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Dorrit Hoffleit - A Pioneering Female Astronomer

Updated on October 23, 2017
Dorrit Hoffleit
Dorrit Hoffleit | Source

Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit was born in a cabin on her parent's farm in the small Alabama town of Florence on March 12th, 1907. She was the second child, and only daughter of Fred and Kate (Sanio) Hoffleit. Her parents, who called her Dorchen as a child, were German immigrants. The fact that she was both German and the daughter of immigrants kept some of her classmates from playing with her.

The farm her parents owned in Florence was failing, so Fred Hoffleit family moved to the railroad town of New Castle, PA and took a job as a bookkeeper for the Pennsylvania Railroad. This led to Kate raising Dorrit, and her older brother Herbert, by herself for nine months, the first nine months of Dorrit's life.

The cabin was ultimately destroyed in a suspicious fire, leading the rest of the family to join their father in New Castle and rent a house there. Dorrit always felt herself in the shadow of her brother. He was clearly the favorite child, both because he was male and because he possessed a brilliant mind.

She found comfort in watching meteor showers with her mother and her brother and in stargazing. In a later interview with Dorrit, she states that she was impressed by the "sheer beauty" of the meteor showers, especially the Perseid meteor showers in 1919.This is where her love of Astronomy really took hold.

While Dorrit was growing up, the marriage between her parents became unstable and started to decline. At the age of nine years old, the marriage between her parents ended and her father returned to the family farm, in Alabama, alone. Dorrit and her brother went to visit their father on occasion, but primarily lived with their mother. In 1996, Dorrit told Astrophysics that her life could be described "from early sadness to happy old age."

College Years

The family moved to Cambridge, MA in 1920 so Herbert could attend Harvard University, where he studied the Latin language and literature. Dorrit was persuaded to attend Radcliffe College so that, as her mother said, she would not be an embarrassment to her brother. Dorrit received her BA in mathematics from Radcliffe in 1928 and graduated cum laude. Dorrit was the only member of her graduating class that had majored in mathematics. Though, in her mother's mind, this wasn't nearly as great as Henry's accomplishment of having his Harvard Ph.D. at age 22.

Dorrit's goal was to teach high school mathematics, but despite her education, she could not find work. In 1929, she took a job as a research assistant with Harvard College Observatory, prior to this, she had never seriously considered astronomy as a viable career field. Though she got an opportunity to take a well paying job as a statistician, which would have paid her a lot more, she opted to follow up with the observatory. She had the opportunity to work for Harlow Shapley, a noted astronomer at the observatory. Her immediate supervisor at Harvard Observatory was Henrietta Swope, daughter of the president of General Electric. Eventually Swope came to be known for her work with Walter Baade on variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds.

Dorrit described herself as no better than any average undergraduate student. She did, however, possess a zeal for studying the vast array of photographic sky plates available through the observatory. Dorrit's first ten papers appeared in Harvard publications and were on variable stars. Once, she used her spare time to write a paper on meteors, she dropped it on Shapley's desk. He read it and was so impressed that he encouraged her to go for her Ph.D.

Dorrit completed her MA with a paper on the light curves of meteors under the supervision of meteor expert W.J. Fisher. Her interest in meteors started with the 1919 Perseid meteor shower. Both Dorrit and her mother witnessed the rare collision of a Perseid meteor with a sporadic meteor. Her dissertation was published in the Proceedings of the United States National Academy of Science. Then, during her time at Harvard Observatory, she did pursue her Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe. She became the 5th woman to receive her Ph.D. from Radcliffe. She was awarded the Carolyn Wilbt Prize for her dissertation on the spectroscopic determination of absolute magnitudes for southern stars.

It was early on in her academic career that she develop her lifelong work ethic. She spent 40 hours per week researching and studying whatever her current boss wanted her to pursue. Beyond this, she spent 20 or more hours a week studying astronomical topics that interested her.

World War II

With all the signs portraying "Rosie the Riveter" and the encouragement within the national mindset of everyone to join the war effort, it comes as little surprise that Dorrit answered the call. In 1943, Dr. Hoffleit calculated missile trajectories at the Aberdeen Proving Ground ballistics laboratory in Maryland. She was forced to take a position well below her status and education.

She watched time and again, as men with less experience were given higher paying and higher responsibility job positions. The excuse used by companies at the time was that women might "run off and get married" leaving the position unfilled. Dorrit was frustrated that her complaints were going unheard, so she complained to a visiting Inspector General. He helped improve the situation, making sure that women got to complete the training they needed to advance and ultimately earn the professional rating they were entitled to. Though Dorrit did not consider herself a leader in the feminist movement, this step was a first step to ensuring the advancement of women, not just within the government but companies all over the United States.

After the war ended, Dorrit continued working for the Aberdeen Proving Ground for another three years. She was working on analysis of confiscated German V2 rockets that were being tested at the White Sands Air Force Base. Dorrit had proven herself so competent with her work at Aberdeen that when she handed in her resignation she was told by the Colonel she could have any rating she wanted if she would stay. She turned down the offer and returned to her old job at Harvard. Dr. Shapley had been holding her old job at Harvard open so she could return after the war effort was complete. She continued to consult with Aberdeen until 1961.

Great video about Dorrit Hoffleit

The Work Continues

After her time with Aberdeen, Dorrit returned to Harvard Observatory in 1948, anxious to resume her studies of southern hemisphere plate which had been collected for her research in her absence. Her joy at studying what she loved was short lived however, because in 1954, Dr. Menzel took over directorship of Harvard College Observatory, one of his first acts was to cancel her research program. Some sources say Menzel went so far as to smash over half the photographic plates she had collected.

Menzel, who was born in Florence (Colorado not Alabama), wanted to move Harvard in the direction of astrophysics, his own field. Menzel saw little use in maintaining a photographic plate archive or in keeping people on the payroll who extracted the data from them.

Dorrit was heart broken, both over the plates and over having to leave the observatory where she had spent much of her professional career. The subjugation she saw at Aberdeen made her realize she could never again work under conditions where her skills and work would go unappreciated, so she began the search for a new observatory to call home.

Once again, Dorrit went job hunting. It may have been her Ph.D., or her no nonsense nature that led her to greater success the second time around. Instead of finding one job, she gained two, which is where most of her fame comes from. By 1956, she moved to the Yale Observatory, where she put in hours well past her retirement. She taught classes, but her primary role was as a research astronomer under the direction of director Dirk Brouwer.

The following year, Dorrit was appointed the director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, named after the first female astronomer, on the island of Nantucket, MA. She eventually made her home there. This enabled her to spend her summers watching the sky and observing it from her home. Her winters were spent working at Yale on the Bright Star Catalogue.

She taught a basic astronomy course during her winters at Yale. It was mostly a General Education credit, but her passion came through in the subject and she inspired many young men and women, some even changed their majors thanks to her.

In the summer she took on interns, and together, they are responsible for publishing over 90 papers and discovering more than 1000 variable stars. Dorrit taught summer classes in astronomy at the observatory. Most of her interns were young women who had taken her class, to Dorrit, these women were her "Girls." Dorrit took over the astrometric work for Ida Barney, one of her close colleagues, and is quoted as saying this of Ida "To know [her] was a pleasure, inspiration, and privilege, both at work and socially."

Dorrit was the author of several editions of the Bright Star Catalogue, which has an extensive listing of all the stars which are visible from earth with the naked eye. One of her research documents, The General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes, has particular bearing to the worlds of physics as well as astronomy. In it are the precise measurements of distance of over 9000 stars. This is of great importance when considering how the universe was formed, how old it is, and what the composition the Milky Way galaxy.

Dorrit's contributions to her field include spectroscopic star classifications, missile trajectories, variable stars, spectroscopic classifications, astrometry and much more. Over 300 of her papers have been published and are listed in the Astrophysics Data System. While working with Harlan J. Smith, she helped pinpoint the variability of quasar 3C 273.

Later Years

Though her mother especially had such high aspirations for Dorrit's brother, she surpassed her brother in accolades, awards, career success and contributions to the field. Her brother, though he was a notable professor at UCLA, took more pleasure in the teaching of Latin and Literature than the research aspect of the field.

Even though, at one point Dorrit's publications outnumbered her brothers by 50 to 1, Dorrit remarked, with a sadness in her voice, that the only thing about her that her mother approved of was her long hair.

Dorrit didn't follow her passion for motherly approval however, and this is seen by the fact that she continued to work at her observatory long after her official retirement in 1975. She also continued to receive awards after her retirement. Most notably are the George Van Biesbroeck Prize, which she received in 1988 for her lifelong contributions to astronomy, and the AAS-Annenberg Prize for Science Education. Dorrit received it in 1993, and was only the second astronomer to ever receive it at the time, the first being Carl Sagan.

She served as a president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), had asteroid 3416 Dorrit named after her (posthumously), and thanks to her, the Hoffleit Assistantship was established at the Mitchell Observatory to help many more follow their dreams into the stars.

Dorrit never married or had children. Like so many career driven individuals, she placed her work before her personal life. Another concern in Dorrit's mind was her worry that the mental illness her maternal grandmother possessed would be inherited. This mental illness led her grandmother to a lifetime in an institution and a premature death.

She remained a mentor to young men and women, with a desire to pursue astronomy, until her death from complications of cancer on April 9th, 2007, in New Haven, Connecticut. She lived for a century, but her contributions will last well beyond her lifetime.


Hoffleit, Dorrit. Misfortunes as blessings in disguise: The story of my life. American Association of Variable Stars. 2002.


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    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

      Thank you for sharing and highlighting the life of this wonderful pioneering female astronomer! I would love to link this hub to my celebrating women in history hub this month.

      Up ++++ tweeting and pinning.