Friday, December 28, 2012

Notable Women in Science: Historical Astronomers

by Adrienne Roehrich, Chemistry Editor

as·tron·o·mer   [uh-stron-uh-mer] noun an expert in astronomy; a scientific observer of the celestial bodies. Origin: 1325–75; Middle English;

The women featured in this post gazed at the stars and studied celestial bodies scientifically.

Emma T.R. Williams Vyssotsky (1894-1975) is often overshadowed by her husband. In fact, she is so overshadowed that the link provided links to an article on her husband that mentioned her. She received her B.A. in mathematics from Swarthmore College in 1916, and had a career teaching math and as an actuary. She returned to school to receive her Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College in 1930. She received the Annie Jump Cannon Medal in 1946.

Her passion for mathematics led her to pursue her undergraduate degree in math. Finding positions for a woman in math was very difficult, and she longed for something more. She married a Russian astronomer, Alexander Vyssotsky, the same year she finished the requirements for her Ph.D. The degree was awarded when she was 35. She relocated to the University of Virginia to follow her husband’s career. Dr. Vyssotsky was hired as an instructor while her husband became an assistant professor. As a team, the Vyssotskys discovered dwarf stars using a special objective prism. Unfortunately, Dr. Vyssotsky suffered a disabling illness, causing her to leave the University in 1944. She was unable to return to work because a cure for her illness was unknown for 13 more years. She capped her astronomical career with a monograph written with her husband, An Investigation of Stellar Motions.

Helen W. Dodson Prince (1905-2002) was a renowned solar flare researcher. Born on the last day of the year in 1905, Helen W. Dodson received her B.A. in mathematics from Goucher College in 1927. She worked briefly as a statistician before taking her M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1932. She secured a position as an assistant professor at Wellesley College for 12 years and earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1934. She spent several sabbaticals at Observatories all over the world. She moved to assistant professor at Goucher College and received her Sc.D. there in 1952. Again, she moved universities to the University of Michigan and became a Professor of Astronomy there. She also was Associate Director of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory during the same years. She married Edmund Prince a little later in life. She received the Annie Jump Cannon Award and the Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Michigan.

Even though her chosen field requiring mathematics and physics was dominated by men, Dr. Prince made the decision to pursue her talents. Her research delved into 25 Orionis and contributed to the mathematical development of radar. Her work at the McMath-Hulbert Observatory stands out especially since she was one of the few female solar astronomers at the time, her work was cutting edge, and the observatory originated as a volunteer institution before becoming a part of the university and had low expectations. Even after her tenure as Assistant Director ended, she continued research at the observatory until she retired at age 74.

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) is considered the first woman astronomer in the U.S.A. Born on Nantucket Island, Maria Mitchell was shaped by her family’s Quaker religion, which instilled the importance of education, sensible living, and eschewing the frivolous. She had no official degrees awarded, but worked as a librarian, a computer, and a professor of astronomy and director of observatory at Vassar College. Her early love of the sky connected her to her father, who was known to captains on Nantucket Island. She would adjust chronometers in her father’s absence. She attended her father’s school, and opened her own school at age 17, using unconventional teaching methods. She studied mathematics and astronomy on her own, and learned to use a sextant, a simple reflecting telescope and a Dollard telescope.

Maria Mitchell
Her love of the sky is noted by her observance of the eclipse of 1831 and her discovery of the Comet Mitchell in 1847.  Her father’s contacts confirmed Maria’s discovery and due to a pronouncement by the King of Denmark to award a gold medal to the first discoverer of a comet by telescope, Mitchell became famous in both the U.S. and Europe. This capstone capitulated to be the first, and only for many many years, woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Using the opportunity as a chaperone to the daughter of a wealthy family, she was able to travel to Europe and meet leading astronomers and visit their observatories. After this, she began to focus on the role of women in science. When Vassar College opened, she was persuaded to take a position there to teach and perform her research. Her experimental teaching style persisted, and gained her an excellent reputation. She promoted the sisterhood of “women studying together.” She was an inspiration to her students, many of whom also became famous for their own work. Maria Mitchell was an amazing woman of science.

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