In this short series on ‘Women in Astronomy’ I wanted to highlight the significant contribution that women have made to our understanding of the cosmos. These contributions were often achieved despite the attitudes and prejudices towards women, prevailing at the time.
Part II: Williamina Fleming ( (May 1857 – 1911)
Williamina Fleming made a major contribution to our understating of star classification- helping to transform astronomy in the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries. She was one of a group of famous women astronomers based at the Harvard Observatory, directed at the time by Professor Edward Pickering. Her many achievements opened up the field of astronomy for women – although her early life gave no clue as to what was to come.
Mina (Stevens), was born in Dundee to a reasonably affluent family: her father ran a gilding and picture framing business. Sadly he died when she was just 7 and she was sent away to a good local school until she was 14.
She worked for a while as a student teacher in Dundee, eventually marrying James Fleming, a local accountant. Within a year they emigrated to Boston USA. Things quickly began to go wrong starting with him leaving her without warning. Shortly after she discovered she was pregnant. She was forced to find employment and secured a job as a maid – the choice of employer was to change her life.
Professor Pickering was a demanding employer and as the story goes, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the work from his male employees- to the extent that he claimed- ‘even my maid could do a better job’. It appears he really did believe this as he initially employed Williamina as an administrative assistant and then, impressed by her work, moved her on to analysing astronomical data- at which she excelled.
By her mid-twenties Williamina was one of a number of women Pickering employed to work at his observatory. They became known as the Harvard Computer – or Human Computers. Pickering taught the women to analyse spectral data and encouraged them to learn and study.
Williamina went on to manage this group and develop, alongside Pickering, a new star classification system, known as the Pickering-Fleming System. She classified over 10,000 stars; their work being published in 1890 when she was 33 years old.
She worked tirelessly, examining over 200,000 photographic plates and in the course of her work discovered many novae (including Pickering’s Triangle- see my article on this beautiful object), she analysed many variable stars, discovered tens of unusual Wolf-Rayet stars and worked on the discovery of double stars. By 1889 she was a curator at the Observatory, the first woman to hold such a post. However, much of her early work was published under Pickering’s name- it was only later that her name appeared as co-author.
Williamina hired many women over her time running the group, with a number going on to become great astronomers themselves.
Despite her position and status, Williamina received the same salary, $1,500 p.a. as that of a junior male new-starter. This was a source of great frustration and hardship as she tried to give her son a good education.
Williamina was awarded honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society in London and received numerous awards and recognition throughout her career.
She died of pneumonia at the age of 54. She will always be remembered as a pioneer in the field of astronomy and for her major contribution to opening this field to so many women. She was succeeded as curator by one of her protégés, Annie Cannon.