With this past week’s solar eclipse, I came across this article that puts the mapping of the skies in perspective. Edward Pickering, Harvard’s program director, hired his maid to do the job that his research team couldn’t. At that time women could be paid much less than men. He personally hired and managed over 80 women at the Observatory. His maid, Williamina Fleming, is credited with the discovery of the Horsehead Nebula and the classification of stars based on temperature. Imagine that! His maid and not “academia” was more qualified. Many of these women made other important contributions.

Their work is still being uncovered by today’s researchers who comb the notebooks and journals left behind. “Pickering’s Harem” has been resurrected by new searchers for that which has been lost to time. Pickering himself was a progressive and champion of women’s studies in science. But it’s hard to tout Pickering as a wholly progressive man: by limiting the assistants’ work to largely clerical duties, he reinforced the era’s common assumption that women were cut out for little more than secretarial tasks. These women, referred to as “computers,” were the only way that Pickering could achieve his goal of photographing and cataloging the entire night sky. 

Pickering’s Harem

In 1881, the Harvard Observatory had a problem. They had been tasked with photographing and mapping the night sky but had made little progress doing so. Edward Pickering, the director of the program famously became weary with the incompetence shown by his research team and proclaimed that his maid could do a better job and promptly hired her as his research assistant. But he did not stop there. Since at that time, women could legally be paid less than men, Pickering hired a whole team of women and put them to work, mapping the sky and by the end of his tenure, Pickering had personally overseen the hiring and management of over 80 women at the Observatory.

Several of these women would go on to make extraordinary discoveries, paving the way to today’s understanding of space and astronomy. Williamina Fleming, Pickering’s former maid is credited with discovering the Horsehead Nebula and the classification of stars based on temperature.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered Cepheid variables and countless other variable stars which would go on to aid in other modern astronomical research. The most famous descendent of Leavitt’s research was the Hubble Telescope and its invaluable pictures. Annie Jump Cannon’s contributions were the current stellar classification system of: O, B, A, F, G, K, M. She also came up with the mnemonic device to remember it: “Oh! Be A Fine Girl—Kiss Me!”

Unfortunately, the work of these women and others involved in the program are mostly lost to time. But researchers at Harvard are in the process of recovering thousands of notebooks and journals detailing their research. Pickering’s Harem is coming into the light more every day as their contributions to science are inextricable from today’s knowledge of the sky.

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Pickering and Fleming


Harvard’s Observatory Researchers, Pickering’s Harem
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