A Veritable Star: Harvard’s First Professional Astronomer Was a Woman

October 02, 2013

Astronomy is a subject that has held people’s collective fascination for millennia. It isn’t surprising, then, that thinkers have long been putting their minds to better understanding the planets, sun, and space. Women have played a big — and rapidly growing — role in this endeavor. Our own alumna Judith Resnick was the second American woman to make the journey to space, and the latest group of trainee astronauts in NASA boasted four women — a great boon to younger women interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

A black-and-white portrait of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

But before space travel, before any rocket had been successfully launched, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was blazing a trail in her own right. She began her studies at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, in 1919. Though she finished her courses, she was not awarded a certificate, as Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948.

She moved next to Radcliffe College, the all-women’s school at Harvard, where she studied astronomy under Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard College Observatory. Her studies were funded in part by the AAUW Rose Sidgwick Fellowship, a fund established for women graduates of British universities to study in the United States. After just two years there, Payne-Gaposchkin became the very first person to receive a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard. Her dissertation, Stellar Atmospheres: A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars, veered from common thinking at the time, so much so that she initially dismissed her results as likely to be proved wrong before long.

Instead, they became the standard. The Harvard Observatory became Payne-Gaposchkin’s base of study and platform for expertise on variable stars. It was there that she met her husband, there that she later scandalized the academic community by giving a major lecture while five months pregnant. In 1934 she received the Annie Jump Cannon Award for “outstanding research and promise for future research.” She was the first woman to become a full professor at Harvard after making her way up through the ranks, and the first to chair a department there. In 1956, after 31 years of teaching, Payne-Gaposhkin achieved tenure. As her career matured, she received many honorary degrees and awards, including the American Astronomical Society Henry Norris Russell Lectureship in 1976. Through all of these groundbreaking academic and scientific achievements, Payne-Gaposchkin maintained a balanced private life, raising three children and even claiming that to be the harder job. As she said in a 1957 AAUW publication on the history of AAUW fellowships, “I always regret extremely the suggestion that a life of research should preclude domestic happiness.”

Payne-Gaposchkin is one luminary in a long line of brilliant astronomy minds. It is heartening to think that AAUW, a much younger organization in 1923, played a role in the education of such a woman. AAUW further honored Payne-Gaposchkin by granting her an Achievement Award in 1957 for work in spectroscopy and photometry, and for her groundbreaking professional advancement at Harvard. She stands out for her novelty and achievements, her discoveries and strength of character. As she writes in her autobiography, The Dyer’s Hand, “Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you. … Your reward will be the widening of your horizon as you climb.”

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s 1924-25 International Fellowship was sponsored by the Rose Sidgwick International Fellowship. The Achievement Award Payne-Gaposchkin received in 1957 was supported by the contributions from members of the Northwest Central Region of AAUW.


  1. […] Before space travel, before any rocket had been successfully launched, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was blazing a trail in her own right.  […]

  2. Lauren Byrnes says:

    Thank you so much for your comment and support of this series! We never lack inspiration for these blogs as there are so many talented, creative and pioneering women who have received fellowships and grants throughout our history – just as there are so many forward looking, thoughtful and generous women who have supported the program throughout our history. We appreciate your continued support of this organization and all that we have been working for these many years. Please feel free to reach out to our department at alumnae@aauw.org if you have any other thoughts or suggestions on this series, we do value input!

  3. Margo Johnson says:

    I really appreciate these article series (and the work that goes into them) that tie our fellowship gifts together through time and significance: the receivers, the givers of the original fellowship and subsequent awards and gifts. They are useful “evidence” of the value of our philanthropy and the relevance of AAUW.

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