centuries, even in the modern age there were battles to be had to even allow females to study the sciences. But it has taught us all that despite the many hurdles that can face us, anything is possible. These are just three of the vast amount of female astronomers who have made massive contributions to astronomy, many of whom have faced similar restrictions that they had to overcome to reveal the vast and wondrous nature of our universe, and thanks to these women, equality in the profession is now the normality.
If you want to learn about more female astronomers click here.
(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)
Mya · January 14, 2021 at 23:45
those women should have been heard by other people more
Mya · January 14, 2021 at 23:44
Louise Cooper · December 17, 2016 at 19:47
Thank you so much for this information. I will be eighty next year and this is the first time I have read about them. Our young women need to know the history of these marvelous women.
Terry Moseley · February 4, 2014 at 13:01
A great article, and on a topic that needs more publicity. How about a follow-up on other notable females in astronomy?
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