Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Famous Astronomoms: Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin

I read about Ada Lovelace Day on Thesis with Children on March 25th. Ada Lovaelcae Day is March 24th. It's a day when bloggers are asked to blog about women in technology who have inspired them. So I missed it by over a week, but better late than never....

I decided anyway to take a different twist on it - so here is my first article in what might turn into a series on famous women astronomers who also happen to be mothers.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin (1900-1979)

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin is famous for the work she did in the early 1920s at the Harvard College Observatory on the classification of stellar spectra. For her PhD research under Harlow Shapley she used ionization theory to re-order the then alphabetical (based on the strength of the Halpha line) stellar classifications into the famous OBAFGKM which orders star types by temperature. Incidentally she also proved that the Sun was mostly made of hydrogen.

She was born in the UK on May 10th 1900, the daughter of a London Barrister. However her father died when she was only 4 years old, so her mother raised her (and her two siblings) alone. She won a scholarship to attend Cambridge University (Newnam College) in 1919, reading Natural Sciences. During her time in Cambridge a lecture given by Eddington (on his 1919 expedition to Africa to test the gravitational deflection of light by observing stars near the Sun during a solar eclipse) inspired her to study Astronomy further. At the time Cambridge admitted women, but would not grant them degrees, so doctoral studies for her in England seemed out of the question. However things were opening up more in the US, and she had attended a lecture by Dr. Harlow Shapley (the Director of the Harvard College Observatory) in 1922. She wrote to Dr. Shapley asking if it would be possible to study under him at Harvard (under the advice of Eddington). The Harvard College Observatory had just started a graduate program in astronomy, and even had a special fellowship to encourage women to study. Then then Miss Payne became the second student to win this fellowship and travelled to the US in 1923. She was the first person to be granted a PhD. in astronomy from Harvard (in 1925) - although this was because the Physics department refused to grant a PhD to a woman so the Department of Astronomy was created to get around this!

She met her husband Sergei Gaposhkin while on holiday in Europe in 1932. He was a Russian Astronomer in Nazi Germany and having a very difficult time, so to help him out she found him a position at Harvard. They were married less than 2 years later in 1934. They had 3 children together, Edward, Katherine and Peter. Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin continued to study astronomy her whole life, remaining at Harvard. She was a technical assistant to Shapley from 1927-1938, and became frustrated at her low pay and status at the university. Shapley persuaded them to give her the title of "astronomer" in 1938, but it wasn't until 1956 (when Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin was 56 years old) that further intervention from the Observatory Director (then Donald Menzel) persuaded Harvard to make her a full-professor, and in fact the first female professor of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin was a trail blazer for women in astronomy, and only incidentally was also a mother (although presumably that's not how her children saw it!). I researched this article only online, but I'm now inspired to try to read her autobiography - The Dyer's Hand to learn more of the details, in particular about her life after having her children. Her career progression was incredibly slow and frustrating, even after her seminal early work - without which she clearly would not have been able to stay in Astronomy at all. She wrote in her auto-biography "I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery towards an unexpected goal."


Mrs. CH said...

Great post! I look forward to reading about more famous female astronomers :)

Astronomum said...


Cynthia said...

Interesting story! I didn't know that the Harvard physics dept. wasn't offering PhD's to women in 1925; my grandmother, Charlotte Perry, was the second woman to receive a PhD in physics from Harvard, in 1932. It looks like, from that the first woman received hers in 1930 - the family story goes that my grandmother could have been the first, but she took two years off for a cross-country drive with my grandfather, a math professor at MIT whom she'd met there while doing her master's degree. But it sounds like there must have been barriers in the department as well.

There certainly weren't many professional doors open to a woman with a physics / astronomy PhD in those days; it's interesting and heartening to hear that Payne-Gaposhkin did eventually work her way to a faculty position after years without recognition. My grandmother spent a number of years looking for a position after receiving her degree, but was unable to find much as far as I know - she had children 6 years post PhD and basically left the field, helping edit and write the problems for math textbooks that my grandfather wrote and using her chemistry knowledge to tend a huge organic garden. She died 10 years ago at age 95 while I was in my second year of graduate study - I often wish that I could ask her more questions now that I have perspective about the difficulties that women in astronomy still face!

Astronomum said...

What an interesting story. Thanks for sharing your grandmother's perspective. Cecilia was not able to get a PhD from the Harvard Physics department - in 1925 they flat out refused to give one to a woman, so the Harvard Astronomy Dept. was created in order to grant her her well deserved PhD (it has been called the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in Astronomy). Nice to hear that only 7 years later they were willing to grant your grandmother one. Although a pity that your grandmother was not able to stay in science. Since the extraordinarily brilliant Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin had so much trouble, it's pretty clear that so many other very talented women must have just given up. What a loss to science.