Williamina Fleming’s Story
“Women who have taken up any branch of science need not be discouraged, even if others refuse to give credit to their work. Labor honestly, conscientiously and steadily, and recognition and success must crown your efforts in the end.”Williamina Fleming
Williamina Paton Fleming was born on May 15, 1857 in Dundee, Scotland. After her father died when she was 7, the family fell on hard times and she started working as a teacher’s assistant at age 14 to help support them. She married James Orr Fleming at 20, and a year later in 1878, the couple emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts. Most sources say her husband abandoned her soon after their arrival in America, leaving Fleming pregnant and alone in a new country. To support herself she took a position as a maid at the home of Edward Charles Pickering, Director of the Harvard Observatory. Pickering, recognizing her intelligence, soon moved Fleming into the Observatory and taught her how to analyze glass photographic plates of the stars, the central work of the Observatory at this time.
Fleming was not the only woman working in the Observatory; Pickering employed women ‘computers,’ among them notable names such as Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, to calculate the positions of stars because they were cheaper to employ than men. Fleming who had no formal higher education did, however, have a different background from many of her colleagues who were from well-to-do families and were graduates of the newly opened women’s colleges, including prestigious schools like Wellesley.
Fleming became a valuable member of the team. She personally classified some 10,000 stars in the new Catalogue of Stars which Pickering published in 1890. In 1893, she published an article in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics called “A Field for Women’s Work in Astronomy,” advocating for more women to work in the sciences.
In 1899, after almost 20 years at the Observatory, Fleming was promoted to Curator of Astronomical Photographs — the first woman ever to hold a Harvard University title. In this role, Fleming became the supervisor of about 15 other women and used her new position to protest the unequal pay the women received. The women computers in Pickering’s Observatory worked six days a week and they made 25 cents an hour, far less than men in similar positions. But despite her best efforts, Fleming was unable to convince Pickering that they should receive higher pay.
In her 30-year career, Fleming discovered 10 novae, 310 variable stars, and 59 gaseous nebulae — including the iconic Horsehead Nebula. She also recognized the existence of earth-sized stars later named white dwarfs. Fleming was celebrated for her accomplishments with numerous awards. In 1906 she was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and named an honorary fellow in astronomy at Wellesley College, and in 1910 she was awarded the gold medal of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. As a single mother, having put her son through MIT, Fleming died of pneumonia on May 21, 1911, at the age of 54.
Featured in the Film
Science writer Dava Sobel is the author of The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory took the Measure of the Stars (Viking 2016), a book in which Williamina Fleming features prominently. Sobel’s other popular books about the history of science include Longitude (Penguin 1996), Galileo’s Daughter (Walker 1999), and A More Perfect Heaven (Walker 2011). A former science reporter for The New York Times, she has hosted radio series for the BBC and is currently the poetry editor for Scientific American. When she attended the Bronx High School of Science (Class of 1964), boys were admitted preferentially over girls in a ratio of about 4:1, but she is happy to note that this is no longer the case.
Wendy L. Freedman
Wendy Freedman is a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and one of the most internationally recognized faculty members at the University of Chicago. She is best known for her work in measuring the size and age of the universe, a quantity known as the Hubble Constant. She joined the scientific staff of the Carnegie Observatories in 1987. From 2003 to 2014, she served as the Director of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California. From 2003-2015, she served as the founding chair of the Board of Directors for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), a 25-meter optical telescope scheduled for construction in Chile in 2030. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Science. She is a recipient of many prizes including the American Philosophical Society’s Magellanic Prize, the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, and the Gruber Cosmology Prize.