Williamina Fleming

Biography of Williamina Stevens Fleming an American astronomer of Scottish origin.

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She was initially hired as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory. Although she had no specific training in astronomy, she made numerous discoveries of stellar bodies.

Childhood and youth of Williamina Fleming

Williamina Stevens Fleming was born on May 15, 1857 in Dundee. This is the fourth city in Scotland, by number of inhabitants.

The population is on the East coast, in the northern part of the Tay River bay, near where the river flows into the North Sea.

Dundee
Railroad bridge leading to Dundee. Credit: Dave Conner. Web flickr.com

Williamina Fleming attended Dundee Public School. When she was 14, while teaching as a student, she was a teacher, helping to teach younger girls.

Williamina married James Fleming in Scotland

In May 1877, Williamina married James Fleming, a bank accountant, a widower, and 15 years her senior.

The following year, they both moved to the United States and settled in Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1879, Williamina became pregnant with her son Edward. Her husband flinched and abandoned her.

Williamina Fleming was abandoned by her husband

Williamina Fleming was 22 years old, pregnant, alone and 5,000 km from home; She had no place to live, she had no money, and she faced the prospect of being a single mother in a foreign country.

In that spring of 1879, she had no choice but to leave her desire to study for another occasion. The need forced her to immediately look for a job, in whatever it was.

Worked in a textile or jam factory? She knew that her restless mind could never be satisfied with a job of that kind; also needed a place to live.

Williamina Fleming found a job as a maid

So she urgently went looking for a housemaid job in some house.

Happily, she found work and “refuge” in the domestic service of Professor Edward Charles Pickering’s home.

Mr. Pickering was Director of the Harvard University Observatory. It was a fantastic stroke of fortune for her.

Charles Pickering
The smart and bold visionary Edward Charles Pickering. Credit: PD-US

Edward Pickering had a great ability to detect talent; and he soon realized that the new maid had a clearly superior education and intelligence.

Williamine had an attractive face, with bright and vivid eyes. Her whole person radiated energy, intelligence and warmth.

Edward Pickering assisted Williamina Fleming

The intelligent and kind teacher did not hesitate to encourage her to travel to Scotland.

He convinced her to go give birth in her family’s house, supported by her loved ones. He promised to receive her again as soon as she wanted to return.

Williamina Fleming assistant at the Observatory

Edward Pickering waited for Williamine to return from Scotland with her son. And, as soon as she set foot again in Boston, in April 1881, he offered her a job at the Harvard Observatory.

At the moment, as “assistant in administrative tasks and to make routine calculations“.

The teacher had been trying for some time to introduce new working methods at the Observatory.

Until then “astronomy” consisted of the study of “position and movements” of the celestial bodies. He set out to go one step further and come to an understanding of the nature of the stars; to discover the physical composition of the stars. This is “astrophysics“.

He began by placing a prism on the telescope objective in order to obtain the light spectra of the stars. This elemental technique was improving throughout the entire decade of the 1880s.

Before him, William Hershel, in 1798, had made the first descriptions of the spectra of two well-known stars: Sirius and Arthur.

Soon after, in 1814, Joseph Fraunhofer had studied the lines that appeared in the spectrum of the Sun.

In 1861 Gustav Kirhhoff and Robert Bunsen had used the lines discovered by Fraunhofer to identify the chemical elements in the solar atmosphere.

In 1862 Lewis Rutherford had obtained the first plates of light spectra from stars.

In 1867, the Jesuit Angelo Secchi had made a classification of the stars, based on the chemical elements that their light spectra showed.

Spectrum
Each chemical element originates a unique light spectrum from that element. Credit: web slideshare.net

Edward Pickering promoted to Williamina Fleming

In 1881, Pickering had accumulated photographic plates with the most detailed stellar spectra captured to date. He was the owner of a huge series.

He had hired an , but he was not progressing satisfactorily in his work. That decided him to offer Williamina Fleming a temporary job.

As the cunning and clairvoyant professor expected, Williamina perfectly embroidered the commissioned work. She soon became a permanent member of the research staff.

In 1886, Henry Draper, a pioneer in obtaining photographs of star spectra, died prematurely. His widow, in memory of her husband, decided to finance the work of the Harvard Observatory.

Start of female calculators

Director Pickering wasted no time. His first experience with a smart woman could not have been better, so he hired nine other women.

No special wit or brilliance was expected of them. They only had to perform routine calculations to analyze the photographs of the stars and classify the spectra on the photographic plates.

Without a doubt, for these young women it was a more stimulating job than cleaning in a house or working in a factory.

Women trained in the women’s universities in the area arrived, and the team began to stand out for its efficiency and sagacity.

Team astronomers
Edward Pickering and his team of calculators outside the C building of Harvard College. Credit: Wikipedia.

Williamina Fleming led the Harvard team

It was a magnificent team of human calculators that came to be known as “Harvard computers“.

Williamina Fleming was left in charge of the youth group, she led them with unrelenting discipline. She was equally feared and admired.

Once in her element, where her intelligence was at the service of an attractive cause, Williamina Fleming set about ordering all the originals of the Observatory’s publications.

Laborious and tireless, in this first stage she identified and classified the spectra of more than 10,000 stars.

It was precisely laboriousness, intelligence and patience the qualities of other notable women who later made valuable contributions to astronomy: Silvia Torres, María Teresa Ruiz, Antonia Ferrín, Beatriz Tinsley.

New star rating system

Williamina Fleming helped develop a star allocation system, which basically consisted of assigning a letter to the star, depending on the amount of hydrogen observed in its spectrum.

The stars classified with the letter A were made up of hydrogen almost entirely, those classified with the letter B contained less hydrogen, and so on, 16 types of stars, from A to N.

  • The letter O designated stars with bright emission lines.
  • The letter P was reserved for planetary nebulae.
  • The letter Q for stars that did not fit in the previous groups.

Professor Pickering did not hesitate to make public recognition of her authorship and is the basis of the spectral classification in use today: Harvard classification.

This system later served as a working basis for developing a star rating based on observed temperature.

Astronomical discoveries by Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming contributed to the making of the Henry Draper Catalog.

In 1888, she discovered one of the most beautiful and photographed objects in the sky: the Horsehead Nebula.

She found it in a photograph that Charles Pickering had taken in the Orion constellation.

It is to imagine the immense joy that this discovery gave her; any sacrifice and effort was compensated with this wonder.

Williamine described it as “an intense, well-defined semicircle cloudiness“.

Years later, the Hubble Space Telescope would show the world the spectacular image of this nebula.

Horse Head nebula
The “Horse Head” nebula photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: Wikipedia.

In a nine-year period, Williamina Fleming cataloged more than 10,000 stars.

At that time, she also discovered 59 gas nebulae, 310 variable stars, and 10 supernovae.

She also established the first photographic standards of magnitude, used to measure the brightness of variable stars.

Growth of the Harvard calculator team

The arrival of more spectra and increasingly higher resolution, decided Edward Pickering to hire two other “calculators“: Antonia Maury and Annie Cannon, who rearranged the spectral groups and increased the number of classified stars.

These three women are listed in the journals as the authors of the 400,000-star ranking work: Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, and Annie Cannon.

Another of the invaluable “Harvard computers” was the eminent Henrietta Leavitt, who, based on the classifications made by her group, managed to carry out one of the fundamental discoveries of astrophysics: “the period-luminosity relationship of the Cepheids“.

This relationship is the basis for distance measurement in the Universe. On balance, Henrietta Leavitt discovered a method for measuring the size of the Universe.

Acknowledgments to the work of Williamina Fleming

Mina’s success (as she was called at Harvard) in carrying out her tasks and her ability to work, ended up burdening her with administrative tasks that took her away from science.

In 1899, Mrs. Fleming was named Curator of the Observatory’s photographic collection. It was the first time that a woman had been assigned an institutional position at Harvard.

Harvard Observatory
Harvard College Observatory, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Credit: Wikipedia.

The position included spending countless hours editing and correcting Harvard’s Astronomical Annals.

In 1906, she was awarded an honorary position at the Royal Astronomical Society in London. She was the first woman to receive this recognition.

She also received an honorary award from Wellesley College.

In 1907, she published a listing containing 222 variable stars that she had discovered.

In 1910, she discovered properties of stars with a particularly particular spectrum and white in color, very dense and very hot stars. Currently they are called white dwarfs.

Williamina companions
Williamina and her companions on the seafront. Credit: web harvardmagazine.com

Williamina Fleming was “an astronomer by chance“. She was extremely lucky to find Professor Pickering.

But the stupid machismo of the time hurt her for most of her life. She has the honor of being one of the notable women who have been opening the gap to other women who enrich humanity.

Shortly after her death, the Astronomical Society of Mexico awarded her the Guadalupe Almendaro medal for discovering new stars.

Williamina Fleming died of pneumonia in Boston on May 21, 1911.

The Fleming lunar crater bears this name in her memory. She shares this honor with the British scientist of the same name, Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin.

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