WFleming

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“While we cannot maintain that in everything woman is man’s equal, yet in many things her patience, perseverance and method make her his superior. Therefore, let us hope that in astronomy, which now affords a large field for women’s work and skill, she may, as has been the case in several other sciences, at least prove herself his equal.”

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming: 
From Housekeeper to Astronomer
1857-1911

Williamina Paton Stevens was born in Dundee, Scotland on May 15, 1857, the daughter of Mary Walker Stevens and Robert Stevens, a noted craftsman. Mina, as she was called by her friends and family, attended public schools. At the young age of 14, she began student teaching. Her career as a teacher lasted six years until May 26, 1877 upon her marriage to James Orr Fleming. The young couple sailed to America in December 1878 and took up residence in Boston, Massachusetts. A few months later, James abandoned his wife, and his unborn child.

Williamina Fleming was in a strange country, alone, pregnant, and in need of money to support herself. She found employment as a housekeeper. Though her circumstances would be difficult for a woman of any era, her misfortune was about to present opportunities she would never have dreamed. Her employer was Edward Charles Pickering, the director of Harvard College Observatory.

Not long after Fleming began working in Pickering’s household, he offered her a position at the observatory. There are two accounts of how this came about: “(1) in 1879 Pickering offered her a part-time position as a copyist and computer at the Observatory because he was ‘struck by her obviously superior education and intelligence,’ or, (2) a male assistant proved to be unsatisfactory and ‘in a huff Pickering is reported to have said...that he believed his housekeeper could do a better job.’” He was right on the last count. She did do a better job than his previous assistant.

In the fall of 1879, Fleming went back to Scotland to give birth to her son. She returned to Boston and continued her duties as housekeeper and part-time assistant at the observatory. In 1881, she became a permanent member of the observatory staff.

Five years later, in 1886, the Harvard College Observatory received funding from Anna Draper to compile her husband’s catalogue project. The observatory was to photograph the stellar spectra of the entire night sky. It was a monumental task, one that would have a profound effect on Fleming’s life.

Initially, the responsibility of cataloguing, indexing, examination, and care of the new photographic plates belonged to Nettie Farrar. The “computers” were responsible for identifying the stars on the plates and then calculating their positions. Farrar left within the year, however, and Fleming replaced her.

It was not until twelve years later that Fleming’s position was officially recognized by the Harvard “corporation.” In 1898 she was bestowed the title of Curator of Astronomical Photographs and became the first woman to receive such an appointment of this kind.

Not only was Fleming responsible for interviewing new applicants, she was their supervisor. It was also her responsibility to catalogue the plates so they would be easily accessible and the data readily available. She devised her own system, after discounting the system devised by Father Angelo Secchi as too simplistic to account for the variety found in the stars’ spectra. Fleming’s system of cataloguing divided the stars into classes, from A to Q, with I, J, and P omitted, and was based on “the complexity of the spectrum lines and bands and the strength of the spectral lines due to hydrogen.” Stars that did not fall neatly within a category were grouped into Q.

In 1890, the first Henry Draper Catalogue was published in the Annals of the Harvard College Observatory. It contained most of the stars visible to the unaided eye, a total of 10,351 stars. Though Fleming was not listed as an author, Pickering did acknowledge her contribution to the work. She was also widely recognized by the astronomical community.

During Fleming’s tenure at Harvard, and her catalogue work, she discovered many celestial objects, including 79 stars, 10 novae, 59 gaseous nebulae, 94 Wolf-Rayet stars, and 222 long-period variables. She also received many honors and awards, including memberships in the Royal Astronomical Society and the Astronomical Society of Mexico.

Fleming worked at Harvard College Observatory until her death from pneumonia at age 54 in 1911. Her contributions to the advancement of astronomy were many. Equally important was the trail she blazed for future generations of women. She was indeed a bright star.

 

Williamina Paton Fleming on the Web

bulletWilliamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1857-1911), Harvard University Library, Open Collections Program, Women Working.
bulletJournal of Williamina Patton Fleming. 1900. A digital copy of Williamina Fleming's journal archived at Harvard University Library.
bulletWilliamina Fleming. Entry in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
bulletWilliamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1857-1911). Entry at Biography.com.
bullet

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1857-1911). Distinguished Women of Past and Present.

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Updated 01.01.2008
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