The Women Who Mapped the Universe And Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect

MIT physics professor Edward Pickering was an early advocate of astrophotography and also had a relatively enlightened (for the time) attitude toward women in science. But he was an outlier in both fields.

In 1881, Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, had a problem: the volume of data coming into his observatory was exceeding his staff’s ability to analyze it. He also had doubts about his staff’s competence–especially that of his assistant, who Pickering dubbed inefficient at cataloging. So he did what any scientist of the latter 19th century would have done: he fired his male assistant and replaced him with his maid, Williamina Fleming. Fleming proved so adept at computing and copying that she would work at Harvard for 34 years–eventually managing a large staff of assistants.

So began an era in Harvard Observatory history where women—more than 80 during Pickering’s tenure, from 1877 to his death in 1919— worked for the director, computing and cataloging data. Some of these women would produce significant work on their own; some would even earn a certain level of fame among followers of female scientists. But the majority are remembered not individually but collectively, by the moniker Pickering’s Harem.

A slightly more respectable name for those women was the "Harvard Computers." Find out what they did and how they were rewarded at Smithsonian's Past Imperfect blog. Link


(Image source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)


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I've read of their exploits on most popular science books on the big bang, cosmology, or astronomy in general. Maybe their story isn't well known cause not many people read those kinds of books?
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