Despite never finishing high school, Mary Calvert was one of the most famous female astronomers in the US during the 1930s. Calvert’s star rose in large part because of the death of her uncle E. E. Barnard in 1923: She took it on herself to complete his unfinished magnum opus, A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way, which was published in 1927. Having her name on the work’s title page brought Calvert a new level of national prominence and earned her a promotion from (human) computer to assistant at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory.
That familial connection identifies Calvert, like Caroline Herschel and Maria Mitchell, as a woman whose entry into science was facilitated by male relatives to whose work her labor contributed.1 That was a common path into astronomy for women during the 19th century. But as the discipline professionalized in the latter half of that century, even women with familial connections, such as Antonia Maury and Anne Sewell Young, increasingly found it necessary to acquire educational credentials. And for women who had no relatives working in astronomy, those degrees opened a pathway into a field that was otherwise closed.
By 1900, women were attending college in such numbers that anxieties about the feminization of higher education abounded, but they received graduate degrees in much smaller numbers.2 Part of the reason for that was cultural. Many female college graduates would go on to become schoolteachers, a career that did not require advanced scientific training. Another reason was structural. Well into the 20th century, women were expected to leave the workforce when they married.3 Advanced training for women thus diverted resources from “outstanding young men” who would remain in the field for their entire lives and thus deserved promotion over and above any woman, no matter how talented. Or, at least, that was the argument deployed by physicist Robert Millikan when protesting the 1936 appointment of German physicist Hertha Sponer to a professorship at Duke University.4
In certain quarters, however, women made inroads. Psychology, anthropology, zoology, botany, and especially home economics, for example, came to be coded as more feminine than fields such as physics or astronomy, in part because of the relatively large numbers of women earning advanced degrees in those fields. But the relatively large number of female graduates in those disciplines did not lead to a proportional increase in the number of professional women with careers in those fields. After graduating, many of the women found themselves overcredentialed and underemployed.
Staff or students?
In astronomy, there was a strong demand for educated women, who were hired as human computers at facilities such as the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London; the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California.5 But their work was routine and required only a basic knowledge of mathematics, not advanced astronomical or astrophysical training. Those observatories hired women because they provided cheap and reliable labor. At Greenwich, for example, calculations had previously been carried out by boys.6 And at Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York, women without college degrees were preferred precisely because they were cheaper.7
As a rule, the women were employees, not graduate students. For that reason, early women astronomers who made significant contributions to science, such as Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, are generally identified as exceptions who succeeded despite being confined because of their gender to scientifically ancillary, professionally marginal, and poorly remunerated positions as computers. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who worked at the Harvard College Observatory and in 1925 became the first woman to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College, was an exception among exceptions.
At Yerkes Observatory, however, a different system emerged. Because it was attached to the University of Chicago, which was coed from its foundation in 1890, women astronomers at Yerkes always had the opportunity to obtain advanced degrees. Emily Dobbin became the first woman to earn an MS in astronomy from the university in 1903. Her thesis, “The orbit of the fifth satellite of Jupiter,” was published in the Astronomical Journal the following year.8
Yerkes was also unique because its location in the southern Wisconsin village of Williams Bay made it accessible. Not only was the municipality the last stop on a train line that connected the town with Chicago, but the observatory’s proximity to the community also enabled women to find respectable accommodations nearby. That was unusual. Mount Wilson, for example, was not only difficult to get to but intentionally designed to exclude families and, by extension, all women. Moreover, women who worked as computers for Mount Wilson at its office in Pasadena were unable to pursue a degree. As Mount Wilson director George Ellery Hale explained in a 1919 letter to the future University of Chicago PhD candidate Dorothy Block, “No academic credit is given for work in the Observatory.”9 At Yerkes, however, a system was in place by the early 1910s in which someone working as a calculator had the opportunity to simultaneously earn credits toward an advanced degree. The first woman to take advantage of that opportunity was Jessie Short (1873–1947).
First but not forgotten
Born into a farming family in College Springs, Iowa, Short earned her BA from Beloit College in 1900 and started working as a schoolteacher in Minnesota after graduation. But Short wanted to do graduate work. In 1911 she began working on her master’s degree in astronomy at Carleton College, where she eventually completed a thesis on the Algol star system. The essay “involved considerable original research,” as her supervisor stated in his recommendation letter.10
On track to finish her degree, Short reached out to Edwin Frost, director of Yerkes, in September 1910 with a plan. “I should be glad to spend most of the Summer at Yerkes Observatory,” she wrote, “if I could arrange to do enough assistance work to pay expenses while there, combining study and computing or assistant work of some kind.” She hoped that such an arrangement would enable her to focus on her studies and that, after working at Yerkes for a couple of summers in that manner, she could then take a year’s break from her teaching work to focus on completing a PhD. Frost responded that her plan would require more than one year’s residence, even with several summers of study at Yerkes behind her. But the biggest obstacle to her plan, he explained, was the observatory staff’s unfamiliarity with the “red tape and formality in connection with candidates for degrees from the University.” In other words, no one had yet pursued a graduate degree in that way.
For the time being, Short stayed at Carleton. But even as she advanced to become the college’s acting dean of women, she nurtured her dream of earning a PhD. She wrote to Frost again in 1914, and that time he told her to apply for a fellowship. In the intervening years, the staff at the observatory had figured out how to make graduate work at the observatory a reality.
But just because there was now a path forward did not mean that it was open to Short. Frost supported her application for a fellowship, but there were those on the faculty who questioned her suitability. One of those was E. H. Moore, the first head of the University of Chicago’s mathematics department. As he wrote to Frost, “You write of Miss Short. Being already forty-one, does she give promise of doing anything noteworthy for the University? I should think that the policy would be to ‘catch em young.’” Fortunately for Short, Frost’s endorsement carried the day. Nevertheless, at $120, her fellowship was significantly smaller than those awarded to male classmates.
Short started work on her PhD in the summer of 1914, focusing her attentions on the distortions of the reflector field on plates taken using a 12-inch aperture on the 24-inch reflecting telescope. In her research, she discovered that the Gaertner measuring engine—a cutting-edge piece of technology used to rapidly measure glass plates—had a progressive error in its screw, which affected the machine’s accuracy. That also led her to conduct research on the calibration of the screw. Both areas of research reveal the absence of a gendered division of labor at Yerkes: Edwin Hubble, Short’s fellow graduate student, also conducted research on the distortions of the reflector field, and Oliver Lee, who left Yerkes for a position at the Dearborn Observatory at Northwestern University in 1928, also conducted research on the errors of the screw.11
But soon disaster struck. Short failed her qualifying exam in mathematics. It’s unclear whether that was because she truly did not understand the material, as the all-male examining committee stated; they held her to an impossibly high standard; or they were simply unwilling to advance a woman to candidacy. Whatever their reasons, the committee declined to let her pass. Short left Yerkes shortly thereafter and, after a brief spell at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, landed a job at the Workmen’s Compensation Service Bureau in New York City.
But she was nothing if not persistent. In 1923 Short wrote to Frost to ask about finishing her dissertation. It had taken a long time for her to revisit the matter, she wrote, because her job at the Service Bureau left her barely any time for research. The period during and after World War I had been particularly difficult in that regard, but even under normal circumstances, overseeing a staff of 90 left her little opportunity to revisit her dissertation. Even after leaving the bureau in 1920 to assume an instructorship in the mathematics department at Reed College, she had been occupied with teaching.
Frost responded by informing her that research at the observatory had moved on. “I do not feel the investigation of the field of the reflector is yet exhausted,” he wrote, but producing something new that was worthy of a PhD “would require more plates and some new refinements in measurement and reduction.” In other words, Short would essentially have to start again. That she did not do. But although Short never earned a PhD at the University of Chicago, she nevertheless earned a place in James Cattell’s American Men of Science.12
Work-study at Yerkes
Short played a crucial role in making it possible for both men and women to do graduate work at Yerkes while working as a computer. But that was only one of the paths that brought women to the observatory. Harriet Parsons (1892–1986), for example, obtained funding for graduate work from other sources, most notably from nonresident graduate fellowships financed by Vassar College alumnae. Women did not have to do graduate work, however, if they were employed as a computer. For example, there is no evidence that Eudora Magill (1855–1948), who was employed at Yerkes from 1912 to 1916, ever sought to earn an advanced degree. But she could have.
Since early 2019 the Capturing the Stars undergraduate research group led by University of Chicago astronomer Richard Kron has been measuring the brightness of stars on century-old photographic glass plates taken at Yerkes Observatory. Many of those plates, which are now held at the University of Chicago Library, were taken by women astronomers. Once a plate has been digitized, the next steps involve calibrating it over a large range of stellar brightnesses. That plate-specific calibration is challenging because of the nonlinear response of the photographic emulsion to illumination and the quirks of the digitizing equipment.
Two papers have been published on the methods developed so far. The first focuses on a plate taken in 1901 depicting a small field of view pointing out of the Milky Way;15 the second analyzes a 1905 plate of a large field of view pointing into the Milky Way.16 The plates each contain thousands to tens of thousands of stars, which are useful for time-domain studies over a longtime baseline. The Yerkes collection includes tens of thousands of spectrograms, many of which are of variable stars, and the student group is currently exploring the scientific potential of those taken in the late 1920s.17
When Magill left Yerkes for a job at the University of Virginia’s Leander McCormick Observatory, Frost wrote to colleagues to ask if they knew anyone who would be interested in the position. One of those he wrote to was the Vassar astronomer Caroline Furness (1869–1936), to whom he emphasized the uniqueness of the opportunity precisely because “one advantage of the computerships here over those at certain other places is that they permit enrolment as graduate students and credit for the time toward a higher degree.”
Furness recommended her student Evelyn Wornham Wickham (1895–1988) for the position. But Wickham’s was not the only application Frost received. Based on the strength of those applications, he decided to split the position in two. Each woman would be appointed as a computer but would spend only half her time computing and the other half doing graduate work. They would each earn $30 per month, as opposed to the $50 per month received by a full-time computer, but less time spent computing for the observatory would make it possible for the women to finish a master’s degree in a single academic year.
The offer was financially meager, but Wickham did not want to pass on the opportunity. As she wrote to Frost, “Although I had hoped to be entirely self-supporting next year, I realize that this is a good opportunity for further study.” But even with the pay cut, the Yerkes position was still Wickham’s first choice: While waiting for Frost to confirm the position, she passed up two other job offers.
Apologizing for the delay, Frost confirmed her appointment and reiterated the fact that on top of calculating, she would undertake the “regular work” of a graduate student at the University of Chicago. In other words, graduate work was graduate work; her course of study was identical to that of her male peers. When not computing, Wickham spent her time studying subjects such as spectroscopy, stellar photography, and photometry. Like that of her male peers, Wickham’s work also included observing with the 40-inch refracting telescope.
That the kinds of work Wickham and her peers were doing at Yerkes far exceeded the scope of conventional women’s work is further underscored by correspondence between Frost and Ida Manley, who contacted him for information about the employment and occupations of female college graduates shortly after Wickham had arrived at Yerkes. Manley had a particular interest in photography, and she was especially excited to learn that women at Yerkes were taking part in photographic research. As she wrote, “In California, up to this time (report from Mt. Lowe), though fourteen women are employed, none is engaged in [the] photographic phase of astronomy, so it is a gratifying discovery to find four at Chicago university, and their contributions will add not a little strength to our argument in favor of this field of college women’s employment.”
After Wickham finished her MS, she remained at Yerkes for two more years before landing a job as an electrical engineer at American Telephone & Telegraph Company. Frost himself flagged those financial motivations when he wrote in his reference letter, “We shall be sorry to lose her, but realize that it is to her interest to obtain a position that will give her a different experience and better pay than we are able to offer.” Wickham married in 1925 but remained at the company until the birth of her first child in 1927.
Of the nine PhDs awarded for work done at Yerkes before 1923, three of them went to women. One of those was Alice Hall Farnsworth (1893–1960), who was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She received her BA from Mount Holyoke in 1916 and earned her MS from the University of Chicago one year later. Writing in support of her application for a fellowship in 1920, Frost stated, “Miss Farnsworth has now been a student in this department for 13 quarters and is one of the most competent that we have ever had of either sex.” Her work was not just good for a woman, it was good for an astronomer.
At Yerkes, Farnsworth worked predominantly with John Parkhurst on photometry. That work informed her PhD thesis, which compared the photometric fields from two of the observatory’s telescopes. After earning her degree in 1920, Farnsworth returned to Mount Holyoke as an instructor in the department of astronomy. She often looked back on her time at Yerkes fondly. As she wrote to Frost shortly after leaving, “I am finding your Y.O.-itis a difficult disease to recover from and doubt if I [will] ever entirely get over the effects of it.” But Farnsworth’s graduation did not bring her relationship with Yerkes to an end. She returned regularly as a volunteer research assistant and, after Parkhurst’s death in 1925, she spent a year completing several of his unfinished projects while officially employed by the University of Chicago as an instructor.
In 2020, the nonprofit Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF) took ownership of Yerkes Observatory and its 50-acre campus from the University of Chicago. The YFF has dedicated the past three years to conscientiously restoring the landmark institution and grounds. Staff members now conduct astronomical research and educational outreach. They are also building a series of programs bridging science with the arts and culture through bold ideas and performances. In only its second year open to the public, YFF has established a space where astrophysicists collaborate with musicians, sculptors, landscape designers, writers, and artists to create contemporary, cross-pollinated works and programs.
Because of her position at Mount Holyoke, where she became a full professor in 1937 and remained until her retirement in 1957, Farnsworth was arguably the most successful of the Yerkes women. Her legacy has not garnered more attention in large part because of the persistent belief that women who taught—even at universities—did not have the wherewithal to conduct original research.13 But Farnsworth’s correspondence with Frost, as well as a publication record stretching through the 1950s, challenges that narrative.
The legacies of other Yerkes women such as Short and Wickham have also been overlooked because conventional metrics for assigning credit for scientific work or recognizing scientific achievement prioritize publications, awards, and prestigious credentials. Block was also left out in the cold for similar reasons: Although she was adamant that she wanted to pursue graduate work, she never finished her PhD.
But unlike Short, Block made that decision herself. While working at Yerkes, Block met and married the Greek astronomer John Paraskevopoulos, who was doing postdoctoral work in the US. She went with Paraskevopoulos when he returned to Greece to become the head of the astronomy department of the National Observatory of Athens. For Block, marriage presented an opportunity. As one half of an astronomical couple, she did astronomical work in Athens; Arequipa, Peru (when Paraskevopoulos became director of the Harvard College Observatory’s Southern Station); and Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Block does not appear to have any publications in her own name, but numerous communications and estimates from her—or from her and her husband—were reported in the Harvard College Observatory Bulletin.14 But even though her publication record pales in comparison to that of Farnsworth, her labor was essential for the operations of the Southern Station. The words of Block’s former professor Harold Jacoby when he recommended her for a position at Yerkes were prescient: “She has just the right personality, and her astron. work is done for love of it, for she could get more pay teaching.” Block ultimately left Yerkes without a PhD to do more astronomy, not less.
Astronomy was something that female graduate students at Yerkes chose and loved. They studied at Yerkes because they wanted to; other careers were more lucrative and did not require an advanced degree. Their educational and scientific aspirations took precedence over financial or familial considerations, at least for a time. But even when marriage, motherhood, or examination committees brought their astronomical careers to an end, they never stopped being astronomers. The length of one’s research career or the number of one’s publications are not the only measures of a scientific life.
In 1928 a mother from the Chicago area wrote to Frost asking if her daughter, who wanted to study astronomy, could make a career of it. Frost replied, “Not a few fine young women have specialized in Astronomy and have later found positions as computers, assistants, or professors of Astronomy in Observatories, schools, and colleges…. No large remuneration is paid to any astronomers of any rank, but the ordinary salary of teachers may be expected of able students.” The Great Depression would change things, but by the late 1920s, there was a path forward for women interested in astronomy. And of all the women at Yerkes who took that path, even if they were on it for only a short time, it can be said: They were astronomers.
Kristine Palmieri is a postdoctoral researcher at the rank of instructor with the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago. She is a cocurator of the exhibit Capturing the Stars: The Untold History of Women at Yerkes Observatory, which will be on display at the University of Chicago Library until 15 December 2023.