Hoffleit, E. Dorrit (1907—)

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Hoffleit, E. Dorrit (1907—)

American astronomer who is best known for The Bright Star Catalogue, often defined as "the bible of virtually every stellar astronomer." Name variations: Dorrit Hoffleit; Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit. Born Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit on March 12, 1907, in Florence, Alabama; daughter of Fred Hoffleit and Kate (Sanio) Hoffleit; Radcliffe College, A.B., 1928, M.A., 1932, Ph.D., 1938; never married; no children.

Worked as a mathematician, Ballistic Research Lab, Aberdeen Proving Ground (1943–48), then consultant (1948–62); was a lecturer, Wellesley College (1955–56); worked as researcher, Harvard College Observatory (1929–56); was a research associate, Yale University Observatory (1956—); served as director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, Nantucket, Massachusetts (1957—).

E. Dorrit Hoffleit, whose career spans over 70 years, is one of the most intriguing women in astronomy as well as one of the most visible. Her publication, The Bright Star Catalogue, which documents and maps some 9,110 stars visible to the naked eye, has become a bible of sorts to scientists and amateurs alike. Although she retired in 1975, Hoffleit still goes to her Yale office every day at 8:30 am and rarely leaves before 7 pm. Cataracts now obscure her vision of the stars, but she continues to work, preferring to let nature decide when she should call it quits.

Hoffleit was born in 1907, in Florence, Alabama, and grew up in Cascade, Pennsylvania. Her interest in stars began early, when she saw two stars collide. As a child, she was somewhat overshadowed by her brilliant older brother, who finished high school at 14 and was accepted at Harvard. Despite her slower start, Hoffleit made it into Radcliffe, where she excelled in math and physics. After graduating cum laude in 1928, she accepted a low-paying job as a research assistant at Harvard College Observatory, working under Henrietta Swope . At the same time, Hoffleit began work on her master's degree, which she received from Radcliffe-Harvard in 1932.

Hoffleit's work with Swope involved searching Harvard's photographic plates for variable stars and analyzing their light curves. On her own time, however, Hoffleit pioneered a study of the light curves of the meteor trails that had inadvertently been captured on the photographs. Her work caught the attention of the observatory's director Harlow Shapley, who asked her to consider going on for a Ph.D. Hoffleit was reluctant at first, thinking she would be unable to pass the exams, but she was eventually convinced by the associate director, Bart Bok, to accept the challenge when he said emphatically: "If God recommends that you do something, it is your duty to do it." His no-nonsense attitude, she felt, was a turning point. She went on to complete a thesis on the spectroscopic absolute magnitudes of stars and earned her Ph.D. from Radcliffe in 1938, along with a prize for the best original work.

Hoffleit remained at Harvard until the war, when she was called to the Aberdeen Proving Ground's Ballistic Research laboratory in Maryland to work on war-related projects. She remembers that the military had nothing but disdain for female scientists. Despite her doctorate, she received a sub-professional ranking and was paid less for doing the same work as her male colleagues. Her stay there was unpleasant, and she protested. As a result, she was given her due rank and transferred to Washington.

After the war, she returned to Harvard, remaining there until Shapley retired and Donald H. Menzel took over as director of the observatory. Menzel had little use for fundamental research or for Hoffleit's projects, which he deemed obsolete. One of his early directives was the destruction of about a third of Harvard's photographic plate collection, an act that was termed a "slaughter" by some.

In 1956, Hoffleit joined the faculty of Yale, a position that included the directorship of the undergraduate summer program at the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, Massachusetts, which was named for America's first female astronomer. To honor Mitchell, who had once remarked, "I believe in women more than I do in astronomy," Hoffleit established a fund to provide summer jobs for female undergraduates

doing variable-star research. Over the years, the program flourished, ultimately providing more than 100 young women with a head start in the male-dominated field of astronomy. Hoffleit, who served as mentor, role model, and inspiration to many of the women, views the program as one of the joys of her old age. One of her former students, Janet Mattei , is now the director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. "Where I am today and what I am today, I owe it all to her," said Mattei. "She was such a role model. She influenced my whole life and career."

At Yale, Hoffleit was asked to prepare a third edition of The Bright Star Catalogue, which was first published in 1930, then updated in 1940. The third edition, undertaken with part-time assistants, came out in 1964, and a fourth edition, prepared with Carlos Jaschek, was released in 1982; each successive catalogue contained more data than its predecessor.

Hoffleit's retirement years have been as productive as those she spent employed. In 1993, she published a book on the history of astronomy at Yale, and in 1996, with her Yale colleagues William van Altena and John Lee, she completed an 18-year project that culminated in the publication of the fourth edition of The General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes. The publication, used worldwide by astrophysicists, provides the precise measurements of distances to 8,112 stars. She is currently working on revisions for a fifth edition of The Bright Star Catalogue. Hoffleit, who still possesses an almost child-like curiosity, also spends weeks or even months poring over historical or observations records in order to answer some of the numerous requests she receives for miscellaneous information. "I have become as happy and independent as I had been in my youth at Harvard," she says about her retirement.

In May 1998, Hoffleit was inducted into the Connecticut Hall of Fame. On October 20, she was awarded an honorary doctor of science from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The citation read:

It is a basic tenet of stellar astronomy that those stars which burn hottest and brightest and draw the most attention to themselves also burn out the quickest, rapidly becoming nothing more than fading memories. Meanwhile, those unassuming stars which steadily shine in the background, content to diligently produce energy at a more modest pace, continue to influence the universe with their light and heat for many generations to come.


Greenberg, Brigitte, "Astronomer honored at symposium," in The Day [New London, CT]. March 8,1997.

Hoffliet, Dorrit. "Some Glimpses from my Career," in Mercury. January–February 1992.

Levy, David H. "Astronomy's First Lady," in Sky & Telescope. Vol. 97, no. 2. February 1999.

suggested reading:

Shearer, Barbara S. and Benjamin. Notable Women in the Physical Sciences. CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

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Hoffleit, E. Dorrit (1907—)

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