Sue Young Histories

Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin 1900 – 1979

May 25, 2009

Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin 1900 – 1979 was an English American astronomer who in 1925 was first to show that the Sun is mainly composed of hydrogen, contradicting accepted wisdom at the time.

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin was the great granddaughter of homeopath James John Garth Wilkinson, and the granddaughter of James John Garth Wilkinson’s daughter Emma Marsh Wilkinson. Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin was also related to Charles Lyell through her Aunt Katherine Lyell, who was Charles Lyell’s sister in law.

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin was a friend of Genevieve Ward, who was a patient and friend of James John Garth Wilkinson,

In an ironic encounter, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, the great grand daughter of homeopath James John Garth Wilkinson, had an unexpected meeting with Theodore Dunham Junior, Scientific Director of the Fund for Astrophysical Research from its founding in 1936 until his death in 1984, who was himself the grandson of homeopath Carroll Dunham.

James John Garth Wilkinson’s great granddaughter Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) recalls that Aunt Florence (‘… gentle Florence Pertz…’) __‘… Flossie as we called her … had a fascinating social circle. At her parties one would meet Lord Buckmaster (the Lord Chancellor), the Master of Chancer, Wedgewood Benn, Sir Israel Gollancz, Etheldreda Hull and many more. Her most valued friend (though he did not appear at her parties) was Henry James, whose father had been intimate with Dr. Wilkinson. I grieve to admit that Henry James was thrust down my throat to such an extent that to this day I cannot bring myself to read any of his books – to my great loss…’ * (Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin, Katherine Haramundanis (Ed.), *Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections, (Cambridge University Press, 21 Mar 1996). Pages 80-83 and page 92).

Cecilia Helena Payne was one of three children born in Wendover, England to Elena (Pertz) and Edward John Payne, a London barrister, historian and accomplished musician. Cecilia Payne’s father died when she was four years old, forcing her mother to raise the family on her own.

She attended St Paul’s Girls’ School and then won a scholarship to read botany, physics, and chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge University in 1919.

Here, her interest in astronomy was sparked by Eddington’s lecture on his eclipse expedition to Africa to photograph the stars near the eclipsed Sun as a test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

She completed her studies, but was not awarded a degree as Cambridge did not grant degrees to women at that time. After meeting Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, who had just begun began a graduate program in astronomy, Cecilia Payne left England for the United States in 1923.

This was made possible by a fellowship to encourage women to study at the Observatory. The first student was Adelaide Ames (1922) and the second student was Payne. Harlow Shapley persuaded Cecilia Payne to write a doctoral dissertation, and so in 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe (now part of Harvard) for her thesis Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars. Astronomer Otto Struve characterized it as “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.

By applying the ionization theory developed by Indian physicist Megh Nad Saha she was able to accurately relate the spectral classes of stars to their actual temperatures. She showed that the great variation in stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization that

occurred at different temperatures, and not due to the different abundances of elements.

She correctly suggested that silicon, carbon, and other common metals seen in the sun were found in about the same relative amounts as on earth, but that helium and particularly hydrogen were vastly more abundant (by about a factor of one million in the case of hydrogen).

Her thesis thus established that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of the stars.

When her dissertation was reviewed, she was dissuaded by Henry Norris Russell from concluding that the composition of the sun is different from the earth, which was the accepted wisdom at the time. However, Henry Norris Russell changed his mind four years later when other evidence emerged.

Payne became an American citizen in 1931. On a tour through Europe in 1933, she met Russian born Sergei I Gaposchkin in Germany. She helped him get a visa to the United States and they married in March 1934, and eventually had three children, Edward, Katherine, and Peter.

Payne Gaposchkin remained scientifically active throughout her life, spending her entire academic career at Harvard. She served as a technical assistant to Harlow Shapley from 1927 to 1938.

At one point she considered leaving Harvard because of her low status and poor salary as she held no official position there. Harlow Shapley, however, made efforts to improve her position, and in 1938 she was given the title of “astronomer”.

On becoming director in 1954, Donald Menzel tried to improve her appointment, and in 1956 she became the first female to be promoted to full Professor from within the faculty at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.

After her doctorate, Payne then studied stars of high luminosity in order to understand the structure of the Milky Way. Later, with her husband, she surveyed all the stars brighter than the tenth magnitude. She then studied variable stars, making over 1,250,000 observations with her assistants.

This work later was extended to the Magellanic Clouds, adding a further 2,000,000 observations of variable stars. This data was used to determine the paths of stellar evolution.

According to G. Kass Simon and Patricia Farnes, Payne’s career marked a sort of turning point at Harvard College Observatory. Under the direction of Harlow Shapley, the observatory had already offered more opportunities in astronomy to women than other institutions, and notable achievements had been made earlier in the century by Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Leavitt.

However, with Payne Gaposchkin’s PhD, women entered the ‘mainstream’. The trail she blazed into the largely male dominated scientific community was an inspiration to many.


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