a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia (1900-1980)

Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia (1900-1980)

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Portrait by Patricia Watwood, Courtesy of the Harvard Portrait Collection.

“The Most Brilliant Ph.D Thesis
Ever Written in Astronomy” 

By Owen Gingrich,
Harvard Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics

I first arrived at Harvard College Observatory just over fifty years ago. I was a very green undergraduate, a summer assistant for Dr. Shapley—that’s how the entire staff referred to him—and I had an office across from his in Building D. Mrs. G.—that’s what everyone called Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin—seemed a formidable, rather remote presence, “of imposing stature and stormy personality” as Jesse Greenstein characterized her.1 I can’t remember where she sat, but Sergei—that’s how we all referred to her feisty husband—had his office on the stairs up to the 15″ telescope, and the graduate students assumed that their two offices were widely separated to keep the stormy personalities from asserting themselves too conspicuously.

Those initial impressions seem curiously at odds with my later memories, for though Mrs. G. was always formidable in both intellect and stature, she soon struck me as gentle and kind. Our paths came together in my first semester in graduate school, when I enrolled in her “Introduction to Observational Astrophysics.” She taught the course in Byerly Hall in the Radcliffe Yard, where all the astronomy classes open to undergraduates then met. This is where I really learned what “chain smoking” was. A pack of cigarettes and a single match could get her through the entire period. Basically hers was a course about stellar spectroscopy. Her teaching fellows were kept very busy producing packs of photographic spectra for us—of Eta Carina, T Corona Borealis, Zeta Puppis, and Nova Herculis, of sunspots and the Lick moving spectra of the flash spectrum, from anywhere that suitable examples could be found. She produced for us extensive lists of lines, and she taught us how to use Charlotte Moore’s multiplet tables. She carefully marched us through one fascinating spectrum after another. The individual stars were her friends, and so were the spectral lines. She probably knew most of them by memory.

Gaposchkin family

Katherine, Edward, Sergei Gaposchkin, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin in her office in 1946. Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.

Mrs. G told me how she had been converted to astronomy. She had heard a lecture by Arthur Eddington on relativity, and had been so impressed that she went back to her room and copied it all out. “I know I got it right,” she added slyly, “because he later published his lecture.”

For the observational astrophysics class she borrowed a spectacular plate of a Zeeman spectrum from MIT, and it fell to me to analyze it for my class project. Years later, after she had died, I wanted to publish a sample of a Zeeman spectrum, but I had forgotten not only what atom it was, but the wavelength range as well. I sought help from Charlotte Moore Sitterly and others, but in vain. Finally one of Alex Dalgarno’s colleagues in New York said, “I can’t identify the atom, but the j values of the transitions are 42-52 and so on down.” That was all I needed to identify it as vanadium, multiplet 22 in the multiplet tables, and I felt very smug about Mrs. G.’s legacy—there can’t have been very many other students in the country trained to handle such a problem. She always loved puzzles like that.

I was destined to be her thesis student, but some of the same circumstances that had eventually pulled her away from her first love, spectroscopy, also posed serious obstacles for me, and eventually I turned to a computational dissertation. Nevertheless, I kept in close touch with Mrs. G., learning her views on Italian art or paleolithic axes or mosaic woodworking or the earliest printed edition of Reynard the Fox, all topics that deeply interested her. Occasionally she reflected historically, on her admiration for Eddington, or how Dr. Shapley was the best conversationalist she had ever met. “Everyone adored him,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Adelaide [Ames] and I called him ‘the Dear Director,’ and soon he was affectionately known as ‘the D.D.’. In spite of a vigorous scientific companionship, Dr. Shapley kept his distance. He never forgot, or let me forget, that he was the Director of the Observatory. I knew him for more than 50 years, and never once did he call me by my first name.”2

Personally I don’t know of anyone who called Dr. Shapley by his first name. From time to time he would set up tables in the Phillips Library in the form of a square, and the staff would gather round as he introduced visitors or expanded on the latest astronomical gossip. He called these sessions “Hollow Squares,” but the graduate students referred to them as “Harlow Squares.” There is a legend that when Cecilia Payne and Sergei Gaposchkin eloped in 1934, Dr. Shapley announced it at a Hollow Square and that Miss Cannon fainted dead away. In any event, I knew Mrs. G. for just over 30 years, more than half the time she spent at Harvard, but I don’t recall if I ever called her by her first name. Nevertheless, in what follows I shall call her Cecilia simply to remind you that back in the 1920s she was a young graduate student in her 20s.

Cecilia Payne was born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, England to a family with genealogical and intellectual connections to the intelligentsia of England. A box of letters she had inherited from her family included the autographs of Charles Darwin and the geologist Charles Lyell. Her educational trajectory took her to Newnham College in Cambridge, where she was allowed the unusual combination of botany, physics, and chemistry. Though she was soon disillusioned by botany, her love of taxonomy found a natural niche in her ultimate pursuit of astronomy, where she eventually became a relentless classifier of variable stars.

But her interests turned more and more strongly to physics and then, inspired by Eddington’s lecture on relativity, to astronomy. Among the courses she audited was one by the distinguished physicist Ernest Rutherford, and in her autobiography, The Dyer’s Hand, she records a wonderful anecdote:

“The stress was on observation. ‘One thoroughgoing experiment,’ Rutherford thundered in one of his lectures, ‘is worth all the theories in the world. . .’ Years later Eddington uttered the dictum that he would not believe an observation unless it was supported by a good theory. I was an astronomer by that time and knew him well. I told him I was shocked by his pronouncement. He smiled gently. ‘I thought it would be good for Rutherford,’ he said.”3

In May of 1922 the newly appointed director of Harvard College Observatory visited England and spoke at the Royal Astronomical Society. Cecilia, in the audience, was captivated, and after the lecture expressed to him her desire to study astronomy at Harvard Observatory. Nine months later she wrote:

Dear Professor Shapley,

I had the pleasure of seeing you at the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in May last, when I believe I said to you that I hoped to come and work at Harvard. I had decided some time previously that if it were possible I should wish to do research work under you. When, some months later, I consulted Professor Eddington, under whom I had been doing some work, as to what he would advise me to do if I were able to continue my studies at another University, he advised me most strongly to come to Harvard if I could. This advice coincided completely with my own wishes and ambitions.

I am extremely anxious to come if it is possible and am prepared to undertake anything that would enable me to work at Harvard. . . .4

Payne-Gaposchkin in the lab

Making observations with a blink microscope. Photo Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives.

Shapley encouraged her dream, but as Mrs. G. once confided to me years later, she thought he was quite startled when she actually showed up in the American Cambridge. But Shapley was not really taken by surprise, for there was a substantial correspondence preparing the way for her arrival. Included were fellowship recommendations from her mentors in England, and the common theme was her great enthusiasm. Eddington wrote, “I think her work shows much promise. . . . She . . . in addition possesses the valuable qualities of enthusiasm and energy in her work.”5 William Smart remarked, “It gives me great pleasure to testify to the abilities and enthusiasm of Miss Payne.” Leslie Comrie observed, “Of her purely academic qualifications others are more competent to judge than I, but of her personal qualities of energy, perseverance and enthusiasm I can speak highly. . . . Should she be elected I feel certain that she will take her place worthily in the line of women astronomers that Harvard has nourished.” G. F. C. Searle, University Lecturer in Experimental Physics, wrote, “She is a thoroughly earnest student and very keen on her work.” And particularly touching is the recommendation from Frances Gray, head mistress of St. Paul’s Girls’ School: “It is not my practice to admit girls who have reached the age at which Cecilia Payne was admitted [age 17], but I was requested to make an exception in her case by the headmistress of the School she had previously attended, who assured me that she was a girl of very unusual promise.” She continues:

“I soon saw for myself that this promise was likely to be fulfilled, and that Cecilia Payne had originality and ability far in advance of the originality and ability of the ordinary clever school-girl. I was very much struck, also, by her power of presenting a difficult subject in a lucid and attractive manner. I heard her give to the Science Club of the School a remarkably clear and interesting lecture on Aviation. It would not have been unworthy of an experienced teacher of Physics.”

In responding to Shapley’s encouragement, Cecilia wrote, “It is very good of you to say that I may work at Harvard under you, and I think it is a most inspiring prospect, which I shall do everything in my power to attain. . . .”

“I am extremely glad that you suggest the photographic study of variable stars as a possible line of work for me. I had hoped that you might suggest this subject, which has interested me perhaps more than any other branch, although I have done no original work upon it yet.”6

In a letter that crossed hers Shapley again emphasized this kind of research: “As it is most likely that your work will lie along photometric lines, I should like to suggest that you familiarize yourself, if you have time before leaving England, with some of Miss Leavitt’s and Professor Seares’ work on photometric standards.”7

By September of 1923 Cecilia had arrived on these shores. Soon she was busily working, not on photometry, but on spectra under Annie Cannon’s tutelage. Before twelve months had passed she had won a class day prize (which took her by surprise) and she had gone to the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Toronto, where Henry Norris Russell and Harvard’s professor Frederick Saunders made sure that she met J.S. Plaskett, Ralph H. Fowler, Alfred Fowler, and Georges Lemaître (whom she described as “almost too good to be true—not shy, a sense of humour, enthusiasm, and . . . surprising mental quality”)8. Her trip to Toronto included a highly memorable excursion to Niagara Falls, described to her fellow astronomy student Margaret Harwood:

When we arrived I decided that solitude and silence were the only way to see the Falls, so I slipped away . . . and went off to stand by myself at the head of the Horseshoe Falls. . . . I don’t know how long I was there, but I seemed to have been there always, when I turned around and found the only other person in the world whom I should have liked to be there, standing beside me. He also I suppose was after silence and solitude. I must say that was a good moment. . . .

I went down to the foot of the Canadian Falls and was thrilled by the water coming down with such a roar; and I walked around everywhere and drank it all in; and didn’t have to speak a word to a soul the whole time, (except for a probably inapposite but spontaneous comment to Eddington).9

Apparently Eddington went on after the Toronto meeting to lecture in Berkeley, and in November Cecilia got wind of the fact that he would speak at a neighborhood meeting at Yale as he headed back to England—“by accident—not from Shapley, who obviously isn’t anxious to keep me up on this particular news. . . . perhaps Shapley wanted to spare me the pain of knowing it was going on at a meeting which my sex debars me from attending!”10

Payne-Gaposchkin and friends

1941, Lexington, MA. Katherine, Martin Schwardschild, Cecilia,Otis Scammon, Peter, Sergei, and Edward. Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.

Meanwhile, in June of 1924, she had already taken a preliminary general examination for the Ph.D., set by Dr. Shapley and Prof. Saunders. The astronomical part of the exam survives in the Harvard Archives, together with a substantial part of her answers.11 Among other things she was asked to write briefly on the Schaffierkassette, and briefly it was, for concerning the jiggle camera, she only wrote “Schwarzschild method for photographic photometry. Difficulty of application to faint stars” and on two-dimensional time she merely specified, “Eddington (Math Theory of Relativity) An intellectual speculation of a daring kind—no apparent practical bearing of any sort” but this was apparently enough to convince Shapley that she knew what the terms meant. She was equally dismissive of general relativity when asked about future astronomical research and the general theory of relativity. “. . . the contacts between Relativity Theory and future astronomy do not appear to be very important,” she wrote. “It does not . . . seem likely that much work can profitably be attempted with Relativity theory in mind. The theory may prove useful in elucidating observation but at the present stage can hardly guide it.

The academic year 1924-25 was spent researching and writing her doctoral thesis. In her autobiography Mrs. G. reported that, concerning her degree, “One serious obstacle existed: there was no advanced degree in astronomy, and I should have to be accepted as a candidate by the Department of Physics. The redoubtable Chairman of that department was Theodore Lyman, and Shapley reported to me that he refused to accept a woman candidate.”12

Be that as it may, the archival record seems far more routine. In September Lyman wrote,

“My Dear Shapley,

“Strictly speaking I have no right to sign Miss Payne’s application for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, but as I believe that some such action is generally taken in similar cases by the chairman of other Departments, I will gladly affix my signature and forward the paper to the Secretary of Radcliffe.”13

In any event, organizing the degree for Cecilia de facto created the Astronomy Department.

With Sergei

Office of Sergei, with SG, Nov. 1936. Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.

Thus it was that at 2 p.m. Monday May 11 Cecilia had her final oral examination with Dr. Shapley and Prof. Saunders, who as an official member of the Radcliffe faculty had been delegated by Professor Lyman.14 And by June, when she left for a vacation in England, she could write to Shapley from the steamship that “I left a complete MS of my thesis on the desk with the proof.”15

Two months later bound copies of her monograph were available. Shapley reported to her in England that, “I have not looked through the book very critically, but my superficial examinations are sufficiently satisfying. I am particularly pleased with the binding. And of course the contents could be worse. I doubt if as good pieces of work have often before been put through in as short a time.”16

No doubt Cecilia was used to Shapley’s impish sarcasm by this time, and she responded from London, “I am glad you like the binding. I think it is admirable, and if inspection of the volume went only that far, I think it would create a good impression,”17 but a week after his earlier letter Shapley felt modestly apologetic when he wrote, “To counteract some of the sarcastic disparagement by the Director, I am sending you a copy of the first page of a letter just received from Russell. He also writes in detail concerning some points—. . . None of them amount to a great deal—a perfectly astonishing revelation to me.”18

Shapley’s secretary, Arville Walker, typed out a copy of the first page of Russell’s handwritten letter. He wrote as follows:

My dear Shapley [they always addressed each other by their last names!]

Please accept my hearty thanks for your letter, and for the presentation copy of Miss Payne’s admirable book. It is the best doctoral thesis I ever read—with the exception, perhaps, of one on the orbits of eclipsing binaries! [an obvious reference to Shapley’s own thesis written under Russell a decade earlier]—and ought to be strongly recommended, not only to observatory libraries, but to all students of the subject.

As I read it over—I have eaten it up since I got it yesterday—I am especially impressed with the wide grasp of the subject, the clarity of the style, and the value of Miss Payne’s own results. Many of these I knew before; of the others, the conclusion on p. 137 strikes me as especially pretty. To show that so much of the apparent discrepancy in the position of the maximum intensity is traceable to the relative abundance of atoms in higher and lower excitation states, and to have the computed pressures come out as they do after this correction, is very nice indeed.19

This was, in fact, the central brilliant result of Cecilia’s thesis, so let me discontinue this review from the Harvard Archives and turn to the astrophysical background for the monograph itself and to an explanation of this major result.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the temperatures of stars was seen as a central unsolved astrophysical problem. In 1923 and ‘24, when Cecilia began to work on this problem, it was indeed a hot problem in astrophysics. Her solution was so ingenious and satisfactory that it essentially turned the temperature problem into a non-problem, with the result that astronomers tended to forget the significance of this achievement and its consequences. What she did was to use the new quantum mechanical understanding of atomic structure to show how and why the spectral lines of the various elements varied with respect to spectral type, and she established that despite the varied appearance of these spectra, their differences resulted essentially from the physical conditions and not from abundance variations. This chemical homogeneity of the starry universe is the essential point of her thesis, and the conclusion that Russell immediately zeroed in on. It is this result that Otto Struve highlighted when he called her book, Stellar Atmospheres, “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”20 It was a stunning insight into the uniformity of nature in the chemical construction of the universe.

But there is more. In a short chapter entitled “The Relative Abundance of the Elements” there is a ticking time bomb. This is the extremely high abundance of hydrogen and helium that had come out under certain assumptions in the analysis. Although we know today that this high abundance is real, at the time it produced an apparent anomaly with respect to the assumed homogeneity of the solar system. After all, when the earth is taken as a whole, it must be predominately iron in order to account for its high mean density, and this is supported by the fact that meteorites are largely iron and by the appearance of the solar spectrum itself, which shows more lines of iron than any other element. The very important principle of uniformity of nature seemed at stake. As Cecilia herself argued in her thesis, “If . . . the earth originated from the surface layers of the sun, the percentage composition of the whole earth should resemble the composition of the solar (and therefore of a typical stellar) atmosphere. . . . Considering the possibility of atomic segregation both in the earth and in the star, it appears likely that the earth’s crust is representative of the stellar atmosphere.”21 So in her final table of abundances, she omitted hydrogen and helium.

While Cecilia was deep in her thesis research, she took off time in the first days of 1925 to go to the AAS/AAAS meeting in Washington, the famous meeting where Hubble’s results on the distance to M31 were announced. “The D.D. had sent me off with the admonition to ‘breeze up’ to people,” she wrote to her friend Margaret Harwood after her return, “and I thought Brown, of whom I am terrified, would be a good one to start on.”22

Brown encouraged me to join the party . . . and even offered me a cigarette, which I scandalized him by accepting. . . .

After two days I decided to begin “breezing up” as nothing seemed likely to come my way otherwise. From thenceforward I did not listen to any papers. . . . I spent my time selecting victims, oscillating from the Physical to Chemical section in quest of them, leaving astronomy to the other astronomers. In this way I saw J. Q. Stewart, to great effect; also Prof. Compton of Princeton from whom I gleaned much that was of value. The strain of introducing myself to the latter gentleman nearly finished me—but it had to be done. I also saw Smythe of Princeton—an old dancing partner of Cambridge (Eng.) days, who used to be too proud to talk shop, but who now ministered to my pride by recognizing me, and coming up on purpose to discuss one of my papers with me. . . .

On the last evening I was worn out, and also a count of my money revealed the fact that I had not enough to buy me a dinner. You can imagine my gratitude when the D.D. asked me to dine with him and Russell, not only for the honour done me, but for the actual food (I was dreadfully hungry). Adelaide and I always noticed that the D.D. does tactful things like that, apparently on pure inspiration. He had to leave early, and I believe that Russell and I were the only remaining members of the party. After Russell had been broadcast, he came and joined me, and we talked the whole evening—about (can you guess?) poetry and ancient Rome. I should not have thought he was the same man, and I feel quite differently about him—certainly I shall not be afraid personally of him any more. (His power in the astronomical world is another matter, and I shall fear that to my dying day, as the fate of such as I could be sealed by him with a word.)

Many years ago I asked Mrs. G why she had pulled back from what is in retrospect the correct solution to the hydrogen abundances. “Probably Henry Norris Russell talked me out of it,” was her reply. It was in the Princeton Archives that I found what I call “the smoking gun letter,” written about ten days after she had met him in Washington:

January 14, 1925

My dear Miss Payne:

Here, at last, are your notes on relative abundance which you were so good to send me some time ago….
You have some very striking results which appear to me, in general, to be remarkably consistent. Several of the apparent discrepancies can be easily cleared up. [Here Russell discusses Mg, Mg+, and K in some detail.]
There remains one very much more serious discrepancy, namely, that for hydrogen, helium and oxygen. Here I am convinced that there is something seriously wrong with the present theory. It is clearly impossible that hydrogen should be a million times more abundant than the metals, and I have no doubt that the number of hydrogen atoms in the two quantum state is enormously greater than is indicated by the theory of Fowler and Milne. Compton and I sent a little note to ‘Nature’ about metastable states, which may help to explain the difficulty. . . .

Very sincerely yours,

Henry Norris Russell23

In his recent biography of Henry Norris Russell, David DeVorkin writes, “She certainly did not convince Russell, and if Russell knew anything, he knew that her argument would not convince others. . . . He was right. Payne probably knew this.”24

Meanwhile, however, Russell, perhaps after visiting his recent doctoral student, Donald Menzel, at Lick Observatory in January of 1929 and seeing his results on the solar flash spectrum, reconsidered his stance on the hydrogen abundance, and produced that year a monumental ApJ paper entitled, “On the Composition of the Sun’s Atmosphere.”25 DeVorkin points out that Russell’s approach was entirely different from Payne’s. Whereas she has concerned herself primarily with astrophysical evidence, Russell now argued from the physical nature of the hydrogen atom, and only then marshaled support from a variety of astrophysical data. Consequently, as DeVorkin says, “Only at the end of his seventy-one-page ApJ paper did Russell give full credit to Payne’s 1925 conclusions, saying nothing of his original rejection of them. Now he showed how his results agreed with hers, which was ‘very gratifying’ because she had used different methods on her giant stars. A giant star evidently had an outer atmosphere of nearly pure hydrogen, ‘with hardly more than a smell of metallic vapors in it.”26

In the end it was Russell who had the connections and the maturity to bring the many threads of evidence together, and the prestige to persuade the community of the validity of this result. It was thus Russell who Atkinson credited for the large hydrogen abundance in his pioneering 1931 proposal that nuclear fusion could account for the energy output of the sun, though he specifically cited Cecilia’s conclusion that the proportions of the different elements seem to be roughly constant throughout the galaxy.27

Cecilia Payne’s thesis had clearly played a seminal role in the development of astrophysics. As the young Otto Struve, then just an instructor at Yerkes Observatory, wrote in a lengthy review of her monograph for the ApJ in 1926, “Miss Payne’s book is full of useful suggestions for the practical worker. Nearly every page contains references to problems which are open to investigation by the spectroscopist.”28 Like Moses, Cecilia had made a truly memorable contribution. And like Moses, she had glimpsed the promised land, but hadn’t quite got there. With what we know today, we could wish that it were otherwise, but I believe my account tallies with the historical actualities, where it is the person who persuades his colleagues of a new result who gets the credit. But it’s interesting to notice that, when in 1934 Princeton’s president inquired with Henry Norris Russell about a possible staff member to groom as his replacement, Russell wrote that the best candidate in America “alas, is a woman!,—not at present on our staff,” an obvious reference to Cecilia Payne.29

I once owned two copies of Cecilia’s monograph. The first I took to her to autograph. She simply inscribed her name, with none of the flourish that celebrities or my more flamboyant colleagues are wont to use. As a historian, I decided to keep the other copy, once owned by Otto Struve, the some-time director of Yerkes Observatory who had called her monograph “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” I gave the one Mrs. G. had inscribed so meekly to one of my own thesis students. But the modesty of her inscription always reminded me of a philosophical stance that she held and which I still believe is dead wrong. “It doesn’t really matter how you give the credit for a scientific discovery,” she said, “for if one person doesn’t discover it, someone else will.” I’ve always wondered to what extent her own experience with her thesis reinforced that opinion.

In contrast, I strongly hold that individuals in history can make a difference, whether it is in the political, artistic, or scientific arena. I am sure that for many of us, Mrs. G.’s scientific work as well as her mentorship did make a unique difference.

1. Jesse L. Greenstein, “An introduction to ‘The Dyer’s Hand’,” in Katharine Haramundanis (ed.), Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (Cambridge, 1984), p. 8.
2. Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, The Dyer’s Hand: An Autobiography (1979), in Katharine Haramundanis (ed), op. cit., pp. 155-56.
3. Ibid., p. 117.
4. Harvard University Archives, Observatory Director’s papers (Shapley), UA V 630.22 Box 7, Cecilia H. Payne to Harlow Shapley, 26 February 1923. Unless otherwise specified, the letters are from this box.
5. Ibid. (1923 letters of recommendation).
6. Payne to Shapley, 5 April 1923.
7. Shapley to Payne, 16 April 1923.
8. Payne to Shapley, 10 August 1924.
9. Payne to Margaret Harwood, Toronto, 16 August 1924. Harwood Archive, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. I am indebted to David DeVorkin for pointing out these letters.
10. Payne to Harwood, 22 November 1924. Harwood Archive, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
11. A copy of two of the three parts of the Ph.D. preliminary exam is found among Shapley’s personal papers in HUG 773.10.19c. Her answers to Shapley’s part of the exam are found among the director’s papers in UAV 630.22 (1920-29) Box 7 under “Gaposchkin.” I am indebted to Robert Hall for this information.
12. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, op. cit., (note 2), p. 157.
13. Theodore Lyman to Shapley, 20 September 1924 (Box 12).
14. Shapley to Lyman, 6 May 1925 (Box 12).
15. Payne to Shapley, 10 June 1925.
16. Shapley to Dr. Cecilia Payne, 6 August 1925.
17. Payne to Shapley, 20 August 1925.
18. Shapley to Payne, 15 August 1925.
19. Henry Norris Russell to Shapley, 11 August 1925.
20. Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs, Astronomy of the 20th Century (New York, 1962), p. 220.
21. Cecilia H. Payne, Stellar Atmospheres (Harvard Observatory Monograph No. 1) (Cambridge, 1925), p. 185.
22. Payne to Margaret Harwood, 9 January 1925, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
23. Russell to Payne, 14 January 1925, Henry Norris Russell Papers, Series I: Outgoing Correspondence, Box 9, Folder 37; published with permission of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.
24. David DeVorkin, Henry Norris Russell, Dean of American Astronomers (Princeton, 2000), p. 366.
25. Henry Norris Russell, ApJ 70 (1929), 11-82.
26. DeVorkin, op. cit. (note 29), p. 216.
27. Robert d’Escourt Atkinson, ApJ 73 (1931), 292.
28. Otto Struve, ApJ 64 (1926), 204-208.
29. DeVorkin, op. cit. (note 29), p. 341.

© Owen Gingerich

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: The Bravery of a Mind
by Heather Miller

Payne-Gaposchkin at Harvard

Payne, standing behind Everett House. Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.

When Cecilia Payne was five years old, she saw a meteor and immediately decided to become an astronomer: “I was seized with panic at the thought that everything might be found out before I was old enough to begin,” wrote Payne-Gaposhkin at the end of her life. Payne-Gaposchkin’s career reflects her early and prodigious start; she published two major, enduring books on astronomy before the age of 30.

Payne-Gaposchkin’s enthusiasm for science and math was not in keeping with her English upper-class girl’s education, which strongly favored literary interests. In her autobiography The Dyer’s Hand, she recalled that “When I won a coveted prize … I was asked what book I would choose to receive. It was considered proper to select Milton, or Shakespeare. . . .I said I wanted a textbook on fungi. I was deaf to all expostulation: that was what I wanted, and in the end I got it, elegantly bound in leather as befitted a literary giant.

After attending the academically prestigious St. Paul’s Girls School in London, Payne won a scholarship to study Natural Sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge University in 1919. At that time in England, a woman’s postgraduate career opportunities were limited to teaching. A brilliant student more interested in physics than natural sciences, she was advised by Professor Arthur Stanley Eddington to pursue graduate studies at Harvard College in the more liberal United States. After completing her studies at Cambridge, Payne became a doctoral student at Harvard in 1924. The rich store of astronomical records at the Harvard Observatory, and the presence of a community of astronomers, created a nirvana for Payne from which she would never leave. In 1925, a brisk two years after her arrival in the United States, she became the first student, male or female, to earn a Ph.D. from the Harvard College Observatory. Her doctoral thesis, “Stellar Atmospheres,” articulated her surprising discovery of the chemical homogeneity of the starry universe. Prior to her work in the area, it had been believed that the chemical composition of stars was similar to that of the Earth. Seventy-five years after her scientific discoveries were first published, they are still valid.

While the United States was more open to women astronomers than England, Payne-Gaposchkin was given a marginal position at the Harvard Observatory following the extraordinary success of her doctoral studies. An article about her in American National Biography notes that she “informally advised students and occasionally taught courses under the name of the observatory director, Harlow Shapley.” In 1930, she published her second book, Stars of High Luminosity , in which she attempted to provide an ordered account of observations of star behaviors. At one point, she considered leaving Harvard because of her low status and meager salary. Shapley, however, made efforts to improve her position, but it would not be until 1938 that she was made an official faculty member of Harvard University. Out of gratitude for the opportunities the United States had given her and out of the belief that a responsible adult in a community must be a voter, she became an American citizen in 1931.

Cecilia Payne as a child

Cecilia Helena Payne, 1904. Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.

In 1933 on a trip to Germany, she met the Russian astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin, whose political beliefs made him an exile of his native land and whose Russian nationality made him unwelcome in Hitler’s Germany. Payne convinced Shapley to give the Russian astronomer a position at Harvard, thereby securing his physical safety as well as his career. Two years later, they were married. The Gaposchkins had three children, all of whom worked as astronomers for a period of time.

Payne-Gaposchkin was a many-sided personality known for her wit, her literary knowledge, and for her personal friendships with individual stars. She became the first woman in the history of Harvard University to receive a corporation appointment with tenure, and the first woman department chair in 1956.

A September 1956 article in The Christian Register published by the American Unitarian Association, announced her appointment and described her as a member of the denomination’s First Parish and Church in Lexington, Massachusetts. The article also gave an account of her close collaboration with her husband and their respective interests, hers in variable stars and his in eclipsing stars: “When we come to an eclipsing star, I would say to my husband, ‘That is yours.’ And when we would come to a pulsating star, I would say, ‘That is mine.'”

Payne-Gaposchkin remained chair of the Astronomy department and a full professor at Harvard for ten years. During that time, she published The Galactic Novae (1957) in which she noted patterns in observations of stars that had been made over a period of twenty-five years and pointed out areas worthy of further attention. Her book, An Introduction to Astronomy (1954) was based on the undergraduate astronomy course she taught at Harvard College. She also delivered a memorable series of lectures to non-astronomers entitled “Stars in the Making” (1953). Of her contributions to astronomy, her former student and fellow astronomer Jesse Greenstein wrote, “It led forward to important problems in the study of nuclear astrophysics, as well as in the use of variable stars of high luminosity, probing the structure and rotation of our Milky Way and the distances to other galaxies. Most important, it showed the bravery and adventure of a mind exploring the unknown with the available scientific apparatus and a complete belief in the power of human reason and logic.”

After 1967, she was named Professor Emeritus of Harvard University. Her early education in Classical and English literature, greatly enriched her lifelong sense of inquiry and adventure.

Although she broke down formidable boundaries for women in her field, her autobiography,The Dyer’s Hand, describes a career marked with slow promotions and low salaries.What sustained her were her intellectual interests and the rewards of her work. She wrote, “I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery towards an unexpected goal.” To fellow scientists, she encouraged the same single-minded sense of purpose, noting that, “Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.”

Payne-Gaposchkin's Autobiography

Payne-Gaposchkin’s Autobiography

Payne-Gapschkin's thesis

“The most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”

Payne-Gaposchkin book

The Starry Universe: The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Centenary

Payne-Gaposchkin signature

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Davis, A.G., Philip Koopman, and Rebecca A. Koopman, eds. The Starry Universe: The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Centenary. 

Haramundanis, Katherine, ed. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other RecollectionsNew York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.


Notable in UU History
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins (1825-1911)

An important writer and abolitionist, Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 24, 1825. A ... Read More

Cakes for the Queen of Heaven

Cakes for the Queen by harvardsquarelibrary The full text of Cakes for the Queen of Heaven ... Read More
Dorothea Dix

Dix, Dorothea (1802-1887)

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Maine, where she taught school before moving to Boston and ... Read More
Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman is arguably the most important American documentary filmmaker of the past three decades. A ... Read More