Gaposchkin, Cecilia Helena Payne, 1900-

Alternative names
Birth 1900-05-10
Death 1979-12-07

Biographical notes:

Celilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) taught astronomy at Harvard. She earned her AB at Newnham College, Cambridge University in 1923 and a Ph.D. from Radcliffe College in 1925. She began working at the Harvard Observatory in 1923. She was the Phillips Astronomer at the Harvard Observatory in 1938, Professor of Astronomy, 1956-1966, Chair of the Astronomy Department, 1956-1960 (the first female department Chair at Harvard) and Phillips Professor of Astronomy, Emerita, from 1967; at the time of her retirement from Harvard, she joined the staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

From the description of Papers of Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, 1924, ca. 1950's-1970's, 2000. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 76973263

Died in 1979.

From the description of Oral history interview with Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin, 1968 March 5. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78770457

  • 1900: Born May 10, Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England
  • 1919 - 1923 : Attended Newhham College at Cambridge University
  • 1923: Started first research at Harvard College Observatory Elected member of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • 1924: Elected member of American Astronomical Society
  • 1925: Received PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College
  • 1925 - 1927 : Research Fellow at the Harvard College Observatory
  • 1927 - 1938 : Technical Assistant to Harlow Shapley, Harvard College Observatory
  • 1933: Awarded Annie J. Cannon Prize recognizing the work of exceptional women astronomers (first winner)
  • 1934, March 6: Married Sergei Gaposchkin
  • 1936: Elected member of American Philosophical Society
  • 1938: Appointed Phillips Astronomer at Harvard University
  • 1938: Published Variable Stars
  • 1942: Received honorary degree from Wilson College, Doctor of Science
  • 1943: Elected member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1945 - 1947 : President of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi chapter at Radcliffe College
  • 1948: Appointed Lecturer of Astronomy at Harvard University
  • 1950: Received honorary degree from Cambridge University, Doctor of Science
  • 1951: Received honorary degree from Smith College, Doctor of Science
  • 1952: Presented with Award of Merit from Radcliffe College
  • 1952: Published Stars in the Making
  • 1953: Received honorary degree from Western College for Women, Doctor of Science
  • 1954: Published Variable Stars and Galactic Structure
  • 1956 - 1966 : Professor of Astronomy
  • 1956 - 1960 : Chairperson of the Astronomy Department (first woman department chairperson at Harvard)
  • 1957: Awarded Annual Achievement Award of the American Association of University Women Published Galactic Novae
  • 1958: Appointed Phillips Professor of Astronomy Received honorary degree from Colby College
  • 1961: Awarded Rittenhouse Medal from Franklin Institute Received honorary degree from Women's Medical College of Philadelphia
  • 1966: Retired from teaching
  • 1967: Appointed Phillips Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus Received staff appointment at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Awarded Henry Norris Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society
  • 1974: Planet 1974CA named in her honor
  • 1977: Awarded Henry Norris Russell Lectureship from the American Astronomical Society
  • 1979: Published Stars and clusters Died December 7

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979), the first woman to attain a full professorship through a regular faculty promotion at Harvard University, was a pioneer in astrophysics and a leading authority on the brightness of variable stars. Her work was of fundamental importance in the study of stellar atmospheres and the research techniques that she perfected for analyzing starlight photographically were widely used and helped provide astronomers with a better understanding of the composition of stars.

Gaposchkin was born in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England on May 10, 1900 to Edward Payne and Emma Pertz. Growing up in England, Gaposchkin attended both religious and private grammar schools. In 1919 she entered Newnham College at Cambridge University with the intention of studying botany, physics, and chemistry. However, after listening to a lecture by astrophysicist Arthur Eddington about solar eclispes, she decided to change her academic direction and pursue a career in astronomy. At Newnham College, Gaposchkin attended as many astronomy classes as she could, set up a telescope, and presided over the college's Science Society.

Faced with limited academic opportunities in Great Britain, Gaposchkin decided to attend school in the United States and applied for a fellowship to do research at the Harvard College Observatory in 1923. She became one of the first students in Harvard's new graduate program in astronomy. Gaposchkin continued her studies of variable stars as the first PhD student in astronomy at Radcliffe College in 1924. Gaposchkin's research work at Radcliffe involved the analysis of Harvard University's immense collection of spectra photographs, a collection consisting of tens of thousands of images. Her findings, published in her work entitled Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars, determined stellar temperatures and established that stars were made up of hydrogen and helium with traces of other elements.

Upon graduation, Gaposchkin continued her work at Harvard as an astronomer pursuing her studies of the stars and the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy. In collaboration with her husband, Sergei, a Russian astronomer émigré working at the observatory, Gaposchkin undertook the systematic investigation of all known variable stars brighter than the tenth magnitude and published her results in 1938. Her work, Variable Stars, became the standard reference in the field. During the 1930's and 1940's, both Cecilia and Sergei, together with 29 assistants in the Observatory, made more than 1,250,000 observations of variable stars and laid the groundwork for all subsequent work on them and their use as indicators of the structure of the galaxy. Finally, in the 1960's, the Gaposchkins made more than two million photographic estimates of the stars in the two satellite galaxies of the Milky Way Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds.

Gaposchkin entered Harvard's academic community when opportunities for women in the field of astronomy were limited. Despite her discoveries, she lacked the recognition afforded her male counterparts and received a smaller salary. In addition to her scientific work, she edited the volumes published by the Harvard Observatory and papers submitted by the staff to outside journals. She also taught a series of astronomy lecture courses. It was not until 1938 that she received a permanent appointment to the Harvard staff; in 1956 she finally received a full professorship. That same year she became chair of the Astronomy Department, the first woman to chair a department at Harvard University. She retired from active teaching in 1966.

Gaposchkin was recognized by her peers for her definitive studies of variable stars. She authored or coauthored nine books and 351 papers between 1925 and 1979. These studies of variable stars and novae were widely read by both students and astronomers and helped define the structure of the galaxy and the paths of stellar evolution.

Cecilia Gaposchkin married Sergei in 1934. They had three children: Edward Michael, Katharine Leonora (Haramundanis), and Peter John Arthur.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin died on December 7, 1979

References used for this biography are:

Ginerich, Owen.The Most Brilliant PhD Thesis Ever Written in Astronomy. In The Starry Universe: The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Centenary.Schenectady, New York : L. Davis Press, 2001. Goldberg, Leo,Fred L. Whipple, Charles A. Whitney and Owen Gingeric.Memorial Minute: Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin. Harvard University Gazette (May 8, 1981) : 6. Kidwell, Peggy Aldrich. Three Women of American Astronomy.American Scientist 78 (May-June, 1990) : 244-251. Peggy Aldrich Kidwell.Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia; American National Biography Online February 2000. Access Date: Tuesday February 3, 2004. Wayman, Patrick A.Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: astronomer extraordinaire.Astronomy and Geophysics 43, no. 1 (2002) : 1.27-1.29.

From the guide to the Papers of Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, 1924, ca.1950's-1970's, 2000, (Harvard University Archives)


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  • Women astronomers
  • Astronomers
  • Astronomy--Study and teaching
  • Astronomy
  • Women college teachers
  • Stars--Atmospheres


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  • Massachusetts--Cambridge (as recorded)