Fleming, Williamina Paton Stevens

Fleming, Williamina Paton Stevens

(1857–1911) astronomer; born in Dundee, Scotland. Although her formal schooling ended when she was about 15, she served as a teacher until she married James Fleming in 1877. They immigrated to Boston in 1878 but separated in 1879. Forced to support herself, she worked as a housekeeper for Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory. Convinced that women could perform research as well as men, he hired her to do clerical and computing work but soon allowed her to take on more responsibilities around the observatory. Eventually she proved to be a decisive administrator of the large observatory staff and served as editor of publications from the observatory. Her truly epic achievement, however, was the classification of stars based on their photographed spectra—she eventually classified 10,351 stars (published in her Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra, 1890)—and the discovery of more variable stars and novae than any single astronomer up to then. She was named the official curator of astronomical photographs (1898), the first appointment of any woman by the Harvard Corporation; by 1910 she had catalogued some 200,000 plates. She was honored by astronomical societies internationally as well in America, including being the first American woman elected to England's Royal Astronomical Society.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.