Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Women in STEM
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Birth: May 10, 1900

Death:  December 7, 1979

Specialty: Astronomy and Astrophysics

Major Contributions:

Explanation of spectra of Sun

Observations of more than 3,000,000 variable stars

Annie J. Canon Award in Astronomy

Image: Wikimedia.

It was while studying at Newnham College, Cambridge University that Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin attended a lecture where her interest in astronomy was sparked.  And that spark led to a change in our understanding of our entire universe.

After completing her studies, she met two major roadblocks due to her gender.  She was not awarded a degree from Cambridge, and she found that she would not be allowed to continue her astronomical studies in England. Instead, she traveled to America where she had been offered the second fellowship of its kind to study at Harvard Observatory.

Encouraged to complete a doctorate by the lab’s director, she undertook a study on relating the spectral classes of stars to their actual temperatures by using ionization theory. She was able to show the greater variation of stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization at different temperatures. Moreover she was able to conclude that hydrogen was the most abundant element in stars and accordingly in the entire universe. 

Earning her doctorate in 1925, she continued her work studying different types of stars including high variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds to determine paths of stellar evolution which laid the basis for all subsequent work on variable stars.

Spending her entire career at Harvard, she still faced many of the same prejudices as those women working at the observatory before her.  She spent over ten years working under the title technical assistant and it wasn’t until there was a change in the head of the program that she was given the title of astronomer. 

In 1946 she was finally promoted to full professor, the first woman to hold this title as part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.  When she was later appointed as Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she was the first woman to be the head of a department at the school.

During her career she published several books and taught many students that have also made lasting contributions to astronomy. Many have credited her with helping to break down barriers for women in the sciences serving as a role model and inspiration for young girls wanting to pursue careers in STEM fields.

Written by Angela Goad


She Is An Astronomer: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne and the Composition of the Stars

Wikipedia: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Goodsell Observatory: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

See Also:

Pants named after astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin