Williamina Fleming – A Snapshot Biography

In the late 1870s, Williamina Fleming was in her early 20s and a recent U.S. immigrant from Scotland. She had come married with a child, but her husband abandoned the family shortly after arriving. Responsible for raising their son, she took a job as a housekeeper in the home of Edward Pickering, the Director of Harvard College Observatory.

As the story goes, one day, when frustrated with the men he employed, Edward yelled out, “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 14 years old and continued teaching for five years until she 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. Within a few years, the team classified over ten thousand stars.

Williamina became a prominent astronomer of her time, one of the most prominent among women, receiving many awards and numerous honors. She became the first American woman elected an honorary member of the British Royal Astronomical Society. And she would discover ten novae, 59 nebulae, and 310 new variable stars. As she achieved much success and helped her team thrive, she also stood up for women in science, advocating for the hiring of women.


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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another astronomer, Annie Jump Cannon.

“Williamina Fleming – A Snapshot Biography” sources:

“Fleming, Williamina Paton Stevens” by Kéri Katalin. Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Science – Business Media, LLC. 233 Spring Street, New York, NY 10013, USA, 2007, p. 375 ( https://bit.ly/2Nx8Sdd) / Project Continua / The Women Who Mapped the Universe And Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect by Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian Magazine / Williamina Fleming – Wikipedia

To cite:

“Williamina Fleming – A Snapshot Biography.” Historical Snapshots.