Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Guiding Stars in Astronomy: Williamina Fleming

In celebration of the solar eclipse later this month, I am sharing stories of amazing women in astronomy in my series of Guiding Stars in Astronomy. Today's post shares the story of Scottish-American astronomer Williamina Fleming, who went from being a single mother working as a maid to one of the most proficient astronomers of the late-19th century.

Image of Williamina Fleming with the text: Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911) A Scottish-American astronomer, who went from being a single mother working as a maid to one of the most proficient astronomers of the late-19th century. She discovered over 10,000 stars and other astronomical phenomena.

Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911)

Image of Williamina Fleming wearing a spectacular hatWilliamina Fleming was the first member of the all-female team of Harvard computers, the women who calculated so many of the early astronomical discoveries and who are just now beginning to get the attention they deserve.

Williamina didn't set out to have a career in astronomy. She married James Fleming in Scotland in 1877, and when she was 21 they emigrated to Boston, where shortly thereafter he abandoned her with their small child, leaving her to fend for them both. She'd worked as a teacher before, but as a single mother, she was ineligible for any teaching position -- those were only for men and unmarried women. Instead, she took a position as a maid.

It was a placement that turned out to be a happy accident that changed the course of her life. Her employer happened to be Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory. She performed her duties efficiently, and earned his respect as a housekeeper. He was having trouble with the computers he'd hired to process astronomical data, running the seemingly endless computations needed to analyze the information from the photographs taken with the observatory's telescope. Frustrated with them one day, he scoffed, "My Scottish maid could do better!"

As it turns out, she could. In 1881 he taught her how to analyze stellar spectra -- the emissions of the stars they were studying -- as shown on the photographic plates, and to make the necessary calculations to understand what they were looking at. By 1886, she was in charge of a large group of women hired to run these calculations -- the Harvard calculators, as they've come to be known. Many of them are some of the brightest women in astronomical history, such as Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Anonia Maury.

Image of several women studying photographs or making notes, with Williamina Fleming and a man (Edward Pickering?) overseeing their work. Photo Caption: Williamina Fleming (standing) presides over women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, 1891. Photo source: Harvard University Archives.
Harvard Computers hard at work. Photo Caption: Williamina Fleming (standing) presides over women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, 1891. Photo source: Harvard University Archives.

She devised one of the earliest systems for classifying stars, using the information about their relative amount of hydrogen observed in their spectra. It was a brilliant beginning of trying to organize stars by type, and was the predecessor for Annie Jump Cannon's classification system later on.

Over the next nine years, she catalogued more than 10,000 stars and other astronomical phenomena -- a significant contribution to the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra, published in 1890, a substantial project undertaken by Pickering in honor of his predecessor Henry Draper to survey of the sky and to catalogue the stars. Perhaps her most notable discovery was the Horsehead Nebula in 1888, although there were many more discoveries over the next 20 years. She became so well respected in the astronomical field she was the first American woman to be named as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1906.

Her outstanding contribution to astronomy is even more remarkable when you consider that, unlike many of her computer colleagues, she never studied astronomy. In response to her skillful research she was given the position as Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard in 1899, a role she cherished. She continued her research until her death in 1911, discovering an astounding 310 variable stars, as well as 10 novae and 52 nebulae. In 1910 it was her research that led to the discovery of the first white dwarf star.

You can read her journal on the Harvard University Archives.

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