Williamina Fleming

Pickering Harvard group  "THE HARVARD COMPUTERS"

Williamina Fleming was born in Dundee Scotland on May 15th 1857.  At age 14, she began teaching at the Dundee public schools.  In 1877, she married James Fleming, and in 1878 the couple immigrated to Boston.

In 1879, when she was pregnant with her first child, James left her.   At only 23 years old, and a single mother, Fleming found employment as the housekeeper for Edward Pickering, a professor of astronomy at Harvard and the director of the Harvard College Observatory.

In 1881, Pickering hired her to do clerical work and mathematical calculations at the Observatory, after complaining of his male employees poor work, stating that his "Scottish housekeeper could do a better job".

Fleming proved herself by developing a new system to classify stars according to their spectra.  This new classification system became known as the "Pickering-Fleming System".  Over the next nine years, Fleming cataloged over 10,000 stars, published in 1890 as the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra.  (Later editions raised the number of entries to over 300,000.)

Fleming was eventually put in charge of editing all studies published by the Harvard Observatory and was put in charge of hiring dozens of young women to support her expanding stellar exploration efforts.  In 1898 she was appointed as the curator of the astronomical photographs at the Harvard College Observatory - the first woman to hold this important position.

During her career, Fleming discovered 10 novas, 52 nebulae (including the Horsehead Nebula), and 310 variable stars.  In 1906, the Royal Astronomical Society, recognizing her contributions, elected Fleming as an honorary member and the first American woman into the Society.  In 1910, she discovered "white dwarfs".  During her time at Harvard College Observatory, she advocated for more women in astronomy, and challenged the salary discrepancy between the sexes.  She said "Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?" 

Williamina Fleming died of pneumonia in Boston on May 21, 1911, barely 54 years old.

Reference:  Harvard digitized Archival Materials.   


Photo: Circa 1890s.  (Courtesy Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard College Observatory).

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