Other women who worked at the Harvard observatory included Ida Woods, who in 1920 received the first AAVSO nova medal and by 1927 had seven bars on it for her discoveries of novae on photographs of the Milky Way; Evelyn Leland, a competent observer; Margaret Harwood, a 1916 graduate of the University of California who later became the director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, the first such honour bestowed on a woman by an independent observatory and Johanna Mackie, recepient of a gold medal from the American Association of Variable Star Observers for her discovery of nova. Florence Cushman, Grace Brooks, Mary Van, Mollie O'Reilly, Mabel Gill, Alta Carpenter, Dorothy Black and Arville Walker were also all Harvard Computers.


For more information on women pioneers in astronomy: Astronomical Society of the Pacific resource

Women in Astronomy: A Comprehensive Bibliography Science Reference Services, The Library of Congress


Bridget the Rover

Antonia Maury



American born Antonia Maury came from a family with a distinguished scientific background. She was a cousin of Matthew Maury, the oceanographer, a niece of Henry Draper,  the physician and astronomer after whom the Harvard star catalogue was named, her sister became a paleontologist, while her father, a clergyman, was also a well-known naturalist.


Maury was educated at Vassar and graduated in 1887; two years later she became an assistant to Edward Pickering at Harvard College Observatory, as well as lecturing at various eastern colleges between 1899 and 1908. Her first assignment for Pickering was to determine the orbital period of the spectroscopic binary Zeta Ursae Majoris, also called Mizar, which was first discovered by Pickering in 1887. Maury independently discovered the second binary, Beta Aurigae and determined its orbital period.





Maury also did a lot of work on spectra, and around the same time that Cannon was revising the system of spectral classification of stars, Maury proposed an additional modification. She argued that not just the absence or presence of a particular spectral line was important, but also its appearance. Within Cannon’s system, Maury noticed that two stars having the same pattern of lines and colour were also displaying differences in line width and sharpness. She therefore introduced three further subdivisions that recognised these features. She marked stars with normal lines ‘a’, those with hazy lines ‘b’, and those that were sharp, ‘c’; intermediate cases were marked ‘ab’ or ‘ac’. This has been described as the first step in using spectroscopic criteria for the luminosities of stars. However, the system was ignored by her Harvard contemporaries as being too cumbersome, and brought her into direct conflict with Pickering, forcing her to temporarily leave the project in 1892.  

Even having left the Observatory, Pickering urged her to complete her work or else hand it over to someone else. Maury demanded to be acknowledged as the author of her work, a gesture commonly denied to women scientists. After much conflict, she eventually got her way, and her catalogue of over 600 stars appeared in volume 28 of the Harvard Annals in 1897, and was the first issue to have the name of a woman on the title page.

Although Pickering continued to downplay the importance of Maury's work,  one person, Ejnar Hertzsprung was quick to see the significance of her classification system and in 1905 pointed out that c-type and ac-type stars were brighter than a- or b-type stars. Of all the catalogues published, only Maury's classification provided the distinction that he was looking for. Maury's work was vital in Hertzprung's formulation which came to be known as the Hertzprung-Russel diagram. Her contribution to spectral analysis was finally acknowledged in 1922 when the International Astronomical Union modified its official classification system based on Annie Cannon's system to include the prefix c-to a certain spectral type defined by narrow and sharp lines.

Although Maury did not return to Harvard for over a decade after the publication of her catalogue, she continued to research spectroscopic binary stars. She turned her attention to the complex spectroscopic binary, Beta Lyrae, and publishing her conclusions based on over 300 spectra of the star in a treatise in the Harvard Annals in 1933.

Beatrice Tinsley (1941-1981)




Beatrice was born in Chester and had an older sister. After the war, she moved with her family tp New Zealand, and excelled in school in a number of fields, from maths to languages, writing and music. At the age of 14, she decided she wanted to become an astrophysicist. She won a junior scholarship to study chemistry, maths and physics at Cantebury University, and graduated with Master of Science with First Class Honours in Physics in 1961. She married fellow physicsit Brian Tinsely in the same year, and moved to Dallas, Texas when Brian was offered a job at the South West Centre for Advanced Studies. Unable to find a job in Dallas, Beatrice took a part time teaching job at the University of Texas at Austin, some 200 miles away. She enrolled for a Ph.D at Austin in 1964 and completed it in 1966, taking about a third of the time it takes most people to do a Ph.D thesis. In her papers she received marks of 99% and 100%, the first student in the department to achieve marks of over 80%.



Before Beatrice began her research, little was known about life cycles of galaxies and the stars within them. She pioneered the study of interacting galaxies and the idea that galaxies change over short timescales compared with age of the Universe, which inspired astronomers to study distant galaxies for clues to galaxy evolution. In particular Beatrice studied how different groups of stars age and what observable effects those changes have on a galaxy. Her work was significant in determining merge5the size of the Universe and its rate of expansion. It was also assumed that galaxies of the same type - spiral, elliptical or lenticular - would be a similar size, shape and luminosity.

By comparing the size and luminosity of distant galaxies to nearby galaxies whose distance was already known, it was thought that an accurate distance could be obtained. But her thesis, "Evolution of Galaxies and its Significance for Cosmology" showed that determining distances based on morphology alone was unreliable. Factors such as the abundances of chemical elements, the merge4mass of the galaxy and the rate of starbirth were all important parameters in determining the distance and age of the galaxy and, by inference, the size and age of the universe. Tinsley's work formed the basis for contemporary studies of galactic evolution. She also contributed to research to find out whether the universe is an open or closed system.


Her work was so important that she received the Annie Cannon Award in Astronomy in 1974. Yet professional recognition was still unforthcoming in Texas.  Although she was asked to design an astronomy department for the University of Texas, and in spite of her academic acheivements, her application for a job as head of the university’s astronomy department was not even answered.

Knowing she would never be accepted seriously in Texas, Beatrice made the tough decision to seek divorce from her husband in 1974, and persue her scientific career at Santa Cruz, where she took a one year fellowship at the Lick Observatory. The following year she began work as the assistant Professor of Astronomy at Yale and in 1978 became Professor of Astronomy. In the same year she was diagnosed with cancer, but continued to research and publish papers until her death in 1981. Over her short 14 year academic career, as Professor Tinsely, she authored or co-authored around 100 scientific papers on the evolution of galaxies.

In 1986 the American Astronomical Society established the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize for outstanding creative contributions to astronomy or astrophysics, and even the University of Texas at Austin created the Beatrice M Tinsley Visiting Professorship in astronomy in her honour. The asteroid 3087 Beatrice Tinsley is also named after her.

Ruby Payne-Scott (1912 - 1981)


She worked for the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation in Sydney where she made fundamental contributions to solar radio astronomy.

During World War II she was engaged in top secret work investigating radar.

She married secretly since the Commonwealth government had legislated that a married woman could not hold a permanent position within the public service, and she continued to work until her first pregnancy raised suspicion. She was obliged to resign when her marriage was exposed. Her treatment by CSIRO resulted in some years of written exchanges, expressing the unfairness of this legislation. However, she never changed her name even after the marriage became public.

Ruby was an Australian radio astronomer, believed to have been the first female radio astronomer. She won two scholarships for schooling at the University of Sydney, where she completed a BSc in 1933, an MSc in 1936, and a Diploma of Education in 1938. She was the only female in her classes.