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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,027

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This is the grave of Willamina Fleming.

Born in 1857 in Dundee, Scotland, Fleming grew up in the middle class, taught a bit as a young woman, then married an accountant. In 1877, they decided to move to the United States. They lived in Boston. Then her husband abandoned the family, leaving her as a single mother of one son in a time that was very unforgiving to single mothers. So she got about the only job she could–as a maid. But in a sense, she got lucky here. She became the maid at the home of Edward Pickering, who was the head of the Harvard Observatory. It became clear very quickly to Pickering and his wife that their new maid had talents far beyond cooking and cleaning. This was a very smart woman. So in 1879, Pickering gave her a job in his laboratory. At first this was just in helping out with the books and the like, but she was so smart and so good that she quickly became one of Pickering’s most important assistants.

Pickering seems to have been the rare scientist of his day who thought that women had a place in science. One of his contributions was the creation of what he called the Harvard Computers. This was an all-women group of mathematically very smart people to collect data. Now, let’s not give Pickering too much credit here. It’s quite clear from the record that the reason it was an all-women team is that he could pay them less then men and thus hire more people. Moreover, the wages were terrible. When he hired Fleming as one of the first Computers, he didn’t really raise her pay from what she made as a maid. Moreover, even the women with academic astronomy training were brought in at the same terrible pay rate, less than they could make working in a factory, though the job was certainly less dangerous and more pleasant than factory work. Fleming’s first job as one of the Computers was to work on an existing catalog of stellar spectra. She confronted Pickering about the terrible wages, writing in her diary, “I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand.…Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?…And this is considered an enlightened age!” But even after years of complaining, Pickering refused to raise the salaries of his Computers. He just didn’t care.

But Fleming was so good at this that she soon rose to a position as one of the nation’s leading astronomers. After the astronomer Henry Draper died, his wealthy widow and fellow astronomer Mary Draper gave Harvard a ton of money. The Henry Draper Catalog became a project to categorize every star that could be found given the technology of the day. This began in 1918, after Fleming’s death and is one of the most important moments in American astronomical history. But the money had come long before that and Fleming was placed in charge of one of the earlier iterations of this and she pushed forward, over some objection, the principle that the classification should be simple and comprehensible. The first Henry Draper Catalog was published in 1890, put together by the Harvard Computers. This classified over 10,000 stars based on the spectrum. Most of the work was done by Fleming. Much of the work was taking photographs of the stars through the telescope. Her expertise in this led her to be named the Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard, making her the first woman to hold the job.

Fleming was a serious discover of stars. She discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888. Even more remarkable, she discovered the first white dwarf star, publishing her pioneering work on this in 1910. In fact, she was a pretty prolific publisher of important astronomical works. Another of her key publications is A Photographic Study of Variable Stars, which covered 222 of the stars she had discovered. Her last book was Spectra and Photographic Magnitudes of Stars in Standard Regions, published in 1911. Part of Fleming’s work was editing the Annals of the projects, which led her to the point in academia where you are editing more than writing. She wrote: “If one could only go on and on with original work…, life would be a most beautiful dream; but you…use most of your available time preparing the work of others for publication.” I think a lot of people have felt this way over the years. She became well-known and respected during her lifetime. The Royal Astronomical Society named her a honorary fellow in 1906. The same year she was named a honorary fellow of astronomy at Wellesley College. The Mexican Academy of Sciences awarded her its gold medal in 1910, I assume just before the Mexican Revolution broke out.

Moreover, Fleming wasn’t just a woman happy in the laboratory. She was pretty angry that women did not get the same respect in science as men and she spoke out about it. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, she gave a speech arguing for women in science. Titled “A Field for Woman’s Work in Astronomy,” she went through the motions of arguing that women were inferior intellects to men, but said that if women were hired as assistants such as she was, that they would grow into equality with men. Although largely considered a taskmaster to those working under her, Fleming was also known for giving lavish dinner parties, at least after she earned enough money to do this. I don’t know how much she eventually earned, but she did complain in her diary that her son seemed to believe that money was just there and didn’t need to be worked for, the long-time complaint of the parent who had to work hard and has now succeeded about their lazy and privileged children. In any case, she earned enough to send him through MIT.

Unfortunately, Fleming came down with pneumonia in 1911 and it killed her. She was 54 years old.

It took years for Fleming to get credit for her work, as she and the other women as part of this project were largely erased from the public record for decades.

Willamina Fleming is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other leading female astronomers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Henrietta Swan Levitt is also in Cambridge, though at a different cemetery, and Maria Mitchell is in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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