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Williamina Fleming, the Boston Maid Who Discovered the Stars

In the late 1870s, Williamina Fleming was forced to work as a housemaid in Boston. She was pretty, intelligent, pregnant and new to America. Her choice of employer would win her fame as an astronomer. To her regret, it did not make her fortune.

Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming was born Williamina Stevens on May 15, 1857, in Dundee, Scotland. Her father was an artisan who carved and a gilded picture frames and furniture. He was also the first person in Dundee to experiment with daguerrotyping.

At 20 she married a widower, James Orr Fleming, who was an accountant. She taught school in Scotland for a short time until the couple emigrated to Boston when she was 21.

Abandoned

She was pregnant when Fleming suddenly abandoned her. She went to work as a maid for Professor Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory.

Computers back then were people who did mathematical calculations by hand. According to legend, Pickering was unhappy with the quality of work he was getting from his male computers. One day he supposedly shouted, “My Scotch maid could do better.”

Edward Charles Pickering

Edward Charles Pickering

More likely, Mrs. Pickering recognized her maid’s abilities and told her husband. He gave Williamina Fleming a job in 1879 as a part-time administrator at the observatory.

Fleming soon returned to Dundee to give birth to her son. She named him Edward Charles Pickering Fleming, left him with his grandmother and returned to Boston.

In 1881, Pickering was working on an ambitious project to classify the universe by analyzing glass plate photographs of the stars. The photographs, taken through a prism, captured more detail than the naked eye could see through a telescope. He had taught another woman, Nettie Farrar, to measure spectra, the bands of color and lines that form when starlight is dispersed through a prism.

Williamina Fleming Takes Over

Farrar, though, was leaving Harvard to get married. Pickering asked Williamina Fleming to take over the job of examining and classifying the plates.

Dava Sobel describes the work involved in examining a plate in her book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars:

“She removed each glass plate from its kraft paper sleeve without getting a single fingerprint on either of the eight-by-ten-inch surfaces. The trick was to hold the fragile packet by its side edges between her palms, set the bottom -- open -- end of the envelope on the lip of the specially designed stand, and then ease the paper up and off without letting go of the plate, as though undressing a baby. Making sure the emulsion side faced her, she released her grip and let the glass settle into place. The wooden stand held the plate in a picture frame, tilted at a 45-degree angle. A mirror affixed to the flat base caught daylight from the computing room's big windows and directed illumination up through the glass."

Pickering's Harem at the Harvard College Observatory

Pickering's Harem at the Harvard College Observatory

Each of the hundreds of tiny spectra on the plate had to be tagged with a new catalog number and identified by its coordinates, indicated by millimeter and centimeter rules on the wooden frame. She read off the numbers to a colleague who penciled them into a logbook.

Over the course of her career, Williamina Fleming examined more than 200,000 photographic plates, becoming one of the most prominent female astronomers in the world. She developed a new system of classification and put 10,000 stars in it. She discovered 10 novae (exploding stars), 310 variable stars and the Horsehead Nebulae.

Glass Ceiling

With Pickering’s support, she helped open the field of astronomy to women. He put her in charge of hiring and supervising a team of women to study Harvard’s growing collection of star photographs. She hired and supervised 20 other women, including her protégé, Annie Jump Cannon.

Pickering employed a lot of women to do the math required for astronomy. He recruited more than 80 women at the observatory from 1881 to his death in 1919. They were known as Pickering’s Harem.

In 1893, Fleming gave a speech on women's work in astronomy at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Her comments were picked up in the press, and other U.S. observatories began hiring women.

But did women get paid the same as men? Fleming didn’t.

She worked 60 hours a week for $1,500 a year, much less than the newest male assistant at the observatory earned. Her 1900 journals, discovered much later, show her frustration with trying to make ends meet and put her son through MIT.

Williamina Fleming died of pneumonia at the age of 54. Annie Jump Cannon wrote her obituary, describing a woman with a magnetic personality and many interests.

Fond of people and excitement, there was no more enthusiastic spectator in the stadium for the football games, no more ardent champion of the Harvard eleven. Industrious by nature, she was seldom idle, and long years of observatory work never unfitted her for the domestic side of life. As much at home with the needle as with the magnifying eyepiece, she could make a dainty bag, exquisitely sewed, or dress a doll in complete Scotch Highland costume. She was never too tired to welcome her friends at her home or at the observatory, with that quality of human sympathy which is sometimes lacking among women engaged in scientific pursuits.  Her bright face, her attractive manner, and her cheery greeting with its charming Scotch accent, will long be remembered by even the most casual visitors to the Harvard College Observatory.

 

 

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