Williamina Fleming in front of the new plate stacks at Harvard College Observatory, ca 1902 (Harvard University Archives, courtesy of Tom Fine)

Williamina Fleming in front of the new plate stacks at Harvard College Observatory, ca 1902 (Harvard University Archives, courtesy of Tom Fine)

Williamina Fleming

MAY 15, 2020

Scientist of the Day - Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming, born on May 15, 1857 in Dundee, Scotland, features in an oft-told but apocryphal tale about the introduction of women into the Harvard College Observatory. As that story goes, director Edward Charles Pickering grew disgusted with the sloppy work of his underlings, and, in a fit of pique, exclaimed “My maid could do a better job!” To prove the point, he moved said “maid,” i.e. Mrs. Fleming, from the director’s residence to the observatory, where she instantly integrated the all-male personnel and outperformed them as promised.

The true story sounds even more unlikely. Mrs. Fleming, nee Williamina Paton Stevens, demonstrated an early ability in mathematics, enabling her to serve as a student teacher in a local school near the one she had attended. At age twenty she married a widower, James Orr Fleming, and together with him – or perhaps alone (the historical record is fragmentary and contradictory) – emigrated to America. Several of her siblings had settled in Boston, where she joined them. Because she was pregnant and lacking the support of her erstwhile husband, she took a job as a domestic servant for the head of Harvard’s astronomical observatory. Professor and Mrs. Pickering recognized her intelligence and, sympathetic with her situation, changed her duties from housework to office work. At the observatory, she found four other women employed as computers, including the wife of a staff astronomer, the sister of one former director, and the daughter of another.

Soon the Pickerings helped Mrs. Fleming return to Scotland for her lying-in. In gratitude for their kindness, she named her baby, born October 6, 1879, Edward Charles Pickering Fleming.

In 1881, Mrs. Fleming returned to the observatory to resume her position as copyist and calculator. She had a neat handwriting, a good head for figures, energy, pluck, and organizational skills par excellence. Pickering applied her talents first to his particular research interest – photometry, or judging the comparative brightness of stars. She performed the necessary mathematical operations on the notations that he and his assistants made through nights of observing. Later, after Pickering established astrophotography as a regular practice at Harvard, she made her own brightness assessments directly from glass plates. In the process of comparing stellar magnitudes between objects and over time, she discovered more than two hundred variable stars and many other novelties besides, from binary stars to novae, supernovae, and the first example of a star in a depleted stage of its life cycle (since named a white dwarf). In 1888, she picked out the distinctive shape of the now familiar Horsehead Nebula in the Orion constellation (second image), one of some fifty gaseous and planetary nebulae that she detected. In addition to studying the plates to make discoveries, she also organized, catalogued and cared for them as they accumulated by the hundreds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands. (Half a million of these glass plates are still housed at Harvard and currently being digitized in a program called DASCH, or Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard.)

As the observatory’s operating budget expanded, thanks to the generous support of individuals such as Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce, Mrs. Fleming accepted the challenge of creating a classification system for the stars. Analyzing stellar spectra captured on glass plates, she divided the stars into more than a dozen types, and assigned a letter of the alphabet to each category. Her successor on this project, Annie Jump Cannon, conflated several of the categories and rearranged the rest into the “OBAFGKM” system still used today.

Mrs. Fleming’s work ethic made her a legendary figure in the annals of the observatory, and also the official Annals, where she frequently published her findings. Pickering steadily increased her responsibilities, nominated her for prizes, and promoted her in 1899 to a post he created especially for her. She is shown in a group portrait taken about that time on board the ship Minia; Mrs. Fleming is at front center.  It is possible that the young man at left rear is her son Edward.

As “curator of astronomical photographs,” Mrs. Fleming became the first woman ever to hold a Harvard University title. By this point she had charge of hiring her own assistants and supervised a team of eleven women (sometimes more). She also served as head of a household: Edward, who had come to live with her at age seven, was studying engineering at MIT.

Although she remained ever grateful to Pickering, she nevertheless chided him, in her handwritten contribution to Harvard’s “Chest of 1900” time capsule, for keeping her salary below that of men in comparable positions. She earned $1,500 per year. The text of her contribution has been displayed at Harvard’s Wolbach Library.

A charter member of the American Astronomical Society and an honorary member of both the Royal Astronomical Society and the Société Astronomique de France, Mrs. Fleming became an American citizen in 1907. On her application, she listed her profession as astronomer. She is described that same way on her grave at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Her death on May 21, 1911, at fifty-four, stunned the astronomy community.

Ruing the loss of his long-time associate, Pickering wrote in a eulogy that Mrs. Fleming “formed a striking example of a woman who attained success in the higher paths of science without in any way losing the gifts and charm so characteristic of her sex.”

Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and, most recently, The Glass Universe, in which Mrs. Fleming plays a major role.