Hoffleit, Dorrit, 1907-2007

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Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit was born on March 12, 1907, on her parents' farm in Florence, Alabama. Her parents, Fred and Kate Sanio Hoffleit, had emigrated from Germany, and her father worked intermittently as a bookkeeper for the Pennsylvania Railroad. While he preferred farm work, it was not possible to support the family this way, and they relocated from Alabama to New Castle, Pennsylvania. Fred Hoffleit later returned to the farm, while his wife opted to remain in New Castle, judging that the educational opportunities for Hoffleit and her brother Herbert were better there. Hoffleit thus spent most of her early childhood in New Castle, and her interest in astronomy began there, as she would watch the night skies in their back yard with her mother and Herbert. In 1920, Hoffleit and her mother moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, accompanying Herbert, who enrolled at Harvard University.

Hoffleit received her B.A. in mathematics from Radcliffe College in 1928. Her original plan was to teach high school mathematics, but as no jobs in this field were available, she obtained work as a research assistant at the Harvard College Observatory, working on the discovery and light curves of variable stars and earning 40 cents an hour while men doing similar work were paid a dollar an hour. While working at the Observatory, she took graduate courses at Radcliffe, receiving her M.A. and Ph.D. in astronomy in 1932 and 1938, respectively. She was the fifth woman to receive a Ph.D. from Radcliffe and was awarded the Carolyn Wilby Prize for best original work in any department for her dissertation on the determination of spectroscopic absolute magnitudes of southern stars.

When the United States entered World War II, many of the men at the Observatory joined government research organizations, while Hoffleit initially took on additional tasks created by the men's absence. In 1943, she joined the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where she calculated trajectories for missiles. The director of the laboratory did not permit women to hold professional ratings, but ultimately professional ratings were awarded to eligible women. After the war, Hoffleit deferred her full-time return to Harvard and remained at the Proving Ground for an additional three years, working on the determination of trajectories of captured V2 rockets. She remained a consultant for the Research Laboratory until 1961.

In 1948, she returned to full-time work at Harvard and remained there until 1956, when she was named director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket. (She did not actually begin work at the Observatory until 1957, as the previous director, Margaret Harwood, had requested an extension in order to complete a project. In the interim, Hoffleit taught astronomy part time at Wellesley College.) Her job at the Observatory was a half-year appointment, and for the remaining six months of each year she worked as a research associate in astronomy at Yale University, running its star cataloging program. In 1964, she edited the Catalogue of Bright Stars, which listed stars visible to the naked eye, and she also edited a 1983 supplement.

Upon beginning work in Nantucket, she developed a research program for female undergraduates, with two to six students a year spending the summer at the Observatory. (Towards the end of her tenure at Nantucket male students were also included.) The students conducted seminars and open nights for the general public and for school-age children, photographed and studied variable stars, and presented the results of their research at annual meetings of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Several of her summer assistants became professional astronomers and many retained close friendships with Hoffleit. Her appointment at the Maria Mitchell Observatory continued until 1978.

Hoffleit officially retired from Yale in 1975, but even after retirement, she remained active in the field of astronomy, writing papers, frequently on women astronomers, and presenting at conferences. She was considered an expert on variable stars, the history of astronomy, and astrometry, a branch of astronomy which deals with the positions of stars and other celestial bodies. In 1987, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after her, in acknowledgment of her contributions to the field of astronomy.

From the guide to the Papers, 1906-2005, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Hoffleit, Dorrit. Oral history interview with Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit, 1979 August 4. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Papers, 1890-1997 (inclusive). Radcliffe College, Archives
referencedIn Center for History of Physics (American Institute of Physics). History of Modern Astrophysics Archives, 1976-1979. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn The structure of the Milky Way system : seminar notes, 1952. Harvard University Archives.
creatorOf Papers, 1906-2005 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf E. Dorrit Hoffleit papers, 1847-2006, 1945-2000 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Radcliffe "Women in Science" Exhibit, (1936) Records, 1935-1940 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Papers, 1906-2005 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf American Astronomical Society. Meeting. (1974: Rochester, N.Y.). Invited papers regarding the 75th anniversary of the American Astronomical Society [sound recording] / 1974 August 22. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn History of Modern Astrophysics Collection, 1849-1979 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Cronkhite, Bernice Brown, 1893-. Papers of Bernice Brown Cronkhite, 1921-1981 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers, 1890-1997 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Douglas, Alice Vibert, 1894-. Letter to Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit concerning Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's undergraduate days at Cambridge University, 1980. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Radcliffe "Women in Science" Exhibit, (1936). Records, 1935-1940 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Hoffleit, Dorrit. E. Dorrit Hoffleit papers, 1847-2006 (inclusive), 1945-2000 (bulk). Yale University Library
referencedIn Oral histories documenting Yale University women, 2007-2009 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
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correspondedWith American Astronomical Society corporateBody
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associatedWith American Astronomical Society. Meeting. (1974: Rochester, N.Y.) corporateBody
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correspondedWith Anderson, Jean person
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correspondedWith Baldwin, Marvin person
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correspondedWith Brimer, Lucia person
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associatedWith Douglas, Alice Vibert, 1894- person
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correspondedWith Frakno, Andrew person
correspondedWith Fred Hoffleit. person
correspondedWith Fredrick, Laurence person
associatedWith Gaposchkin, Cecilia Helena Payne, 1900- person
associatedWith Gaposchkin, Cecilia Helena Payne, 1900- person
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correspondedWith Hibbert, Beulah person
correspondedWith Hill, Kathleen Young person
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associatedWith Hoffleit, Kate. person
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associatedWith Hoffleit, Norfleet Daniel. person
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correspondedWith Mack, Pamela E. person
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associatedWith Mattei, Janet A. (Janet Akyüz) person
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associatedWith Maury, Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira, 1866- person
associatedWith Maury, Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira, 1866- person
correspondedWith Mayall, Margaret person
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correspondedWith Menzel, Donald person
associatedWith Menzel, Donald H. (Donald Howard), 1901-1976. person
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associatedWith Phi Beta Kappa. corporateBody
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associatedWith Pickering, Edward C. (Edward Charles), 1846-1919. person
correspondedWith Pishmish, Paris person
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associatedWith Radcliffe "Women in Science" Exhibit, (1936) corporateBody
correspondedWith Riehl, Jo person
correspondedWith Risley, A. Marguerite person
associatedWith Russell, Henry Norris, 1877-1957. person
correspondedWith Rye Country Day School person
correspondedWith Saladyga, Michael person
correspondedWith Schaefer, Bradley E. person
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correspondedWith Shurrocks, Alice person
correspondedWith Sigma XI Society corporateBody
correspondedWith Skillman, Dave person
associatedWith Smith College corporateBody
associatedWith Stetson, Harlan True, 1885-1964. person
associatedWith Struve, Otto, 1897-1963. person
associatedWith Swope, Henrietta Hill, 1902-1982. person
correspondedWith Tenn, Joseph person
correspondedWith Thackeray, A. D. person
associatedWith Thomas, Helen Meriwether Lewis. person
associatedWith Tombaugh, Clyde William, 1906-1997. person
associatedWith Trimble, Virginia person
associatedWith Trimble, Virginia. person
correspondedWith United States Senate corporateBody
associatedWith University of Rhode Island corporateBody
associatedWith U.S. Army Ballistic Research Laboratory. corporateBody
correspondedWith van de Kamp, Peter person
correspondedWith Vassar College corporateBody
associatedWith Vassar College. corporateBody
correspondedWith Vincent, Florence (and Art) person
correspondedWith Warren, Jean person
associatedWith Welther, Barbara L. person
associatedWith Welther, Barbara L. person
associatedWith Wesleyan corporateBody
associatedWith Whipple, Fred L. (Fred Lawrence), 1906-2004. person
correspondedWith William Caspar Graustein person
associatedWith William F. van Altena person
associatedWith William G. Howard person
correspondedWith Williams, Thomas R. person
correspondedWith Winifred Edgerton person
correspondedWith Wlasuk, Paul T. person
associatedWith Women astronomers person
correspondedWith Wood, Harley person
correspondedWith Worley, Charles E. person
associatedWith Yale University. corporateBody
associatedWith Yale University. Dept. of Manuscripts and Archives. corporateBody
associatedWith Yale University. Observatory. corporateBody
correspondedWith Yang, Ting-gao person
correspondedWith Zhang, Jing person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Florence AL US
New Haven CT US
Nantucket MA US
Aberdeen Proving Ground(Md.)
Astronomical instruments
Astronomical observatories
Emigration and immigration
Immigrants' writings, German
Mothers and daughters
Older women
V-2 rocket
Variable stars
Variable stars
Women astronomers
Women in astronomy
Women in science
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945


Birth 1907-03-12

Death 2007-04-09





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