Sunday 11 February marks Women in Science Day. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was instituted by the United Nations General Assembly to encourage the fully inclusive equal access and involvement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This occasion is observed annually and also serves to promote a vital aspect of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
The unsung distinction of women in science
Science is an area of human activity which is hugely dependent on teamwork and collaboration, but historically this may have been less so, or much more obscured. Research must be funded, and the funds are finite, so there is competition. In industry, the research is closely defined by a goal which can produce an outcome with economic value, but most academic research has fewer direct links to economic exploitation.
The competition for academic research funding is largely between departments and institutions, rather than individuals, but there is still an element of competition between scientists. In the past, this was a major factor. This may play a substantial part in explaining why some highly significant work by female scientists is not generally recognised in the same way as some male scientists, who have become household names – or at least well known by scientists outside their own field.
Degrees were not awarded to women
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was born on 10 May 1900, in Wendover, Buckinghamshire. Her parents were successful professional people who were able to give Cecilia a good education – albeit with less mathematics than she wished. She was successful in school and won a scholarship to attend Newham College, Cambridge. She read botany, physics, and chemistry, dropping botany after her first year. She completed her studies but was not awarded a degree; women were not granted a degree by Cambridge until 1948 (she was elected member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1923).
During Payne-Gaposchkin’s studies she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington, who had travelled to Africa to observe an eclipse and photograph stars in connection with his research on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The lecture had a huge impact on her. We would say today that it ‘blew her mind’. In the UK, her only career option was to become a teacher, but she wanted to follow her strong interest in astronomy. Fortunately, she applied for and won a fellowship to study at Harvard College Observatory.
Harvard’s first PhD in astronomy
Payne-Gaposchkin undertook her doctoral research, observing stars and analysing the temperature – light spectrum relationship, concluding that helium was present but hydrogen was the element that constituted most of the universe, with all other elements aside from those two amounting to around 2%. In 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College Harvard University.
The conclusion of her thesis went down like a lead balloon among some eminent astronomers. She was persuaded not to promote it, because it contradicted their consensus. They were, of course, wrong. Her own thesis reviewer, Henry Russell, realised she was right when his own research, using a different methodology, came to the same conclusion. Eminent astronomer Otto Struve observed the Payne-Gaposchkin’s work was “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.
Payne-Gaposchkin continued to conduct groundbreaking research, publishing her work, together with her husband after their marriage. She taught regularly, but her courses were not included in the Harvard University catalogue until 1945. She did receive recognition eventually, however. In 1956 she became the first female full professor in the faculty. She won many awards, including the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society (named after the man who challenged her doctoral thesis, but later came to realise she was right)
Payne-Gaposchkin lived to be 79. She had two sons and a daughter, who described her as “an inspired seamstress, an inventive knitter, and a voracious reader”. Perhaps she didn’t need to mention that in her day job she was a giant of astronomical science who rose to the top of her field, despite coming from an era when women were not even awarded degrees.