Astronomy Bio...Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin

Jay Bitterman

Cecilia Helena Gaposchkin (ne Payne) was born in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, UK, on May 10, 1900. Before entering Newnham College at Cambridge University in 1919 she attended schools in both Wendover and London. Although she had little inclination to science, her interest was stimulated when she was introduced to some eminent astronomers, including Arthur Eddington who convinced her to choose astronomy as her main interest and career. She was especially inspired by Eddington's lecture on relativity.

In May of 1922, Harlow Shapley, the recently appointed director of Harvard College Observatory, visited England and lectured at the Royal Astronomical Society. After hearing him speak, Cecilia expressed her desire to study astronomy with him at Harvard Observatory. She graduated in 1923 and in September of that year went to study under Shapley at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Soon Cecilia, under Annie Cannon's tutelage, was occupied with working on spectra. Within a year she won a class day prize to attend the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Toronto.

In 1925, just a few years after her arrival in the United States, she became the first student, male or female, to receive a Ph.D in Astronomy from the Harvard College Observatory. Her doctoral dissertation, "Stellar Atmospheres," asserted the surprising discovery of the chemical composition of the stars and universe but no one believed her. Years later, Otto Struve, an eminent astronomer, called her theory "the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written". In 1927, in recognition of her work, she was appointed an astronomer at the observatory.

While in Germany in 1933, she met the Russian astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin. His unpopular political beliefs caused him to be exiled from Russia and made him unwelcome in Hitler's Germany. Payne persuaded Shapley to give the Russian astronomer a position at Harvard, thereby securing his safety and his career. In 1935 they were married and eventually had three children, all of whom worked as astronomers for a period of time. During the 1930s she increased her study of variable stars and was particularly persuaded to utilize the information she obtained to increase the understanding of galactic structure. Much of this research was carried out in collaboration with her husband Sergei, particularly the studies of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. In 1938 Payne Gaposchkin became Phillips Astronomer at Harvard.

In 1953 she gave a memorable series of lectures for non-astronomers entitled "Stars in the Making". In 1954 her book An Introduction to Astronomy was published; it was based on the undergraduate astronomy course she taught at Harvard College. In 1956 she became first woman to be awarded the Chair in Astronomy at Harvard.

In 1957 she published The Galactic Novae that showed patterns in observations of stars that were made over a period of twenty-five years and pointed out areas worthwhile for further attention. In 1967, she was named Professor Emeritus at Harvard University.

She died on December 7, 1979. Unfortunately, since her death, this woman who discovered the composition of the universe has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Even her newspaper obituaries carried no mention of her greatest discovery.

Published in the May 2003 issue of the NightTimes