Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was a pioneer in the field of astronomy and one of the most eminent female astronomers of the twentieth century. She was the first to apply the laws of atomic physics to the study of the temperature and density of stellar bodies and to conclude that hydrogen and helium, the two lightest elements, were also the two most common elements in the universe.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's revelation that hydrogen, the simplest of the known elements, was the most abundant substance in the universe has since become the basis for analysis of the cosmos. Yet she is not officially credited with the discovery, made when she was a 25-year-old doctoral candidate at Harvard, because her conservative male superiors convinced her to retract her findings on stellar hydrogen and publish a far less definitive statement. While she is perhaps best known for her later work in identifying and measuring variable stars with her husband, Sergei I. Gaposchkin, Payne-Gaposchkin helped forge a path for other women in the sciences through her staunch fight against sexual discrimination at Harvard College Observatory, where she eventually became the first woman appointed to full professor and the first woman named chairman of a department that was not specifically designated for a woman.

Cecilia Helena Payne was born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, England, the eldest of three children born to Edward John and Emma Leonora Helena (Pertz) Payne of Coblenz, Prussia. Her father, a London barrister, died when she was four years old. Her mother, a painter and musician, introduced her to the classics, of which she remained fond throughout her life. Payne-Gaposchkin recalled that Homer's Odyssey was the first book her mother read to her as a child. She knew Latin by the time she was 12 years old, became fluent in French and German, and showed an early interest in botany and algebra. As a schoolgirl in London she was influenced by the works of Isaac Newton, Thomas Huxley, and Emmanuel Swedenborg.

In 1919 she won a scholarship to Newnham College at Cambridge University, where she studied botany, chemistry, and physics. During her studies there, she became fascinated with astronomy after attending a lecture on Albert Einstein's theory of relativity given by Sir Arthur Eddington, the university's foremost astronomer. Upon completion of her studies in 1923 (at that time women were not granted degrees at Cambridge), Payne-Gaposchkin sought and obtained a Pickering Fellowship (an award for female students) from Harvard to study under Harlow Shapley, the newly appointed director of the Harvard Observatory. Thus, Payne-Gaposchkin embarked for the United States, hoping to find better opportunities as a woman in astronomy. Harvard Observatory in Boston, Massachusetts, became her home for the rest of her career—a "stony-hearted stepmother," she was said to have called it.

Payne-Gaposchkin's career at Harvard began in 1925, when she was given an ambiguous staff position at the Harvard Observatory. By that time she had already published six papers on her research in the field of stellar atmospheres. That same year, she was awarded the first-ever Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe. Her doctoral dissertation, Stellar Atmospheres, was published as Monograph No. 1 of the Harvard Observatory. A pioneering work in the field, it was the first paper written on the subject and was the first research to apply Indian physicist Meghnad Saha's recent theory of ionization (the process by which particles become electrically charged by gaining or losing electrons) to the science of measuring the temperature and chemical density of stars. However, she was discouraged in her views and was convinced to alter them by Henry Norris Russell, a renowned astronomer at Princeton who several years later reached her same conclusions and published them, thereby receiving credit for their origin. Despite this, Payne-Gaposchkin's research remains highly regarded today; Otto Struve, a notable astronomer of the period, was quoted in Mercury magazine as saying that Stellar Atmospheres was "undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy."

In 1926 when she was 26 years old, she became the youngest scientist to be listed in American Men of Science. But her position at Harvard Observatory remained unacknowledged and unofficial. It was not until 1938 that her work as a lecturer and researcher was recognized and she was granted the title of astronomer, which she later requested to be changed to Phillips Astronomer. From 1925 until 1938 she was considered a technical assistant to Shapley, and none of the courses she taught were listed in the Harvard catalogue until 1945. Finally, in 1956 when her colleague Donald Menzel replaced Shapley as director of the Harvard Observatory, Payne-Gaposchkin was "promoted" to professor, given an appropriate salary, and named chairman of the Department of Astronomy—the first woman to hold a position at Harvard University that was not expressly designated for a woman.

Payne-Gaposchkin's years at Harvard remained productive despite her scant recognition. She was a tireless researcher with a prodigious memory and an encyclopedic knowledge of science. She devoted a large part of her research to the study of stellar magnitudes and distances. Following her 1934 marriage to Gaposchkin, a Russian emigre astronomer, the couple pioneered research into variable stars (stars whose luminosity fluctuates), including research on the structure of the Milky Way and the nearby galaxies known as the Magellanic Clouds. Through their studies they made over two million magnitude estimates of the variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds.

From the 1920s until Payne-Gaposchkin's death on December 7, 1979, she published over 150 papers and several monographs, including "The Stars of High Luminosity" (1930), a virtual encyclopedia of astrophysics, and Variable Stars (1938), a standard reference book of astronomy written with her husband. She also published four books in the 1950s on the subject of stars and stellar evolution. Moreover, though she retired from her academic post at Harvard in 1966, becoming Emeritus Professor of Harvard University the following year, she continued to write and conduct research until her death. Her autobiography, writings collected after her death by her daughter, Katherine Haramundanis, was entitled Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections and was published in 1984.

Payne-Gaposchkin was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society while she was a student at Cambridge in 1923, and the following year she was granted membership in the American Astronomical Society. She became a citizen of the United States in 1931. She and her husband had three children: Edward, born in 1935, Katherine, born in 1937, and Peter, born in 1940—a noted programmer analyst and physicist in his own right. In 1934 Payne-Gaposchkin received the Annie J. Cannon Prize for significant contributions to astronomy from the American Astronomical Society. In 1936 she was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society. Among her honorary degrees and medals, awarded in recognition of her contributions to science, are honorary doctorates of science from Wilson College (1942), Smith College (1943), Western College (1951), Colby College (1958), and Women's Medical College of Philadelphia (1961), as well as an honorary master of arts and doctorate of science from Cambridge University, England (1952). She won the Award of Merit from Radcliffe College in 1952, the Rittenhouse Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1961, and was the first woman to receive the Henry Norris Russell Prize of the American Astronomical Society in 1976. In 1977 the minor planet 1974 CA was named Payne-Gaposchkin in her honor.

Payne-Gaposchkin is remembered as a woman of boundless enthusiasm who refused to give up her career at a time when married women with children were expected to do so; she once shocked her superiors by giving a lecture when she was five months pregnant. Jesse Greenstein, astronomer at the California Institute of Technology and friend of Payne-Gaposchkin, recalled in The Sciences magazine that "she was charming and humorous," a person given to quoting Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Her daughter remembers her in the autobiography Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin as a "world traveler, … an inspired seamstress, an inventive knitter and a voracious reader." Quoted in Sky and Telescope, Payne-Gaposchkin revealed that nothing compares to "the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something."


Further Reading on Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Abir-Am, P. and D. Outram, editors, Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science 1789-1979, Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Kass-Simon, G. and Patricia Farnes, editors, Women of Science: Righting the Record, Indiana University Press, 1990.

Bartusiak, Marcia, "The Stuff of Stars," in The Sciences, September/October, 1993, pp. 34-39.

Dobson, Andrea K. and Katherine Bracher, "A Historical Introduction to Women in Astronomy," in Mercury, January/February 1992, pp. 4-15.

Lankford, John, "Explicating an Autobiography," in Isis, March 1985, pp. 80-83.

Lankford, John and Ricky L. Slavings, "Gender and Science: Women in American Astronomy, 1859-1940," in Physics Today, March 1990, pp. 58-65.

Smith, E., "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin," in Physics Today, June 1980, pp. 64-66.

Whitney, C., "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Astronomer's Astronomer," in Sky and Telescope, March 1980, page 212-214.