Williamina Fleming

The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Discovered The First ‘Dead Star’ in the Universe.

I once wrote an article on the pioneering work of Cecilia Payne, the woman who wrote the most brilliant P.hD. thesis in astronomy. It really made me think, how women were treated in science. Today we shall turn our heads towards another fantastic story, that of Williamina Fleming, a female scientist with more contributions to astronomy than we can probably cover in one article. 

“Mina” Fleming, as she was nicknamed, was born in Dundee on the 15th of May 1857, and she faced the harsh realities of life ever since she was a child. Her father died when she was seven, and at 14, she had to give up school to become a teacher (it may sound weird, but if you give up school in the 9th grade, for example, it doesn’t mean that you can’t teach a 5th grader), and earn some money for her family. At 20, she married a bank employee, who was 16 years older than her, and who had left her when she moved to the United States. Not only he left her alone, actually, as he also left their unborn child alone. 

Williamina Fleming, From Scottish Maid to Harvard Astronomer - New England  Historical Society

However, Williamina Fleming was a tough human being. Instead of falling into despair at the situation, she worked hard to find a job for herself, which she did, becoming a maid for Edward Pickering in 1879. Who was Edward Pickering? Somewhat of a household name in the world of astronomy, he is rather unheard of outside of it: he was the director of the renowned Harvard College Observatory, and he is credited as the discoverer of the first spectroscopic binary stars. 

“My maid could do a better job than that!”

And so she did. But let’s take things one step at a time. What’s with the quote I just mentioned? Well, most stories went like that, although we can’t really be sure that actually happened: the words were Pickering’s words, who, troubled that his assistants at the Observatory do a not-so-good work, he threw this line at one of them. 

Somehow, that got him thinking, as obviously, he couldn’t have hired Mina Fleming just because he said that to one employee of his, but also because of more serious reasons. And there were reasons, such as her constantly bright mind, which Pickering remarked as she prolonged her stay at his house. 

And so, Williamina was hired as what would later become known as “computer.” Some of you heard heroic stories of computers such as Fleming in movies like Hidden Figures, focusing on the heroic work of the women who have done the maths for the Apollo launch. Even being there was strange for Williamina Fleming, as women were hardly ever considered for science-related jobs. What exactly did she have to “compute”? By that time, most of the astronomy work in observatories was done by taking many pictures and data at night and someone interpreting it during the daytime.

She did more than that

In nine years, she cataloged more than 10000 stars, which would later be compiled in the Henry Draper Catalogue, where she received absolutely no credit for her work. Her name was omitted. By becoming so familiar with stars’ spectral plates, she even came with more efficient ways of categorizing them, a method known as the “Pickering-Fleming system.”

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Besides this work, which obviously took a lot of her time, she was also the Observatory’s production manager: all of the papers that were going outside the observatory did so through her hands, as she was writing, editing, proofreading research papers, and so on. She did publish some of her own achievements and results, and she became one of the first women to attend scientific conferences. 

The Horsehead Nebula, and others

The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Discovered The First 'Dead Star' in the Universe. 2

It seems to me that her most known achievement is the discovery of the Horsehead Nebula, which is a stunning and special nebula indeed. However, she also discovered the first white dwarf, as Henry Norris Russell also states: 

“The first person who knew of the existence of white dwarfs was Mrs. Fleming; the next two, an hour or two later, Professor E. C. Pickering and I. With characteristic generosity, Pickering had volunteered to have the spectra of the stars which I had observed for parallax looked up on the Harvard plates. All those of faint absolute magnitude turned out to be of class G or later. Moved with curiosity I asked him about the companion of 40 Eridani. Characteristically, again, he telephoned to Mrs. Fleming who reported within an hour or so, that it was of Class A.”

During her career, Williamina Fleming discovered 59 gaseous nebulae, 310 variable stars, and 10 novae. 

Read all the articles of our Basics of Astrophysics series here

Advocate for women in science

Absolutely worth mentioning is the fact that she never turned her back to the other aspiring women scientists. She declared: “While we cannot maintain that in everything a woman is man’s equal, yet in many things her patience, perseverance, and method make her his superior.” in her article from 1893, “A Field for Woman’s Work in Astronomy” Also worth mentioning, is that Edward Pickering made himself a reputation for hiring women after hiring Mina Fleming, as some of the most renowned female scientists worked for him at the Observatory, one of them even taking his place in the end: Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Antonia Maury, and Florence Cushman. 

The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Discovered The First 'Dead Star' in the Universe. 3
The Harvard Computers

Williamina Fleming died in 1911 from pneumonia on 21st May. Her work was recognized ever since, especially by female scientists, but also by others, as her work is indisputably great, and that speaks for itself in science.

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