Williamina Fleming worked as a maid for an astronomer who got frustrated with his staff at Harvard. One day he supposedly exclaimed, “My Scotch maid could do better!” To prove his point, he gave Williamina Fleming a promotion to the observatory staff.
Well, that’s the story at least. More likely, the astronomer’s wife recognized the maid’s talents and then encouraged him to give her a part-time job.
Williamina Fleming then became one of the most prominent female astronomers in the world.
A Long Way From Dundee
She was born Williamina Stevens on May 15, 1857, in Dundee, Scotland, to Robert Stevens and Mary Walker Stevens. Robert Stevens, an artisan, carved and gilded picture frames and furniture. But he also had a scientific bent and an inquiring mind, which his daughter apparently inherited. He experimented with daguerreotype processing before anyone else did in Dundee.
But Robert Stevens died when Williamina was six, leaving the family in poverty. So Williamina went to work at age 14 as an assistant teacher.
At 20, Williamina married a widower, James Orr Fleming, who worked in a bank as an accountant. She taught school in Scotland for a short time until the couple emigrated to Boston.
She was pregnant when Fleming suddenly abandoned her. So she went to work as a maid for Professor Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory.
The observatory employed computers, people who did mathematical calculations by hand. Pickering’s male computers supposedly disappointed him with inferior work. Hence the apocryphal exclamation about his Scotch maid.
Pickering then gave Williamina Fleming a job in 1879 as a part-time administrator at the observatory.
Fleming soon returned to Dundee to give birth to her son. She named him Edward Charles Pickering Fleming, but she left him with his grandmother and returned to Boston.
In 1881, Pickering had embarked on an ambitious project. He was classifying the universe by analyzing glass plate photographs of the stars. The photographs, taken through a prism, captured more detail than the naked eye could see through a telescope. He had taught another woman, Nettie Farrar, to measure spectra, the bands of color and lines that form when starlight is dispersed through a prism.
Williamina Fleming Takes Over
Farrar, though, was leaving Harvard to get married. Pickering asked Williamina to take over the job of examining and classifying the plates.
Dava Sobel describes the meticulous work involved in examining a plate in her book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.
Williamina removed each 8″-by-10″ glass plate from its kraft paper sleeve without getting a single fingerprint on either side. She had to hold the fragile packet by its side edges between her palms. Then she set the open end of the envelope on the lip of a specially designed stand, and eased the paper up and off without letting go of the plate. Sobel compared it with undressing a baby.
Williamina then made sure the emulsion side faced her, released her grip and let the glass settle into place.
‘The wooden stand held the plate in a picture frame, tilted at a 45-degree angle,” wrote Sobel. “A mirror affixed to the flat base caught daylight from the computing room’s big windows and directed illumination up through the glass.”
She had to tag each of the hundreds of tiny spectra on the plate with a new catalog number identified by its coordinates. Those were indicated by millimeter and centimeter rules on the wooden frame. Then Williamina read off the numbers to a colleague who penciled them into a logbook.
Over the course of her career, Williamina Fleming examined more than 200,000 photographic plates. She developed a new system of classification and put 10,000 stars in it. She also discovered 10 novae (exploding stars), 310 variable stars and the Horsehead Nebulae.
With Pickering’s support, she helped open the field of astronomy to women. He put her in charge of hiring and supervising a team of women to study Harvard’s growing collection of star photographs. She hired and supervised 20 other women, including her protégé, Annie Jump Cannon.
Pickering employed a lot of women to do the math required for astronomy. He recruited more than 80 women at the observatory from 1881 to his death in 1919. They were known as Pickering’s Harem.
In 1893, Fleming gave a speech on women’s work in astronomy at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Newspapers picked up her comments, and other U.S. observatories began hiring women.
But did women get paid the same as men? Fleming didn’t.
She worked 60 hours a week for $1,500 a year, much less than the newest male assistant at the observatory earned. Her 1900 journals, discovered much later, show her frustration with trying to make ends meet and put her son through MIT.
Williamina Fleming died of pneumonia at the age of 54. Annie Jump Cannon wrote her obituary, describing a woman with a magnetic personality and many interests.
Fond of people and excitement, there was no more enthusiastic spectator in the stadium for the football games, no more ardent champion of the Harvard eleven. Industrious by nature, she was seldom idle, and long years of observatory work never unfitted her for the domestic side of life. As much at home with the needle as with the magnifying eyepiece, she could make a dainty bag, exquisitely sewed, or dress a doll in complete Scotch Highland costume. She was never too tired to welcome her friends at her home or at the observatory, with that quality of human sympathy which is sometimes lacking among women engaged in scientific pursuits. Her bright face, her attractive manner, and her cheery greeting with its charming Scotch accent, will long be remembered by even the most casual visitors to the Harvard College Observatory.
Williamina Fleming and the rest of the women in Pickering’s Harem had company in the annals of women scientists.
Maria Mitchell discovered a comet from a Nantucket rooftop before Williamina was born. Read about her here.
Years after Williamina died, Margaret Hamilton helped put Neil Armstrong on the moon with her software for the Apollo space program. Read about her here. And Amazing Grace Hopper invented COBOL.
This story was updated in 2022.