Monday, September 14, 2015

Educator Mary Lyons Was a “Mother of the Republic

“Clear thought and self-directed action toward righteous ends.” Mary Lyons

Mary Lyons (1797-1849) drew strength and resolve from her very difficult early life and followed the path from teacher, to student to educator to realize her bold dream of a higher education institution for women.

Fighting the current theory that education was harmful to women, Mary was seen as subversive as she valiantly fundraised for two years to provide an “affordable” education for females.

In 1837, 80 students were admitted to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, MA. They were instructed to bring a Bible, an atlas, a dictionary and two spoons (a dessert and a larger spoon). 
Thousands of women owe Mary Lyon a debt that must be repaid in improving the world.

To learn more about this incredible woman, go to

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Women's Equality Day 2015

I know there are some who will object to this special day commemorating women being able to vote because there are some people who don't see women as equals. This very fact that there are these dissenters makes me want to celebrate the few steps to equality women have made.

We have Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY) to thank for this day becoming official. In 1971, she requested the U.S. Congress designate August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.”

The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

The history of this massive, peaceful civil rights movement is full of fascinating insights into how hard some individuals will work to hold on to their narrow views and how others will work even harder to change views in order to make a fairer society.

This movement had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York.

The observance of Women’s Equality Day not only commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also calls attention to women’s continuing efforts toward full equality. 

Were any of your grandmothers involved in the fight to get the vote for women?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Have you ever wondered how your neighbors view you?

Have you read the poetry of Emily Dickinson? I find it interesting to exam how the people during a person's life looks at an artist and how a future generation might view this artist with a different lens.

 "In 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd recorded her impressions of her mysterious Amherst neighbor. Emily Dickinson always wore white and had her hair arranged 'as was the fashion fifteen years ago.' 'She writes the strangest poems, and very remarkable ones,' Mrs. Todd noted in her journal, adding, 'She is in many respects a genius.'"

None of us would disagree that Emily Dickinson was a genius. Her remarkable poems are still being taught in schools. Since Dickinson lived the majority of her adult life in seclusion, one wonders how she could write such worldly material. When she died in 1886, her sister asked Mabel Todd to copy and edit the poems. In 1890 the first volume was published and the world discovered Emily Dickinson.

Would love to hear your views.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Some Things Never Change - Louisa May Alcott

Most of us have had bad times in our lives when we didn't know if we could go on or if we even wanted to go on but to find out that a creative talent like Louisa May Alcott had even considered suicide is a big surprise for me.

I am very jealous of her for her opportunity of living in such a time that she would have access to such incredible people as "Elizabeth Peabody boarded with the Alcotts, and John Brown’s daughter lived with them after Brown was hanged. Nathanael Hawthorne was a neighbor who didn’t get along with her father, Henry David Thoreau was her schoolteacher and Ralph Waldo Emerson lived next door. Bronson Alcott’s teaching assistants included Margaret Fuller and Dorothea Dix."

This quote is from the New England Historical Society. They do a really great job of promoting an interest in history. Read their full profile of Louisa May Alcott at

Monday, May 18, 2015

We Owe a Debt of Thanks to Dorothea Dix

Two things to be thankful for this morning:

1) Dorothea Dix and her campaign to get the mentally ill people out of jail. It is obvious that her work was very successful. What is not obvious is whether we are doing a good job of not sending mental illness people to prisons today.

2) The Massachusetts Humanities through Mass Moments keeps reminding us of all the great women who came before us and made the world a better place for us. Check out this article on Dorothea.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

History Buffs: Great Beach Reads

It is that time of year again where we can sneak away with a good book, find a quiet corner of beach and immerse ourselves in the exploits of those brave souls who came before us.

Looking for ideas? Here are some enticing titles:

While you are at it, try being a regular reader of the The Junto history blog. Great stuff.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Delilah L. Beasley (1867-1934)

Delilah L. Beasley (1867-1934)
Historian and Newspaper Columnist
At her memorial service, which was a testament
to her life-long crusade for justice, 
all attending stood and made the following pledge—
Every life casts it shadow, my life plus others make power to move the world. 
I, therefore pledge my life to the living work of brotherhood
and material understanding between the races. 
Delilah L. Beasley was the first African American woman to be regularly published in a major metropolitan newspaper and the first author to present the history of African Americans in early California.

Growing up in Ohio, Beasley started writing social columns for black and white newspapers while still a teenager. After her parents’ deaths, she sought a career path that would better support her younger siblings, working as a hairdresser, massage therapist, nurse, and maid for many years. In 1910 she moved to Oakland California where she immersed herself in the local black community and again started writing articles in local newspapers.

 In 1915 Beasley started writing a weekly column in the Oakland Tribune. Her articles protested the stereotypes contained in the movie The Birth of a Nation. Through a column called “Activities among Negroes,” she campaigned for African-American dignity and rights.  Highlighting activities of local churches, women’s clubs, literary societies, along with national politics, and achievements of black men and women, her column aimed to give all readers a positive picture of the black community and demonstrate the capabilities of African Americans.

Deeply interested in the history of black Californians, Beasley trained herself in archival research and oral histories. In 1919 she self-published The Negro Trail-Blazers of California, a groundbreaking book chronicling the lives of hundreds of black Californians from the pioneer period through the early 20thcentury.

Her book included an unprecedented amount of Black women’s history, focusing on the strong roles women played in their communities and featuring countless biographies of women leaders. 

In the thirties, Beasley was the driving force behind the passage California’s first anti-lynching bill.  She continued her column and was active in the community until her death in 1934.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 12 SUMMARY

Even though Pickering’s objective was to pay as little as possible, he created unprecedented opportunities for a generation of female astronomers.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer who came to the observatory after the women in this series and was a female professor at Harvard University, describes how difficult but rewarding a career at Harvard could be:
“On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage. It is a tale of low salary, lack of status, slow advancement. But I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams have predicted 50 years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.”1
A Boston Globe reporter concluded in 1893, “These young women deal with difficult problems quite as successfully as do the men in other observatories. To be sure, not all women are capable of working in this field for the work demands special mental qualities.”
“In American Astronomy, the dual labor market that emerged by the end of the nineteenth century relegated women to the lower tier or secondary labor markets, thus sharply restricting their chances for mobility. At the same time men’s perception of women as scientists denied them access in power and in the reward system.”2
Because of forerunners such as Henrietta, Mina and Annie, today nearly half of all astronomy graduate students in the United States are women.

Whether reading or writing women’s history, it is often hard to get beyond the unfair limitations and low compensation given them to see their strength in refusing to let such unfairness stop them from accomplishing their goals. One has to wonder what other discoveries these brilliant women would have made without these restrictions.

The three scientists were actually at the Harvard Observatory at the same time.
Williamina Paton Fleming – 1881 – 1911 (30 years)
Henrietta Swan Leavitt – 1893 – 1921 (28 years)
Annie Jump Cannon – 1896 – 1941 (45 years)

1Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: an Autobiography and other Recollections. (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 227

2Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 358

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Timeline of Annie Jump Cannon's Career

When tracing the progression of Annie’s career from when she joined the “computers” by cataloguing her awards and accomplishments, it is astounding that it was not until 1938 Harvard finally recognized her as an astronomer and a professor.

1884 – Annie graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in physics.

1893 – Annie’s pamphlet of prose and photographs, “In the Footsteps of Columbus” were published and distributed at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.

1896 – Annie Jump Cannon became a “computer” at Harvard College Observatory.

1911 – Annie took over the duties as Curator of Astronomical Photographs

1916 – Annie directed the fellowship given to Pickering by Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association.

1918 – Annie considered the first person to systematically classify the heavens.

1921 – Annie was the first to receive an honorary doctorate in astronomy from the University of Groningen, Netherlands.

1925 – Annie received the first honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford to be awarded to a woman.

1931 – Hard work paid off when Annie was the first woman to receive Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences.

1932  - Annie won the Ellen Richards Research Prize of the Association to Aid Scientific Research for Women

1933 – With the funds from her research prize, stablished the Annie Jump Cannon Award, which is given to a North American female astronomer for contributions to astronomy.

1938 – Annie appointed to the Harvard faculty, when she was named William Cranch Bond Professor of Astronomy.\

1940 – Annie officially retired but continued to research.

By her death in 1941, Annie had been classifying stars at the rate of up to 300 per hour culminating in 350,000 classified stars.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 10

 “Although she encountered the same discrimination that challenged other women of her time, Cannon was a deaf woman during the heyday of Social Darwinism, and she faced additional attitudinal barriers to her advancement and professional recognition;…”1

Here is the perfect example: “In 1923 Raymond Pearl corresponded with E. B. Wilson, Harvard School of Public Health on the question of electing a woman, in general, and the fitness of astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, in particular. Both agreed that her scientific accomplishments were more than sufficient for the honor, but Pearl, a eugenicist, said he could not vote for her because she was deaf. It was hard enough, he joked, to run the Academy meeting with the misfits already there without adding any more ‘physical defectives’! But it was not up to Pearl or Wilson to nominate her. That was the task of the astronomy section of the Academy which never did put her name forward (not one woman astronomer was elected to the Academy until 1978).”2

John Lankford and Ricky L. Slavings in American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, talk about how men were able to detach women from progress: “Frequently, the isolation of women resulted from the dual action of men.”3

An example of this is when a major career decision was made for Annie without her input or approval. “William Wallace Campbell wrote to acting HCO director Solon I. Bailey concerning the appointment of Annie Jump Cannon as a member of the American delegation to the first meeting of the International Astronomical Union.”4

Campbell was not worried about the other delegates welcoming her, but his worry was “’I do not feel like encouraging her as she would be the only woman on the delegation and probably the only woman of the meeting… I fear she would not feel at home.’”5

Who can say what she might have learned or what knowledge she might have shared with the other delegates.

Cannon had a more positive outlook on the opportunities for women to advance in a career. In addressing her fiftieth Wellesley class reunion “Cannon insisted that ‘the chances were really excellent in those days… the roads were not crowded.’ Cannon’s views were colored by her own remarkable talent and good fortune. In fact, the chances for a satisfying career in science depended on the gender of the intending scientist.”6

“This makes Annie Cannon a complicated figure – a feminist and traditionalist in one.”7
1Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 67.
2Margaret W. Rossiter. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 19940. (Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1982) 286.
 3, 4, 5, 6John Lankford, Ricky L. Slavings. American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859-1940. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 333-34, 322.

7Julie Des Jardins. The Madame Curie Complex: The hidden history of women in science. (New York: Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2010), 96

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 9

After her graduation, during her travels, Annie had a bout of scarlet fever, losing some of her hearing. “She experienced a progressive loss of hearing that became very severe by middle age.”1

Annie was not happy with her life after her travels were over. “I am sometimes very dissatisfied with my life here. I do want to accomplish something, so badly. There are so many things that I could do if I only had the money. And when I think that I might be reaching and making money, and still all the time improving myself it makes me feel unhappy and as if I were not doing all that I can.”2

Annie did not settle for doing nothing. In 1894, after her mother’s death, Annie returned to the physics department at Wellesley to work as an assistant. At the same time, she took advanced astronomy classes at Radcliffe.

This led to her being hiring by Pickering to be one of his “computers.”

In 1916, The Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association presented to Pickering a fellowship of which the income was to be awarded to a graduate of a woman’s college, who planned on working in astronomical research. The holder of the fellowship worked under the direction of Annie, “one of the only two women, outside of England, who have ever been made members of the Royal Society.”3

In 1932, Annie won the Ellen Richards Prize of the Association to Aid Scientific Research by Women. This prize emphasized “the best thesis, written by a woman, on a scientific subject – a thesis embodying new observations and new conclusions based on independent laboratory research.” She donated this prize of $1,000 to the American Astronomical Society to support women astronomers.

While working as a “computer” researcher, Annie traveled frequently charming audiences with her enthusiastic lectures on the field astronomy. Her enthusiasm inspired many to pursue careers in astronomy.

Next we’ll look at the discrimination she faced and overcame.

1Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 63.

3The Journal of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, Volume X, September, 1916-June 1917. (Ithaca, N.Y.: The Association of Collegiate Alumnae, 1917) 341

Monday, February 2, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 8

The female scientists, or human “computers” as they were referred to, held the title of assistants not astronomers according to Harvard University’s rules at the time. Obviously, Henrietta felt she deserved the title. “A possible insight into Henrietta’s private thoughts is offered by her reply to a census taker who, in January 1920, the year before her death, asked her to state her occupation. There might have been a hint of defiant pride in her answer, ‘Astronomer’.”1

Henrietta’s proof of a direct correlation between the time it took a star to go from bright to dim to how bright it actually was helped other astronomers, such as Edwin Hubble and Edward Pickering, to make their own groundbreaking discoveries.

After her death on December 2, 1921, the observatory was approached about nominating Henrietta for the 1926 Nobel Prize in physics but she was not nominated because the prize is not awarded posthumously. At that time, Pickering’s replacement Harlow Shapley tried to take credit for her discoveries saying that the real work was his interpretation of her notes.

After Williamina Paton Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon took over the duties as Curator of Astronomical Photographs in 1911, along with the work of the Henry Draper Catalog. Annie had come to the crew of “computers” in 1896.

Annie Jump Cannon was born in 1863 to Wilson Lee Cannon, a successful shipbuilder and state senator, and Mary Elizabeth Jump.  Annie had learned her love of the stars from her mother. She spent many hours with her mother in the attic in their homemade observatory.

At the age of 16, Annie entered Wellesley College, where the distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, Sarah F. Whiting, mentored her. Sarah had, in turn, been mentored by Edward Pickering. Annie was valediction at her graduation from Wellesley College in 1884, with a degree in physics.
In my next blog, we will look at what happened to this young intelligent woman.

1 (Accessed January 20, 2015)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 7

As we continue to learn about Henrietta’s research, we see she produced numerous advances in the field. Henrietta discovered a means to not only identify, but rank the magnitudes of stars using photographic plates. Henrietta discovered a way by which astronomers became better able to accurately measure extra galactic distances known as the period-luminosity relation. She also discovered more variable stars than any other astronomer of her time.

Pickering soon promoted Henrietta to department head of the photographic photometry (science of measuring the brightness of stars). In 1912, Henrietta, by comparing different photographs of the same variable star, especially those stars of the “Cepheid” type that had bright-dim cycle periods, established that the slower the blink time the more light or brightness the star contained.

The Cepheid research excited Henrietta, but Pickering hired her to do a specific job, and would not allow her or the other “computers” to veer from their assigned tasks. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who never knew Leavitt, felt that by not giving Henrietta full rein to explore her passion for variable stars, “condemned a brilliant scientist to uncongenial work, and probably set back the study of variable stars for several decades.”1

“…it ruthlessly relegated Miss Leavitt to the drudgery of fundamental photometry when her real interest lay in the variable stars that she had begun to discover in the Magellanic Clouds.”2

"What a variable-star 'fiend' Miss Leavitt is," wrote Charles Young of Princeton in a letter to Pickering. "One can't keep up with the roll of the new discoveries."3

One of Henrietta’s discoveries concerned the redness of stars. She found that fainter stars were usually redder than brighter ones. This led her to question “whether the light was possibly reddened by interstellar absorption.”4

1George Johnson. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005), 91.
2Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: an Autobiography and other Recollections. (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 145.

4Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 221.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 6

(NOTE: You will note that this series of blogs on female astronomers are heavily cited. I have two reasons for giving the reader these citations. 1) I am not a scientist and I often use the words of others to be sure I am giving correct information. 2) I am hoping some readers will have enough interest to go to these cites and find additional information.)

As we continue learning about Henrietta Swan Leavitt, I want to challenge the oft-cited information that she was profoundly deaf. Although it is in almost all sources referring to Henrietta, it is not proven by any citation. The claim is that she became profoundly deaf from an illness she suffered right after her graduation.  There is no evidence of that because she could still hear when she took the position with Pickering. “My friends say, and I recognize the truth of it, that my hearing is not nearly as good when absorbed in astronomical work,” Henrietta wrote to Edward Pickering in a letter.1 It is more likely she lost her hearing progressively during her career.

“She worked diligently away at her job, even as her hearing slowly failed and her health began to suffer.” 2

Since both Henrietta and Annie Jump Cannon suffered illnesses right after graduating college, it is possible she has been confused with Annie, who did lose her hearing from a bout with scarlet fever.
At the time Henrietta began, there was no standard for determining magnitudes. “Leavitt devised a system, using ‘the north polar sequence’ as a gage of brightness for stars during her investigations.”3

Henrietta’s discovery of the period-luminosity during her study of the Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds proved “The longer the time required for the star to go from maximum brightness through its faintest phase back to maximum again, the brighter the star is.”4

The scientific community recognized and adopted this new system as an important standard. In 1913, the International Committee on Photographic Magnitudes adopted Henrietta’s system.

More Monday about Henrietta and the milestones she left behind in the annals of astronomy.

1George Johnson. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005), 31.
2 (Accessed January 20, 2015)
3 (accessed January 20, 2015).

4James Pickering, 1001 Questions Answered about Astronomy. (Guildford and London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 173, 175.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 5

Annie Cannon, an astronomer we will hear more about in upcoming blogs, said of Mina, “Industrious by nature, she was seldom idle, and long years of observatory work never unfitted her for the domestic side of life. As much at home with the needle as with the magnifying eyepiece, she could make a dainty bag, exquisitely sewed, or dress a doll in complete Scotch Highland costume. She was never too tired to welcome her friends at her home or at the observatory, with that quality of human sympathy, which is sometimes lacking among women engaged in scientific pursuits. Her bright face, her attractive manner, and her cheery greeting with its charming Scotch accent, will long be remembered by even the most casual visitors to the Harvard College Observatory.”1

Of course, Mina’s most important work published was the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra in 1890, but she also published A Photographic Study of Variable Stars in 1907, Spectra and Photographic Magnitudes of Stars in Standard Regions in 1911, and Stars Having Peculiar Spectra was published in the Annals of Harvard College Observatory in 1912, after her death.2

In 1906, Mina became the first American woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in London. Soon after, she was appointed honorary fellow in astronomy of Wellesley College. Shortly before her death, The Astronomical Society of Mexico awarded her the Guadalupe Almendaro medal for her discovery of new stars. Mina died of pneumonia on May 21, 1911, still doing the work she loved.

Even though, a non-astronomical minded person (such as myself) might not understand the importance of these discoveries, it is quite evident Mina should be honored for being one of the first in her field and paving the way for other women.

Nearby, in her senior year at the Society for the Collegiate Instruction for Women, (which later became Radcliffe College), Henrietta Swan Leavitt became interested in astronomy. Health problems kept her from joining Pickering’s crew for some time after graduation but finally in 1893, when she was 25 years old, she arrived at the observatory as a volunteer wanting to learn more about astronomy. Her knowledge thus far had been classes she took after graduation before she became ill.

In 1902, Pickering hired Henrietta to be one of his “computers.” The job paid $10.50 a week. The environment at the observatory was cold and damp, not the best place for someone who already had health problems.

1Annie J. Cannon, “Minor Contributions and Notes. Williamina Paton Fleming,” The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 34 (July 1911), 314-317.

2 (accessed December, 29, 2014).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 4

In her journal on March 12, 1900, Mina chafed against the inequalities at the observatory. “He seems to think no work is too much or too hard for me no matter what the responsibility or how long the hours. But let me raise the question of salary and I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand.”1

Actually, no one at the observatory made very much money. I have not been able to find a salary figure for the period in 1900 that Mina is journaling about but I feel sure it would have risen in her twenty-year experience from the $10.50 a week she earned as a starting “computer,” in 1881. Even Pickering, who worked very long hours, only made sixty-five dollars a week.

Mina, like women before and after, struggled with equating compensation with quality of work. On April 18, 1900, her journal entry regarding her March 12th comments: “I do not intend this to reflect on the Director’s judgment, but feel that it is due to his lack of knowledge regarding the salaries received by women in responsible positions elsewhere. I am told that my services are very valuable to the Observatory but when I compare the compensation with that received by women elsewhere I feel that my work cannot be of much account.”2

Even though, Mina could get very frustrated with Pickering, from the very beginning, she admired him immensely. She even named her only son Edward Pickering Fleming.3

As with the other human “computers,” Mina in her diary expressed impatience with not being able to do the exact work she loved. “If one could only go on and on with original work, looking to new stars, variables, classifying spectra and studying their peculiarities and changes, life would be a most beautiful dream; but you come down to its realities when you have to put all that is most interesting to you aside, in order to use most of your available time preparing the work of others for publication. However, ‘whatsoever thou puttest thy hand to, do it well.’”4

1 Harvard University Archives. Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming, March 12, 1900.  Page 18. (accessed January 12, 2015).
2 Harvard University Archives. Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming, April 18, 1900.  Page 22. (accessed January 12, 2015).
3Darlene R. Stille. Extraordinary Women Scientists. (Chicago: Children’s Press, 1995), 69.
4 Harvard University Archives. Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming, March 5, 1900.  Pages 9-10. (accessed January 12, 2015).

4George Johnson. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005). 87.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 3

When we left Mina, she had just been hired to be a human “computer” at the Harvard Observatory.

Some years before Mina’s exploration into the field of astronomy, Henry Draper directed an expedition to photograph the 1874 transit of Venus, and was the first to photograph the Orion Nebula, and the spectrum of Jupiter in 1880.

After Draper’s death in 1882, his widow funded the Henry Draper Medal for outstanding contributions to astrophysics. The Harvard Observatory used these funds to prepare the Henry Draper Catalog of stellar spectra, which are the pattern of lines caused by the dispersion of a star’s light through a prism placed before a telescope lens. This project would define Mina career.

It is left to question whether Mina assisted Pickering in developing a new system to catalogue the plates so they would be easily accessible and the data readily available, or if she developed the system herself as many sources state.1

This classification system, known as the Pickering-Fleming system, divided the stars into classes based on complexity of the spectrum lines. Using the system, Mina classified the tens of thousands of celestial photographs taken for the Draper Memorial.

For 30 years, Mina collaborated on the analysis of stellar spectrum photographs. While Mina was busy at her cataloging work, she discovered 79 stars, 10 novae, 59 gaseous nebulae, 9r Wolf-Rayet stars, and 222 long-period variables. She is also noted for her discovery of the Horsehead Nebula, a dark nebula in the constellation Orion, which is 1500 light years from us. I cannot even think in those distances.

In 1898 Mina was the first woman to receive the appointment of Curator of Astronomical Photographs. With this appointment came a tremendous amount of responsibility.

“In 1910 Fleming published her discovery of “white dwarfs” –hot, dense compact stars, usually white or bluish in color, which are in what is believed to be their final evolutionary stage.”2

In the next blog, we will see more of Mina’s accomplishments in the field of astronomy.

2Phyllis J. Read, Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women’s Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women. (New York: Random House, 1992), 159

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 2

As we continue exploring how women became so important to the study of astronomy, we must remember that because today we have so much information about the stars shining above us that it is easy to forget that most of that knowledge was discovered in the last century.

Until the early nineteenth century, even astronomers thought that the Milky Way was the extent of our universe. Referring to a story about how residents in a village triangulated distance, George Johnson said, “We were like the villagers in the canyon. Then we discovered a new way to measure.”1

As discussed in Part 1, Edward Pickering, Director of the Harvard Observatory, wanted his human “computers” to use the photographs provided by the Great Refractor to measure precisely the brightness (a clue to distance) and color (a clue to composition) of every star in the sky. A monumental undertaking. They were to do this by studying photographic plates of star collections.

Scottish-born Williamina (Mina) Patton Stevens Fleming, came to Boston from Scotland with her husband James, who abandoned her. This left Mina alone in a strange country, pregnant with no means to support herself. Pickering hired Mina as his housekeeper.

There is an unsubstantiated story about why Pickering hired Mina to work at the observatory. Supposedly, Pickering became so frustrated with an unsatisfactory male assistant that he said, “My housekeeper could do a better job.” If he, indeed , said this, he was right. I would hope it was at least partly because Pickering found her to be intelligent enough to do the work.

In the fall of 1879, Mina returned to Scotland to give birth to her son. In 1881, she became a permanent employee of the observatory.

In the next blog, we will look at what Mina was able to accomplish as a single-parent, housekeeper and astronomer.

1George Johnson. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005). 8.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 1

(Note: This is the beginning of a series of blogs about female astronomers who made history. I invite you to come along on the journey through the universe, with the sincere wish that you will ask questions and make comments.)

Have you ever looked up at a clear sparking night sky and considered counting the stars? I would never consider such a huge undertaking but many women, with scientific minds, did.

Galileo’s work on amplification in order to view the stars advanced by huge leaps in the late 19th century with the use of the Great Refractor in the new Harvard College Observatory, run by young physicist Edward Charles Pickering. Now in retirement, the Harvard telescope in 1847 was one of the most powerful in the world. The telescope came to be because of the embarrassment of the wealthier citizens of Boston when Harvard did not have a telescope strong enough to join in the excitement of the March 1843 comet.

With the potential discoveries this new refractor provided, the Harvard Observatory embarked on a project to catalog the position, color and brightness of every star in the sky. Pickering, director, from 1877 to 1919, needed bright, meticulous and dedicated human number crunchers he called “computers” to do thousands of complex astronomical computations that followed a painstaking process of manually counting and computing the images revealed in thousands of photographs of star fields. AND he needed them to work for low wages.

“A great savings may be effectuated by employing unskilled and therefore inexpensive labor, of course under careful supervision,” Pickering reasoned.1 

Women accepted this challenge because it provided them an avenue into the field of astronomy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Paton Fleming were three of these women.

1George Johnson. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005). 18.