Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Next time someone asks "How come there's never been a woman president?" remember this story. It's not from politics, but it gives an idea of how recently it is that even privileged American women had anything resembling access to the roles they wanted to pursue.

Cecilia Payne, born in England in 1900, showed promise in her early schooling, but her widowed mother could only pay for one of her children to go to University, so she sent Cecilia's brother. Despite this, Payne won a scholarship to Cambridge. "She completed her studies in astronomy, but was not awarded a degree because of her sex; Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948." (All quotes are from the Wikipedia entry linked above.)

Payne left England for the U.S. in 1923 after winning a graduate fellowship to study at Radcliffe (better known to the men of the time as Harvard). She was the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe.

Her dissertation made the then-ground-breaking claim that "helium and particularly hydrogen were vastly more abundant" in the Sun and stars than they are in the Earth. "Her thesis thus established that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of the stars."

Was she lauded, or even acknowledged, for this finding? No. "When Payne's dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell dissuaded her from concluding that the composition of the Sun is different from that of the Earth, contradicting the accepted wisdom at the time. However, he changed his mind four years later after deriving the same result by different means. After Payne was proven correct, Russell was often given the credit..."

She continued her work at the Harvard Observatory, and married a fellow astronomer in 1933. Together, they had three children, and she produced a large volume of work:
After her doctorate, Payne then studied stars of high luminosity in order to understand the structure of the Milky Way. Later she surveyed all the stars brighter than the tenth magnitude. She then studied variable stars, making over 1,250,000 observations with her assistants. This work later was extended to the Magellanic Clouds, adding a further 2,000,000 observations of variable stars. These data were used to determine the paths of stellar evolution. Her observations and analysis, with her husband, of variable stars laid the basis for all subsequent work on them.
I'm sure all of that was fulfilling. Did she get recognition for it? Not so much, or at least not for a long time.
At first, she had no official position [at Harvard], merely serving as a technical assistant to [the observatory director] from 1927 to 1938. At one point she considered leaving Harvard because of her low status and poor salary. However, [the director] made efforts to improve her position, and in 1938 she was given the title of "Astronomer." She later asked to have this title changed to Phillips Astronomer. None of the courses she taught at Harvard were recorded in the catalogue until 1945.

When Donald Menzel became Director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1954, he tried to improve her appointment, and in 1956 she became the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.
In the long run, Payne-Gaposchkin got from her institution what a man of her talent and output would have gotten 20 years earlier. She overcame huge hurdles of discrimination to even get to the point where that was possible.

And I know that I'm not exactly a fan girl when it comes to astronomy, but I never heard of her until last week.


Photo from the Smithsonian archives via the Wikimedia Commons

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