Book highlights women's contributions to astronomy

Jan 1, 2017

Harvard Observatory in 1899.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

National Geographic recently published an interview with the author of a book about the many women who made contributions to astronomy.

Dava Sobel, author of ‘The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars,’ told National Geographic that women who excel at math and science are nothing new to the field of observing the stars and space and said her book shows the influence women have had on astronomy, even back to late 1800s, when as many as 20 women at a time were working at Harvard Observatory.  

Sobel said the first woman to use the telescopes at the observatory, which prior to had only been operated by men, was Annie Jump Cannon in 1896. Cannon went on to create a stellar classification system, the Henry Draper Catalogue, still used today.

Henry Draper’s wife, Anna Palmer Draper, is also considered a major contributor to astronomy, but much of hers was monetary.

Henry Draper was a physician who was also a serious amateur astronomer and trained his wife to be his assistant, as he focused his attention on spectroscopy – splitting up the stars’ slight with a prism that allows one to view patterns of light – which helped determine the makeup of stars, among other things.

After he died from a sudden illness, Anna Draper, who had planned to use her family fortune to support her husband’s work, instead donated it to the Harvard Observatory, creating the Henry Draper Memorial, which involved photographing the sky through the night in both hemispheres.

Another woman, Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming, a Scottish schoolteacher who immigrated to the U.S. after marrying at a young age, started at the Harvard Observatory as a maid, but the laboratory’s director, Edward Pickering, soon realized that Fleming was highly intelligent and started having her do copying work and taught her how to do calculations, Sobel said.

Pickering later put Fleming in charge of analyzing photographs and she set up the Henry Draper Catalogue, later improved upon by Cannon, said Sobel. Fleming went on to be the Curator of the Astro-Photographic Collection at Harvard University, making her the first woman to hold an official title at the school.