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Williamina Fleming – From the Maid’s Quarters to the Annals of Astronomy

Updated on October 20, 2017
Williamina Fleming cira 1890
Williamina Fleming cira 1890 | Source

Early Years

Lovingly called "Mina" by those who knew her best, Williamina Fleming did not have the start you would expect from an astronomer. She never majored in mathematics, physics, or astronomy like many women after her would, but she still changed the face of astronomy in more ways than she would ever know. Her humble beginnings coupled with her brilliant mind may be why she had such an impact in the field of astronomy.

She was born on May 15th, 1857, in Dundee, Scotland, Williamina Fleming was one of the nine children of carver Robert Stevens and his wife Mary Walker Stevens. Her education was through the public schools of Scotland but, by the time she was 14, Fleming's intellect was apparent to all of those around her and she began student teaching at the public school she had attended. Fleming enjoyed her work and continued on as a teacher until she met and married the widower James Orr Fleming.

Williamina and her husband immigrated to the United States shortly after their marriage and settled in the town of Boston, Massachusetts in December of 1878. Within a few weeks of settling in Boston, Williamina discovered that she was pregnant. This was not the joyous occasion for Williamina that it should have been for a few months later, after only two years of marriage, her husband left her to bear and raise the child alone.

America was a dangerous place to live in 1879. It was just a few years after the Battle of Little Bighorn and shortly after Wild Bill had been shot in a saloon gun fight. There were only 38 states, so much of the country was still frontier. It was a dangerous place for most but, for a single pregnant woman, it could be terrifying.

She was an ocean away from everyone and everything she knew. Alone and pregnant she began looking for work. During her time, a woman who was left by her husband had little prospects and was likely to starve, resort to begging, or turn to prostitution to stave off poverty. Though her prospects were limited, she eventually found work as a housekeeper for the director of Harvard Observatory, Edward Pickering.

While she was grateful for the job, it was a difficult adjustment to go from a school teacher and educated woman to a maid in a household which had all of the things she was unable to afford her own family. It was truly life changing for her. Despite the strike to her pride, Fleming did her job without complaint for the sake of her son. Little did she know that her job as a housekeeper would eventually be the ticket to her success.

The story goes that one day Edward Pickering was frustrated by the ineptitude of his male assistants and said "my housekeeper could do a better job," then he followed through by hiring her. In actuality, this story may be true, but Pickering was a smart man and would not have hired Fleming had it not been for the 'obviously superior education and intelligence' she possessed.

Professional Years

Pickering was right in his belief that Fleming would do an outstanding job as an assistant. She set the premise for the hiring of more women at Harvard College Observatory (HCO) in later years. She was the first of the notable "Pickering's Ladies."

Though maternity leave was a laughable notion in the Victorian era, Fleming was able to journey back to Scotland in 1879 in order to give birth to her son Edward Pickering Fleming, while surrounded by friends and family. The fact that Fleming gave her son Edward Pickering's name is a direct credit to the impression he made on her. For the next two years Fleming was a part-time assistant at the observatory as well as keeping up with her housekeeping duties for Pickering, all this while she was raising a son on her own.

The level of detail and thoroughness persuaded Pickering to make Fleming a permanent, and full-time, member of the Harvard College Observatory staff in 1881. She took this opportunity to devise and implement a system for star classification which assigned stars a letter based on how much hydrogen was observable in their spectra. Her system, which was later revised by Annie Jump Cannon, had stars labelled with an "A" containing the most hydrogen. Just below that were the "B" stars with less hydrogen, and so on. Fleming's system ranked stars from "A" to "Q," with the omission of letters "I," "J," and "P." Any stars whose classification was unknown or which didn't fit neatly into another category were put into the "Q" category.

Pickering, by his own admission, underrated the work that the female "computers" had to do. He found that women were just as capable as men at doing the this tedious task. He also quickly discovered that by hiring women, he could save money, since women could be paid pennies compared to men. It was the exceptional work of Fleming that opened the door for so many other women at the HCO.

"Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
"Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt. | Source

Video on Female Harvard Astronomy Computers and Their Accomplishments

Her Work at Harvard College Observatory

In 1886, Anna Draper gave the observatory considerable funding to finish her late husband’s work. The Henry Draper catalogue was to be a compilation of photographic plates of stellar spectra from the entire sky. These were nowhere close to the photographs that are thought of today. They were the size of a 78 RPM record. The stars on these glass plates appeared as hundreds of grey and black spots, some even appeared as pencil smudges. The color, chemical composition, temperature and location of the stars had to be gathered through these "specks."

The cold, damp, and dark conditions within the observatory were not considered "appropriate" settings for women. By using photographic plates however, women were able to study the stars in the relative comfort of an office.

When the very first Henry Draper Catalogue was published in 1890, Fleming was not listed as an author even though she had personally aided the cataloguing of most of the 10,351 stars which were contained within. Pickering did acknowledge Fleming's contributions, which led to her being widely recognized within the astronomical community.

The monumental task of examining, indexing, cataloguing and caring for the photographic plates originally belong to a woman named Nettie Farrar. At the time Fleming was simply a "computer" responsible for calculating the star's positions and accurately identifying them. When Farrar left the following year, Fleming was put in charge of Farrar's former duties.

After over a decade, twelve years in fact, of painstaking work, Fleming was finally recognized by Harvard and bestowed with the title of Curator of Astronomical Photographs. She was the first woman in history to receive any appointment of such a grand magnitude.

Fleming's appointment as curator provided her with a new wealth of responsibilities. She was now in charge of interviewing and supervising applicants. Though the females who worked at the nearby Lowell mill were paid a better wage then the women at the observatory, there were unique benefits to working at the observatory. Though most of the women at HCO had no formal astronomical training, they were given a very rare opportunity to use their minds and expand their horizons. Despite their lack of training, each one of "Pickering's harem" applied insight and intelligence to their work.

Pickering encourage all of the women working as computers to regularly attend conferences and to write research papers in order for them to flourish in the field professionally. This met with a lot of criticism from his male colleagues, many of whom were convinced that hiring women was a novelty which would soon wear off.

Luckily, for the women that would follow, this criticism would prove false. Not only was hiring women not a novelty, but each woman who worked at the observatory under Pickering added a new element. Women such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Antonia Maury all got their opportunities because Fleming had paved the way. Each one proved she was deserved her spot and made significant contributions to their field.

One of Pickering's biggest critics, William Elkin, director of the Yale Observatory, later retracted his criticism saying "Not only are women available at smaller salaries than men, but for routine work they have important advantages. Men are more likely to grow impatient after the novelty of the work has worn off and would be harder to retain for that reason."

Fleming was a petite woman with dark hair. A photograph taken of the women who worked at the HCO in 1890 shows women with long dresses, high-necked shirts, with their hair coiled upon their heads. Those some of the photographs could mistakenly look like the women are sewing, they are indeed closely inspecting photographic plates.

 Horsehead Nebula (also known as Barnard 33 in emission nebula IC 434) is a dark nebula in the constellation Orion.
Horsehead Nebula (also known as Barnard 33 in emission nebula IC 434) is a dark nebula in the constellation Orion. | Source

The Late Years

Over the course of Fleming's career, she discovered 10 novae, 59 gaseous nebulae, 94 Wolf-Rayet stars and over 300 variable stars, of which the majority were long period variable stars. This was equally remarkable within the eyes of Victorian society that she possessed no formal astronomical training and that she was a woman.

The Royal Astronomical Society took notice of Fleming's contributions to the discipline of astronomy and elected her as a member of their organization. She was the first American Woman to be admitted into the society. She was also made an honorary fellow from Wellesley College, a Harvard affiliate and a member of the Astronomical Society of France and the Astronomical Society of Mexico. Fleming received a prestigious gold medal from the Mexican Astronomical Society for her work in the discovery of new variable stars.

The true highlight of Fleming's career came in the year 1910. This was the year that she discovered white dwarfs, which we now know are very dense and hot stars which appear white in color.

Williamina Fleming worked at the observatory until her pneumonia related death on the 21st of May 1911, just after her 54th birthday. She died in Boston, where she had spent the majority of her life. Though her life was not as long as some of the women she worked with, her contributions were truly remarkable. During the course of the thirty years Fleming worked at the observatory, she catalogued over 10,000 stars.

Looking back on a photographic plate that is stored in the Harvard archives, one plate, numbered B2312, is of notable interest. It is on this plate that Fleming first noted a "semicircular indentation 5 minutes in diameter 30 minutes south of Zeta (Orionis)." It was not until the launched of the Hubble Telescope, many years after her death, that astronomers realized that the semicircular indentation Fleming had discovered was indeed the stunning Horsehead nebula.

At first, Fleming went uncredited for her discovery, since only Pickering's name was present on the Henry Draper Catalogue, but a later version gives her the posthumous credit she deserves. After Fleming's death, Annie Jump Cannon took over as curator. Cannon was a protégé of Fleming and spend her time building on and ultimately improving the work which Fleming had started.

The breakthroughs which Williamina Fleming made in the field of Astronomy were great. Ultimately though, her biggest contribution was the trail she blazed for women. It goes beyond the scope of astronomy, granted that is a very big scope, and into every field in which any woman ever dared dream to work. At a time when women could only be maids, secretaries, sewers, mothers, and wives, Fleming went head on into a "man's field" and showed up the men along the way. Still, to this day, many know her as Scotland's shining star.

Cannon, Anne and Doug West. In The Footsteps of Columbus (Annotated): Introduction and Biography Included. C&D Publications. 2015.

Yount, Lisa. Edward Pickering and His Women "Computers": Analyzing the Stars (Trailblazers in Science and Technology). Chelsea House Pub. 2012.

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    • 1701TheOriginal profile image

      Leonard Kelley 3 years ago

      And what a feat especially for a woman back then. True determination.

    • dougwest1 profile image
      Author

      Doug West 3 years ago from Raymore, MO

      Thanks. Glad you liked the article. She did overcome major obstacles to become a recognized astronomer. Apparently, tenacity and hard work do pay off.

    • 1701TheOriginal profile image

      Leonard Kelley 3 years ago

      As always, a pleasure to read.