Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin

Astrophysicist Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) lived a life of firsts. She discovered that stars are made up mostly of hydrogen and helium and can be classified by their temperatures. She said: “The reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience. The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape.” At 19, she entered Cambridge University and completed the requirements for a degree. But Cambridge refused to award her degree because she was a woman. She then received a fellowship designed to encourage women to study at the new Harvard College Observatory. At Harvard, she became the first woman ever to earn a PhD in astronomy, and her 1925 doctoral thesis was deemed “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” Even with her outstanding dissertation, she found it difficult to get an academic appointment. For several years, she served as an “assistant” to her Harvard mentor, and she considered leaving Harvard due to her low status and pay. She eventually was given the title “Astronomer” and finally, in 1956, she became the first women to be promoted full professor at Harvard. She later became Chair of the Department of Astronomy, making her the first woman to head a department at Harvard.

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