Fleming, Williamina Paton (1857–1911)

views updated

Fleming, Williamina Paton (1857–1911)

Scottish-American astronomer who discovered the stars of extremely high density known as "white dwarfs" and became the first American woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. Name variations: Mina. Born Williamina Paton Stevens on May 15, 1857, in Dundee, Scotland; died of pneumonia on May 21, 1911, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Robert (an artisan) and Mary (Walker) Stevens; attended Dundee public schools, where she also taught, 1871–76; married James Orr Fleming, on May 26, 1877; children: Edward Pickering Fleming (b. October 6, 1879).

Immigrated to America, where she was abandoned by her husband (1878); hired as temporary employee at Harvard College Observatory (1879); observatory employment made permanent (1881); began Draper Memorial classification project (1886); developed improved stellar spectra classification system published in the "Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra" (1890); spoke about women's work in astronomy at the Chicago World's Fair (1893); in first board appointment of a woman at Harvard, made observatory's curator of astronomical photographs (1898); helped co-found the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society (1898); elected to Royal Astronomical Society (1906); published study of variable stars (1907); discovered the "white dwarf" stars (1910); was starred in the first edition of American Men of Science; final paper, "Stars Having Peculiar Spectra," published posthumously.

Selected publications:

"Detection of New Nebulae by Photography," in Annals of Harvard College Observatory (Vol. 18); "Description and Discussion of the Draper Catalogue," in Annals of Harvard College Observatory (Vol. 26); "The Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra," in Annals of Harvard College Observatory (Vol. 27); "A Field For 'Woman's Work' in Astronomy," in Astronomy and Astrophysics (Vol. 12, 1893, pp. 683–689); "A Photographic Study of Variable Stars, Forming a Part of the Henry Draper Memorial," in Annals of Harvard College Observatory (Vol. 47); "Stars Having Peculiar Spectra," in Annals of Harvard College Observatory (Vol. 56).

Few careers in science have had as unlikely a beginning as that of the astronomer Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming, who became one of the most eminent women scientists of the late 19th century. A 22-year-old Scottish immigrant, pregnant and abandoned by her husband soon after her arrival in Boston, she took a job as a household servant in the home of Edward C. Pickering, the director of the astronomical observatory at Harvard University. Accounts vary as to exactly how the job that took her life in a new direction came about, but essentially Pickering had become so dissatisfied by the performance of his scientifically trained workers that he began to claim that his Scottish maid with a high-school education could compute figures more competently than they did. In 1879 (according to most sources), he brought her into the observatory as a temporary employee; two years later, in 1881, she was made a permanent member of his research staff. During her 30-year career, she discovered 10 novae, 59 nebulae, and the stars of extremely high density known as "white dwarfs." She established the first photographic standards of magnitude for the measurement of the variable brightness of stars, became the curator of astronomical photographs at the Harvard College Observatory and the first woman at Harvard to receive a corporation appointment, and was the first American woman elected to the British Royal Astronomical Society.

Williamina Paton Stevens, known as Mina to family and friends, was born at Dundee, Scotland, on May 15, 1857, the daughter of Mary Walker Stevens and a gifted and prosperous artisan named Robert Stevens. In her early years, Mina's educational and cultural opportunities were far different from those that led other women, who were to be prominent female astronomers, into the scientific field. Mina's father was a carver of wood frames, which he gilded with gold leaf and sold in a shop. He also experimented with photography, introducing daguerreotypes to the citizens of Dundee. Robert Stevens died when Mina was seven, but the photographic techniques she learned from her father were preparation for her later astronomical work.

Raised in the home of her mother's family, the young girl developed qualities of "energy, perseverance, and loyalty" that characterized her career. She attended the common schools of Dundee and became a pupil-teacher at age 14, helping with the schooling of the younger children while she continued her own studies. Her teaching career ended when she married James Orr Fleming on May 26, 1877.

In December 1878, the couple immigrated to America, where they settled in Boston. Mina Fleming was soon forced to cope with an unreliable husband as well as an unfamiliar environment, and she was pregnant by the time James deserted her. Seeking support for herself and her unborn child, she applied for a job as a maid. Serendipitously, Edward C. Pickering was in need of a housekeeper, and the hiring that transformed her misfortune into good luck became a lifelong benefit to Pickering and the entire astronomical profession. Mina traveled home briefly to Scotland, where she gave birth to her son Edward Pickering Fleming, on October 6, 1879, named in honor of her benefactor. She then returned with the child to Boston and took up work again in the home of Pickering.

Pickering, who had become director of the Harvard Observatory in 1877, was deeply impressed by Fleming's intelligence, and he made her his first woman research assistant. "Her duties were at first of the simplest character, copying and ordinary computing," wrote Pickering. The skill she soon demonstrated in the handling of mathematical calculations and other complex responsibilities encouraged him to create more opportunities for women in the field, and Pickering became a pioneer in hiring women for careers in astrophysics. Annoyed that some male astronomers limited talented and intelligent women to routine tasks such as filing, he opened up many positions in astronomical research to women that had traditionally been restricted to males.

One of the most important programs under Pickering's direction was in celestial photography, funded by the Draper Memorial. Henry Draper was a New York physician who had been the first to experiment with stellar spectrum photography, establishing the largest collection of astronomical photographic plates in the world. After Draper's death, Pickering had secured his equipment as well as funding to continue the work.

Pickering's first assistant in studying stellar spectra was Nettie A. Farrar , who left the job in 1886, after instructing Fleming, who was by then in charge of the observatory's photograph library, as her replacement. In collaboration with Pickering, Fleming studied plates of stars photographed through prisms to produce spectrums. In a student-teacher partnership with Pickering, Fleming became engaged in the large-scale but non-theoretical work of examining each fragile photographic glass plate in the collection, identifying the peculiarities of the star, indexing it and storing the information.

Sparkling and friendly though she was, her reputation as a strict disciplinarian lived after her, and as late as the 1930s, elderly ladies who had worked with her in their youth still regarded her with awe.

—E. Dorrit Hoffleit

As Pickering became aware of Fleming's scientific and analytical capabilities, she was given more responsibility for devising an empirical classification system to catalogue the stars according to the evidence of the spectra on the photographic plates. Up to this time, celestial classification had been based on a system developed by Angelo Secchi, who gauged the brightness of spectral lines through visual observations made through telescopes, and devised a category system that included four classes of stars. Pickering's aim was to adapt the relatively new technology of photography for astronomical research, securing a permanent record of the sky and its phenomena by photographing numerous stars through a prism onto one plate. Since the plates recorded wavelengths that the human eye could not see, the results demanded a newer and more complex classification.

Examining these photographs of refracted starlight under a magnifying glass, Fleming expanded the classification to 17 classes of stars. "With a naturally clear and brilliant mind," according to Annie Jump Cannon , "Mrs. Fleming at once evinced special aptitude for this photographic investigation, which was so novel that precedents could not be found for its execution."

The results were not flawless. The poor quality of the plates caused some defects to lead to the creation of extra classes, and Fleming experienced some difficulties in placing her classes in consistent order. But her characteristics of the star groups were well defined and yielded an improved arrangement, reliable for the time. In the 1890 Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra, more than 10,000 stars were described according to the new Pickering-Fleming System, establishing a new foundation for astronomical classification.

Because Pickering was the observatory's director, many of Mina's early works were published under his name, but by 1890 "M. Fleming" was frequently appearing as author along with him in astronomical publications. In the preface to the 1890 Draper Catalogue, Pickering emphasized that Fleming had conducted the groundwork for the new celestial classification, and when notices were published in Astronomical Journal about the unusual spectra she had discovered, her mentor took responsibility but credited her for the studies.

In the October 1891 issue of Observatory, a reviewer wrote, "The name of Mrs. Fleming is already well known to the world as that of a brilliant discoverer; but the present volume shows that she can do real hard work as well." In 1895, Fleming published two papers in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal, and she became prolific at penning articles for the Harvard Annals and college circulars, claiming her work in her own name rather than Pickering's when she could.

At a Harvard conference in 1898, Pickering read Fleming's paper, "Stars of the Fifth Type in the Magellanic Clouds," about stars with bright line spectra, before a predominantly male crowd. Pickering stated that although Fleming had not credited herself for the discovery of the stars discussed, he felt that she should be recognized for her achievements, "whereupon Mrs. Fleming was compelled by a spontaneous burst of applause to come forward and supplement the paper by responding to the questions elicited by it." During that meeting, she was named a co-founder of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society.

In her examination of the photographic plates, Fleming observed spectral peculiarities in brightness that suggested celestial bodies that did not fit into her classification scheme. Scrutinizing these more closely, she discovered more than 300 variable stars, including long-period variables which became known as Mira stars. She also established the first photographic standards for measuring the variable brightness of stars, and explained astronomical techniques for locating them. In 1907, she published "A Photographic Study of Variable Stars," in the Annals of Harvard College Observatory, a study of 222 of the celestial bodies she had discovered, each patiently measured for its positions and magnitudes of comparison as a guide for astronomers to their placement in the universe. According to British astronomer H.H. Turner, "Many astronomers are deservedly proud to have discovered one variable, and content to leave the arrangements for its observation to others; the discovery of 222, and the care of their future on this scale, is an achievement bordering on the marvelous."

Fleming also discovered 59 gaseous planetary nebulae—and was the first astronomer to utilize photography for this purpose—as well as ten novae, the majority of new stars discovered during her lifetime. In 1910, she was the first astronomer to discover the stars of extremely high density, known as "white dwarfs," which are believed to be in their final evolutionary stage. She also identified new stars in the constellations Norma and Carina. In her 1912 article, "Stars Having Peculiar Spectra," she listed Wolf-Rayet stars, which were hard to interpret because of highly ionized atmospheres. Such skillful zeal for star hunting won her international respect and praise as a "brilliant discoverer" in Astronomische Nachrichten and the British Observatory.

In 1898, Mina Fleming was named curator of astronomical photographs, the first woman to receive an official appointment from the governing board of Harvard College. With the assistance of a primarily female staff that grew to include several dozen, she examined, approved, and catalogued all photographic plates taken at Harvard observatories, in Cambridge and Arequipa, Peru, amounting to almost 200,000 by the time of her retirement. A stern supervisor, Fleming monitored the scrutiny of every plate and verified the work of her assistants. She also acted as secretary to Pickering, handling his correspondence and editing the observatory's publications, including the tedious technical work of proofreading the Annals. Pickering freely praised Fleming for her organizational and technical skills, declaring, "Her diligence and patience were combined with great self-reliance and courage." He also acknowledged that paperwork "occupied so much of her time that it interfered seriously with her scientific investigations."

Fleming's state of mind remained divided over her priorities. In 1900, as part of a university history project, she kept a diary in which she wrote that she wanted to be assigned more scientific work and less administrative tasks. She rarely took vacations and worked late into the night to complete projects for Pickering. She also found it "very trying" that her mentor preferred that she prepare the work of others for publication instead of her own. Some staff members did not communicate well, requiring revisions that usurped time she might have spent in research.

Despite Pickering's rhetoric regarding the advancement of women, few actually advanced very far within the observatory. And, although her mentor stated in his memorial to Fleming that she "occupied one of the most important positions in the Observatory," her most serious complaint against her job continued to revolve around the issue of unfair compensation. As much as Fleming respected Pickering, she observed:

He seems to think that no work is too much or too hard for me, no matter what the responsibility or how long the hours.… Sometimes I feel tempted to give up and let him try some one else, or some of the men to do my work, in order to have him find out what he is getting for $1500 a year from me, compared with $2500 from some of the other assistants.… Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose a woman has no claim to such comforts.

Fleming's concern at this time was the expense of educating her son Edward, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "I am told that my services are very valuable to the Observatory," she confided in her diary, "but when I compare the compensation with that received by women elsewhere, I feel that my work cannot be of much account." Angry at Pickering, and frustrated by the long hours, stress, and sacrifices she made for her job, she wrote, "I feel almost on the verge of breaking down." Ironically, the only significant raise Pickering offered to a woman during Fleming's tenure was to Henrietta S. Leavitt , who departed due to an out-of-state family emergency.

If Pickering remained stingy toward Fleming regarding income, he was generous in promoting the attention toward her that drew professional awards and numerous honors. For her discovery of new stars, she received the Guadalupe Almendaro gold medal from the Sociedad Astronómica de Mexico; she was named an honorary fellow in astronomy by the Astronomical and Astrophysics Society and at Wellesley College, and an honorary member of the Société Astronomique de France. In 1906, she was the first American woman (and the fifth woman internationally) elected a member of the British Royal Astronomical Society, and was starred in the first edition of American Men of Science. The Dictionary of American Biography, which included few women, profiled Fleming's life. Frequently compared to her professional predecessor, Maria Mitchell , Mina Fleming was considered the most famous American woman astronomer of her lifetime.

Despite misgivings about her own career, Mina supported other women in her field. According to historian Owen Gingerich, "Mrs. Fleming's keen eyesight, remarkable memory, and industrious nature enabled her to advance to a position of considerable authority at the observatory," which she used to influence and inspire fellow women employees. Her administrative promotions, without raises, permitted her to supervise corps who sorted stellar spectra photographs, surveyed glass plates with magnifying glasses, and recorded data in notebooks. Fleming recruited and interviewed workers, hiring women such as Annie Jump Cannon and Antonia Maury who became notable astronomers working on the Henry Draper Star Catalog, the same project that gave Fleming her professional fame.

Performing at rates of 25–35 cents an hour, the women did the work at a wage level men refused to accept, while the observatory acquired its international reputation primarily on the basis of this work in classification. And while her supervisory work impeded Fleming's independent work so that some of her disciples, like Cannon, eventually surpassed her in classification, she remained greatly respected by her staff. According to E. Dorrit Hoffleit , "Sparkling and friendly though she was, her reputation as a strict disciplinarian lived after her, and as late as the 1930s, elderly ladies who had worked with her in their youth still regarded her with awe."

In 1893, Fleming spoke about the future of women in astronomy, emphasizing their "natural talent for astronomical work," at the Congress of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the Chicago Columbian Exposition, known today as the World's Fair. She stressed that women had enhanced "positive contributions to our knowledge of the universe." Focusing on the Draper Memorial work that day, she praised Pickering for his hiring of women and encouraged other observatory directors to follow suit, because "if granted similar opportunities [they] would undoubtedly devote themselves to the work with the same untiring zeal." Mentioning women's colleges that taught astronomy and employment opportunities in the field, Fleming continued:

While we cannot maintain that in everything woman is man's equal, yet in many things her patience, perseverance and method made her his superior.… Therefore, let us hope that in astronomy, which now affords a large field for woman's work and skills, she may, as has been the case in several other sciences, at least prove herself his equal.

The talk, "A Field for Woman's Work in Astronomy," received nationwide coverage in contemporary magazines.

Outside her work, Fleming's life revolved around her son, who graduated from MIT in 1901 and became chief mining engineer and metallurgist for a copper company in Chile. A woman of "a large-hearted, sympathetic nature" who "won friends easily," Fleming enjoyed cooking and needlework, and often sewed dolls costumed in Scottish Highland dress for her employees. When she embraced the suffragist movement, it benefitted from her international stature. And according to colleagues, there was "no more ardent champion of the Harvard eleven" in the stands than Mina Fleming, who especially cheered for the Crimson football team against rival Yale. After Edward left home, Fleming often hosted guests in her home at 52 Concord Avenue, near the observatory.

During her three decades at Harvard, Mina encountered changing astronomical methodology and professional expectations. Career-minded and determined to remain proficient, she worked long hours even as she aged. In September 1910, despite intense illness, she attended the Union for Solar Research at Mount Wilson, California. By the next spring, she had developed serious pneumonia and was hospitalized in May. She died that month, on May 21, 1911, at the New England Hospital.

Expressions of sympathy arrived at the observatory from colleagues around the world. Obituaries eulogized Fleming as one of the world's best astronomers, claiming that she had discovered more stars than any other person at that time. Her final paper, "Stars Having Peculiar Spectra," which she wrote while ill, was published posthumously in the Annals of Harvard College Observatory. At the time of her death, it was said, she had created enough data "to fill several quarto volumes of the Annals."

Annie Jump Cannon, appointed by Pickering as Fleming's successor as the Harvard Observatory's curator of astronomical photographs, recalled Mina Fleming as a petite woman with brown hair. "Mrs. Fleming was possessed of an extremely magnetic personality and an attractive countenance, enlivened by remarkably bright eyes," Cannon later wrote. "Her bright face, her attractive manner, and her cheery greeting with its charming Scotch accent, will long be remembered." Cannon completed the Draper Catalogue and further refined Fleming's classification system.

At Harvard, Fleming's legacy influenced students who never even met her, including Cecilia H. Payne-Gaposchkin , who reflected that Fleming "must have been an excellent organizer, a strenuous worker, a martinet." "When I first went to Harvard, several years after her death," wrote Payne-Gaposchkin, "she was still spoken of with respect, with a kind of awe; but to say that she had not been beloved was an understatement." Nevertheless, this self-taught scientist set precedents in her field that opened the way for later women to have even more professional impact, and for this reason, according to biographer Doris Weatherford , Mina Fleming's "life amid the stars should not be forgotten."


Cannon, Annie Jump. "Williamina Paton Fleming," in Science. Vol. 33. June 30, 1911, pp. 987–988.

——. "Williamina Paton Fleming," in Astrophysical Journal. Vol. 34, 1911, pp. 314–317.

Gordon, Anne. "Williamina Fleming: 'Women's Work' at the Harvard Observatory," in Women's Studies Newsletter. Vol. 6, no. 2. Spring 1978, pp. 24–27.

Mack, Pamela E. "Women in Astronomy in the United States, 1875-1920." B.A. honors thesis, Harvard University, 1977.

Pickering, Edward C. "In Memoriam: Williamina Paton Fleming," in Harvard Graduates Magazine. Vol. 2. September 1911, pp. 49–51.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

suggested reading:

Bailey, Solon I. The History and Work of Harvard Observatory. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1931.

Jones, Bessie Z., and Lyle Boyd. The Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839–1919. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Kass-Simon, Gabriele, and Patricia Farnes, eds. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.


Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming's journal, her correspondence, and a scrapbook of her obituaries are available in the Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Collections of Harvard College Observatory's and Edward C. Pickering's correspondence, letter books, astronomical photographs, and other material are also preserved by the archives.

Elizabeth D. Schafer , Ph.D., freelance writer in the history of technology and science, Loachapoka, Alabama

About this article

Fleming, Williamina Paton (1857–1911)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article