Sunday, May 15, 2011

Williamina Fleming

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming was born on May 15, 1857 in Dundee, Scotland to Robert Stevens and Mary Walker. Her father was made gilded picture frames and furniture and died when she was seven. "Mina", as she was called, attended public schools in Dundee and did well in school, advancing to become a student teacher when she was 14. In 1877, she married James Orr Fleming and they emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts. Fleming abandoned his pregnant bride and when she looked for domestic work she was hired by Edward C. Pickering, the head of the Harvard Observatory to clean his home.

In 1880, Pickering was working on a project to classify stars based on their spectra and became upset with the low quality work produced by the young man he hired to do the work. Legend is that Pickering declared that his Scottish maid could do a better job and when she was given the chance she excelled. Fleming had the ability to separate stellar spectra based on their characteristics and do the calculations necessary to determine a star's position. She was made a permanent employee of the observatory in 1881 and was put in charge of the star project in 1886.

She and Pickering devised a system to classify stars based on their spectra and published in 1890. When Pickering wanted to make larger catalog of stars he put Fleming in charge of the group of women he hired to do the calculations. In addition to her work on stellar catalogs, Fleming also was the first to identify that variable stars, stars whose light intensity brightened and dimmed regularly over time, could be identified by bright lines in their spectra. In 1907 she published a list of 222 variable stars, many of which she discovered. During her work she discovered 59 gaseous nebula, over 310 variable stars, and 10 novae.

At the time, Fleming was the foremost women astronomer in America. In 1906, she became the first American woman (and the sixth woman overall) to be made a honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Other honors she received include the Guadalupe Almendaro medal, given by the Astronomical Society of Mexico, for the discovery of new stars and she was made an honorary fellow in astronomy by Wellesly College. She also has a crater on the moon jointly named for her and Alexander Fleming.

She died of pneumonia on May 21, 1911 at the age of 54.


Yount, Lisa; "Fleming, Williamina Paton Stevens" in A to Z of Women in Math and Science; Infobase Publishing; 2008

H. H. M.; Obituary in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society(1912)72:261-264

Williamina Fleming Wikipedia entry

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cecilia Payne-Gaboschkin

Cecilia Helena Payne was born on May 10, 1900 in Wendover, England. Her father (who died when she was 4) was a gifted musician and a London barrister. She attended St. Paul's Girls School and won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge to study natural sciences. Her interest in astronomy was sparked by attending a lecture by Sir Arthur Eddington on his 1919 expedition which confirmed Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Realizing that there would be no career for her in England other than teaching, she moved to America in 1922.

In America she worked for Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard College Observatory. Shapley persuaded her to write a doctoral thesis, even though there was no Ph.D. program at Harvard at the time. In her thesis Stellar Atmospheres (1925) using Harvard's library of stellar spectrums she established that small elements (hydrogen and helium) composed 99% of the chemical composition of stars, earning her the first Ph.D. given at Harvard for work done at the Harvard Observatory. At the time it was believed that stars were composed of the same elements as the Earth, with heavier elements making up the majority and her discovery was thought incorrect. Later she was found to be right, but she had given up the study of stellar spectroscopy.

She became a United States citizen in 1931 and in 1933, on a tour of Europe she met Sergei Gaboschkin, a Russian born astronomer. He returned to the United States with her and they were married in 1934. Because she was a woman, Payne-Gaboschkin was often passed over for promotion and did not become a professor until 1956, at the time the first woman to advance to professorship at Harvard. She served as the head of the Harvard Astronomy Department from 1956-1960 and retired in 1966.

Honors won by Payne-Gaboschkin include the Henry Norris Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society, Membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and many honorary degrees.

She died on December 7, 1979.


Gingerich, Owen; "Cecilia Payne-Gaboschkin"; Royal Astronomy Society Quarterly Journal (1982)23:450-451

Smith, Eslke V.P.; "Cecilia Payne-Gaboschkin"; Physics Today (1980)33:64-65

Cecilia Payne-Gaboschkin Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lawson Tait

Robert Lawson Tait was born on May 1, 1845 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only surviving son of Archibald Campbell Tait a guild brother of Heriot's Hospital, a free school for orphans, in to which Tait was admitted when he was seven. A distinguished scholar, he won a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh and went through the curriculum of arts and then medicine, but did not graduate. In school Tait rebelled against the didactic style of his professors, spending time to learn to use the microscope, which was not often used at the time. He was a believer in the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, a stance that won him many critics.

In 1867, after passing his medical exams, he took a position as house surgeon at Wakefield Hospital. In 1870 he moved to Birmingham, England, taking his professional quarters with Dr. Bell Fletcher. In 1871 he was appointed lecturer on physiology and general biology at the Midland Institute, where he taught the theories of Darwin. In his first paper, in 1872 he reported his success performing ovariectomy, an operation that at the time was 90% fatal, losing only one of nine patients. In Birmingham he worked to found a women's hospital, which was established and where he served for twenty two years.

Tait wrote books on the diseases of women, winning the Hastings Gold Medal from the British Medical Association for his essay Diseases of the Ovaries, and he was the first to preform a salpingectomy (removal of the fallopian tubes) making ectopic pregnancy survivable. He also was an abdominal surgeon, being the first to remove an appendix and a gallbladder. Tait believed in asepsis, rather than antisepsis. He worked in perfectly clean conditions, rather than disinfecting with carbolic acid solution antisepsis, which became the common practice. Throughout his career he was opposed by conservative critics that disagreed with his beliefs on evolution and women's surgery. Tait was also a opponent of the practice of vivisection used in medical research.

In addition to his medical persuits, Tait also was involved in politics, serving on the Birmingham town council and writing for the journal of his political party. He also supported the arts as a part owner of a theater. In 1886 he served as president of the British Gynecological Society and in 1888 he was appointed professor of gyencology at Queens College. Honors won by Tait include the Cullen and Liston Memorial Prize given by the Edinburgh College of Physicians and honorary degrees.

Tait was mostly an invalid, for the last five years of his life, suffering from chronic nephritis. On June 13, 1899 he died of renal complications.


Leyland, John; "Lawson Tate" in Contemporary Medical Men and Their Profesional Work; Provincial Medical Journal, 1888

Reed, Carles A. L.; "Memorial Address on the Life and Character of Lawson Tate"; Transactions of the American Association of Obsetricans and Gynecologists for the Year 1900; Volume 12 (1900)

Lawson Tate Wikipedia Entry