A Woman's Place at the Harvard Observatory

A Schlesinger Library Event
Detail from photograph of Harvard College Observatory staff, 1918. Courtesy of Harvard University ArchivesDetail from photograph of Harvard College Observatory staff, 1918. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives

The acclaimed author of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (Walker, 1995), Dava Sobel will be speaking about her new book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016), which tells the story of the women who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s.

Soon after he took over as the new director of the observatory in 1877, Professor Edward Pickering forged an important connection with Radcliffe College. A vocal proponent of higher education for women, Pickering instituted astronomy instruction at Radcliffe and invited select alumnae into the observatory. In 1886, with funding from the wealthy New York widow Anna Palmer Draper, he initiated a decades-long, all-night, all-sky photography project that captured the heavens on glass plates and opened a wide new arena for women’s work. 

Fifteen to twenty "ladies" at a time made discoveries by probing this glass universe. Among their most important achievements were the development of a classification system for the stars and a means for measuring distances across space. Pickering’s “harem” attracted special fellowships earmarked for female employees. These funds enabled his successor, Harlow Shapley, to establish a graduate program, which saw Harvard’s first doctoral degree in astronomy awarded, via Radcliffe, to Cecilia Payne in 1925.

Free and open to the public.

This is a 2016–2017 Kim and Judy Davis Dean's Lecture.

Dava Sobel. Photo by Mia BergDava Sobel. Photo by Mia Berg