The short story of astronomer Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming, circa 1890s

“We cannot maintain that in everything woman is man’s equal. Yet in many things her patience, perseverance, and method make her his superior.”
Williamina Fleming was in her early 20s, a recent immigrant from Scotland to Boston, and pregnant when her husband left her.
Responsible now to raise their son, she took a job as a housekeeper in the home of Edward Pickering, who was the Director of Harvard College Observatory.
As the story goes, one day when frustrated with the men he employed, Edward yelled out that “My Scottish maid could do better!” While said in jest, there was much truth to his comment.
Williamina was an advanced student while in Scotland. She was a pupil-teacher by the time she was 14 years old and continued to teach for five years until she got married.
In 1881, Edward hired Williamina as the first of what would become a famous group of Harvard Computers. All women, they studied the stars through glass plate photographs. Then only a few years later, while still not even 30 years old, Williamina became curator of astronomical photographs. This role came with the responsibility of managing a dozen women computers.
The work was a grind. Williamina wrote in her diary:

“In the Astrophotographic building of the Observatory, 12 women, including myself, are engaged in the care of the photographs…. From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.”

Williamina become a prominent astronomer of her time, one of most prominent amongst women. She received many awards, earned numerous honors. She became the first American woman elected as an honorary member of the British Royal Astronomical Society. And she would go on to discover 10 novae, 52 nebulae, and 310 new variable stars.