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A black, white and grey photo of a classroom. On the right side the teacher sits in front of a chalkboard. On the left of the image the class sits studying globes.
"A class in mathematical geography studying earth's rotation around the sun, Hampton Institute." Prints and Photographs Division.

Eclipsed No More: Women Astronomers You Should Know

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“First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” – Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), American Astronomer

Meteor showers, comets, eclipses, and other celestial events have captured human interest and imagination for thousands of years. Astronomical phenomena have long been speculated over in the press, and curiosity in these phenomena have led us to better understand our world. Throughout history women have played a pivotal role in the field of astronomy and yet have rarely received the recognition they deserve. As in many fields, women’s work has often been eclipsed by their male counterparts or attributed to the institution they were affiliated with. As astronomy became professionalized, women were generally denied the required formal education to be considered a professional astronomer. Whether or not they were able to obtain a degree in the field, women’s stellar contributions to astronomy should not be overlooked. In honor of women’s history month, let’s learn about some lesser-known achievements of women in astronomy throughout the years.

Black white and grey image of the top half of a newspaper page. The headline reads halley's comet after 75 years rushes earthward again. The article by Mary Proctor is accompanied by an image of the author and photographs of various observatories.
The San Francisco Call, August 23, 1908.

Women have made many important discoveries and historic firsts in the field of astronomy. The first woman known to have discovered a comet was Maria Margarethe Kirch in 1702, but credit was initially given to her husband. Caroline Herschel (Germany) discovered 8 comets between 1786 and 1797, and yet newspapers often described Caroline as her brother’s assistant and argued that she, “had no ambition but to serve him.” The first American of any gender to detect and map a comet was Maria Mitchell in 1847, and the comet came to be known as Miss Mitchell’s Comet. In 1865, Maria Mitchell was appointed as a Professor of Astronomy and the Director of the Vassar College Observatory. One of Mitchell’s assistants at Vassar was Margaretta Palmer, who was later hired by the Yale University Observatory and in 1892 became one of the first women admitted to the Yale Graduate School. The subject of Palmer’s doctoral research was Miss Mitchell’s comet. Women’s ability to practice astronomy professionally grew as more educational institutions began to gradually accept them as workers, scientists and students.

Women at the Observatory
Black white and grey photograph cropped from a newspaper which shows Miss Eleanor A Lamson at the telescope of the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Beverly Banner (Beverly, N.J.), April 9, 1926.

The popularity of the film Hidden Figures drew attention to the women working as computers in the Harvard College Observatory. According to Harvard, the observatory began hiring women around 1875, but there were women who volunteered even earlier. An 1893 article described how Nina (Williamina) Fleming supervised, “…a corps of trained women assistants” at the Harvard Observatory. During her time at Harvard, Fleming discovered many stars and became the first known person to discover a white dwarf. Deaf astronomer Annie Jump Cannon continued Fleming’s work at Harvard of classifying stars, and would go on to record “more than a quarter million twinklers,” or roughly 350,000 stars. Building on the earlier classification work of Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon completed the Harvard Spectral Classification scheme, which was officially adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1922 and is still in use today.

Top half of a cropped newspaper page that is black grey and white. The headline reads the worlds greatest astronomer a san francisco girl. Centered is an illustration of a woman at alarge telescope and next to the illustration is a small photograph of dorothea klumpke.
The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, Calif.), October 7, 1900

Harvard wasn’t the first or only observatory to employ women. Alice Lamb worked as an assistant astronomer and was partially in charge of the Washburn Observatory in Wisconsin. Dr. Paris Pismis, widely considered the first professional astronomer in Mexico worked at the Tacubaya National Observatory and in 1955 founded the astrophysics program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The U.S. Naval Observatory hired Isabel M. Lewis and Eleanor A. Lamson long before women were even allowed to enroll at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Cropped newspaper page that is black grey and white. Headline reads scientists ready to photograph eclipse of sun this afternoon and underneath an dimage of Isabel M Lewiws with her special telephoto camera next to a photo of dr. menzel and dr moore.
The Washington Times (Washington, D.C.), April 28, 1930.

The Yerkes Observatory employed over one hundred women, and Dr. Nancy Roman conducted research there during her time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Nancy would go on to work for NASA and become known as the “Mother of Hubble” for her tireless work in getting approval for the Hubble Telescope to be built. NASA found a way to honor her incredible efforts, and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope is currently set to launch in 2027.

Whether they were running an observatory, chasing an eclipse, or simply receiving an education, women in astronomy have defied conventional gender roles to shape and expand the field. Can’t wait for the next celestial event? Why not pass the time by reading “What Science Discovered from the Great Eclipse” by Isabel M. Lewis? We also recommend diving in to Annie Jump Cannon’s series of articles detailing the science behind the total solar eclipse of 1932, Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Discover more about the history of women in astronomy in historic newspapers on Chronicling America, or get in touch with our librarians and collection specialists via Ask a Librarian.

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