was a towering figure in 20th-century astronomy
. Born in 1900 in England, she won tuition to Newnham College
where she studied botany, chemistry, and physics. After attending an astronomy lecture in 1919, she changed the focus of her future studies. She moved to the United States, where she went on to earn the first Ph.D awarded in astronomy from Radcliffe College
. She later became the first female to be promoted to full-professor from within the faculty at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and was the first woman to head a department at Harvard
when she was appointed to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy. Amongst her numerous studies and advances, she challenge the belief that the sun was made of the same composition of the earth, furthered the study of metallicity of stars and the structure of the Milky Way.
Cecilia Payne was one of three children, with her two brothers receiving funding for college. Payne won a scholarship to study at Newnham College, where her major field of study was Natural Sciences
. She was fascinated in astronomy from age 5, when she saw a meteor streak through the night sky
, and her interest was rekindled after attending Sir Arthur Eddington's lecture on the first experimental test of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity
, in which the 1919 eclipse provided an opportunity to see light from the bright Hyades star cluster curve due to the gravitational pull of the sun
. She completed her coursework in England in 1923 at a time women were not granted degrees at Cambridge, then she sought and obtained a Pickering Fellowship
from Harvard to study under Harlow Shapley
, the recently appointed director of the Harvard Observatory
. Shapley began a graduate program in astronomy, and with the fellowship to encourage women to study at the Observatory, Payne was the second female student in the program, following Adelaide Ames
Cecilia Payne then moved to the United States to further her studies in astronomy, where she published here thesis paper, Stellar Atmospheres, a contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layer of Stars
, in 1925. Her results were contradictory to the current popular theories
. When Shapley sent Payne's these to Dr. Henry Norris Russell
at Princeton, he informed her that the result was "clearly impossible," and to protect herself, Payne inserted a statement in her thesis that the calculated results were "almost certainly not real.
But after Payne published her thesis as a book and received wider review of her theory, her calculations were validated, and astronomer Otto Struve
called her book, Stellar Atmospheres
, "undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy."
In 1926 when she was 26 years old, she became the youngest scientist to be listed in American Men of Science
. By 1934, Henry Norris Russell's opinion of Payne was greatly improved, as when Princeton's president inquired with Russell about a possible staff member to groom as his replacement, Russell wrote that the best candidate in America "alas, is a woman!,—not at present on our staff"
. But it was not until 1938 that her work as a lecturer and researcher was recognized at Harvard and she was granted the title of "astronomer." In her early years after she finished her Ph.D. through the 1930s, Payne performed the duties of a professor, including lecturing, advising students, and conducting graduate research, but her title at Harvard was "technical assistant" to Professor Shapley. In those earlier days, her small salary was categorized by the department under 'equipment'
, and her lectures were not listed in the course catalog until 1945
In 1932, Payne went on a tour of observatories around Europe, ending in Berlin to attend a meeting of Astronomische Gesellschaft
. It was there she met Sergei Gaposchkin
(Google books), a Russian astronomer who was looking to find a position out of Germany. Payne argued with Shapley for Gaposchkin to join the Harvard College Observatory, and within a few months, Gaposchkin was a research assistant at the observatory. Payne and Gaposchkin were married in 1934, and the two worked at Harvard for many years, collaborating on some of their studies.
In 1956, she became the first woman tenured to a full professorship at Harvard University, and simultaneously she became the first woman to chair an academic department at Harvard.
In 1961, she was awarded the Rittenhouse Medal from Franklin Institute
, retired in 1966 and was named Professor Emeritus at Harvard University in 1967. Payne-Gaposchkin was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship
from the American Astronomical Society in 1976. In her career, she wrote more than 150 papers and nine books, and made several million observations of thousands of variable stars
with her husband and her assistants. She passed away on December 7, 1979
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin is remembered by her students, and her story retold in her own words
, written up by Owen Gingerich at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. You can also read part of her acceptance speech for the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship
(Google books), and some quotes from her autobiography
(Google books). The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Lecture series was established in October 2000 during the centenary year of her birth
. The goal of the series is to remember Payne-Gaposchkin by honoring a modern astrophysicist with broad accomplishments.