The Lady Astronomer
Now and then an individual comes along who truly falls in love with astronomy and is determined to follow their desires. Until recently though, women were not welcomed in what had for a very log time, been an all male field. That was not enough to stop
some women. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, a remarkable individual who was determined to be an astronomer and
was willing to fight to do so.
Cecilia was born in England in 1900. Her father, Edward Payne was a lawyer, historian and musician. He married late in life and died only five years later, leaving his wife with three small children including Cecilia. Their mother was a wise
person and insisted that all of the children must attend college and was determined to accomplish getting them there.
While a young child, Cecilia was sent to attend a religious school where classes concentrated on the bible, catechism and the history of the church. It was torture for
Cecilia who wanted to learn about science. She hated going to the church every day and eventually developed a convincing faint to excuse herself from going!
Nothing was more important to Cecilia than math and science, but very little was taught in the school she attended. Her school held the view that the church and science were in conflict. Cecilia decided that if she were to become a scientist, she would have to teach herself. She acquired books which contained the writings of Newton and other
One teacher sympathized with Cecilia and perhaps recognized the girl's love for science. The teacher, Dorathy Dalglish taught Cecilia botany, chemistry and supplied her with books on physics. It was through studying botany that Cecilia developed great observational skills. Cecilia did well in other areas of study and earned a school prize at the end of the year, her prize was a book. When she was asked what book she would like, she chose a book on fungi.
Against the approval of the school, Cecilia took an entrance exam for a botany college entrance exam. Though she passed the exam with top honors, she could still not get support for pursuing a career in science.Cecilia begged the school to allow her to study
mathematics and german, both necessary for going to college in the sciences. The problem was, few of the girls in the school planned on going to college, and there was little need for such classes to be taught, but Cecilia would not give up and persisted. She finally found a girl who could tutor her in german and finally the school assigned a tutor to teach Cecilia calculus.
Unfortunately the tutor chosen for Cecilia's calculus studies was a stern ill-tempered woman. The tutor was so mean and abrasive that Cecilia never fully recovered in the subject area. Finally the school asked Cecilia to leave. She then went to St. Paul's
Girls School. Here there were laboratories for chemistry, physics and biology. Cecilia found an oasis in what had been an unfriendly world! It was at this school that Cecilia studied physics in depth, and she fell in love with astronomy. After completing studies at St Pauls, Cecilia applied for entrance to Cambridge. It was there that she attended a lecture on Einstein's theories and determined to become an astronomer. When she won
another prize on an essay she wrote, she took the money and used it for traveling expenses to the US.
Cecilia found a home at Harvard College Observatory where she was able to work with Harlow Shapley, a well known and respected astronomer. Cecilia began working in stellar atmospheres and published her first paper in 1925 when she was only twenty-five years old. It was a remarkable paper which said that the sun was mostly composed of Hydrogen, contrary to the current theory at that time.
In 1934 Cecilia married Sergei Gaposchkin who was also an astronomer. Together they raised three children while continuing their work in astronomy.The couple studied variable stars (stars which vary in brightness at a cyclic rate.)
In 1956 Cecilia became the first woman to achieve the status of full professor at Harvard. She later became the head of the astronomy department, being the first woman to accomplish that task. Throughout her career, Cecilia published many books and papers on astronomy. She died in 1979 and her obituary told what a remarkable person she was:
"Students and colleagues will remember her for her prodigious
memory.....Her knowledge was encyclopedic, her enthusiasm
Copyright © 2000 Kathy A. Miles and Charles F. Peters II