Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Cecilia Helena Payne was born on May 10, 1900 in Wendover, England. Her father (who died when she was 4) was a gifted musician and a London barrister. She attended St. Paul's Girls School and won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge to study natural sciences. Her interest in astronomy was sparked by attending a lecture by Sir Arthur Eddington on his 1919 expedition which confirmed Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Realizing that there would be no career for her in England other than teaching, she moved to America in 1922.
In America she worked for Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard College Observatory. Shapley persuaded her to write a doctoral thesis, even though there was no Ph.D. program at Harvard at the time. In her thesis Stellar Atmospheres (1925) using Harvard's library of stellar spectrums she established that small elements (hydrogen and helium) composed 99% of the chemical composition of stars, earning her the first Ph.D. given at Harvard for work done at the Harvard Observatory. At the time it was believed that stars were composed of the same elements as the Earth, with heavier elements making up the majority and her discovery was thought incorrect. Later she was found to be right, but she had given up the study of stellar spectroscopy.
She became a United States citizen in 1931 and in 1933, on a tour of Europe she met Sergei Gaboschkin, a Russian born astronomer. He returned to the United States with her and they were married in 1934. Because she was a woman, Payne-Gaboschkin was often passed over for promotion and did not become a professor until 1956, at the time the first woman to advance to professorship at Harvard. She served as the head of the Harvard Astronomy Department from 1956-1960 and retired in 1966.
Honors won by Payne-Gaboschkin include the Henry Norris Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society, Membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and many honorary degrees.
She died on December 7, 1979.
Gingerich, Owen; "Cecilia Payne-Gaboschkin"; Royal Astronomy Society Quarterly Journal (1982)23:450-451
Smith, Eslke V.P.; "Cecilia Payne-Gaboschkin"; Physics Today (1980)33:64-65
Cecilia Payne-Gaboschkin Wikipedia Entry