Friday, August 18, 2023

Cecelia Payne - Studying the Stars

Cecelia Payne-Goposchkin - Wikimedia Commons

Cecelia Payne was born in England in 1900. Her father, a barrister, historian, and musician, died when she was four years old. Her mother moved Cecelia and her sister and brother to London to further the brother’s education. 


From an early age, Cecelia’s mother noted her interest in science. She enrolled Cecelia in St. Paul’s Girls’ School when Cecelia was seventeen in order for her to study the sciences. She was encouraged to pursue music, but chose not to. It is said she would sneak into the chemistry lab just to study the different elements and compounds and preferred that to socialization with other students.


Cambridge Coat of Arms
Wikimedia Commons

She went on to Cambridge University intending to study botany, physics, and chemistry, but dropped botany at the end of the first year. One of her professors, Ernest Rutherford, taught her physics class, and belittled Cecelia every day. They were not used to having a woman attend class, especially in the sciences. Every day he made a show of her being a lady and the men in the class would stomp and clap. She was made to sit in the front row, a requirement for female students. l
Later in life she stated that after that class she always sat as far to the back of a room as she could.


After hearing a lecture by Arthur Eddington on the stars, she changed her field of study to astronomy. She said of the lecture that it changed her world picture and shook her world. She spoke to Eddington about studying astronomy and he gave her a bit of encouragement, saying, “I can see no insuperable objection.” 


Although she completed her studies at Cambridge, she wasn’t given a degree. (Cambridge did not give women degrees until 1948.) Instead, she moved to the United States to pursue an education at Harvard where she had more of a chance at advancement.


Harvard Coat of Arms
Wikimedia Commons

Harvard, like Cambridge, did not give degrees to women but in 1925 Cecelia Payne became the first woman to earn a PhD in Astronomy from Radcliffe College, the women’s branch of Harvard University. Payne’s thesis studied the temperature in the reversing layers of stars.


In 1933, Cecelia met Sergei Gaposchkin, a Russian-born astrophysicist, while on tour in Europe. They married and settled in Massachusetts, close to Harvard.  She chose to add her husband’s name to her own and became Cecelia Payne-Goposchkin.


One of Cecelia’s biggest struggles was gender bias in her field of study and work. She was often refused acknowledgement because of being a woman. For years, she taught at Harvard without them giving her a professorship and they often didn’t even list her classes in their catalog. Her pay was very substandard.


In 1954, Donald Menzel became director of the observatory at Harvard and noted Cecelia’s low pay. He immediately doubled her wages and worked to get her a full professorship. In 1956, the New York Times ran an article about Payne-Gaposchkin being the first woman to attain a full professorship at Harvard through regular faculty promotion. She went on the become the chair of the observatory and the first woman to be a department head at Harvard.


Stellar classification of Stars
Wikimedia Commons

Cecelia is noted for being the first to discover the abundance of hydrogen and helium in the stars. Henry Russell, director of the Princeton Observatory objected to her findings. Cecelia needed his approval to have her thesis accepted, so she included the statement in her thesis: “The enormous abundance derived for [hydrogen and helium] is almost certainly not real.”


Later, Russell published his own observations about hydrogen being a large part of the makeup of stars. He did quote from Cecelia’s paper and acknowledged that her work influenced his own and that she had been correct.

Milky Way from Paranal, Chile, by astronomer Yuri Beletsky
Wikimedia Commons

Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin faced many hurdles in her career but she paved the way for women to study in the sciences ensuring advancements in the field. She is acknowledged as one of the greats in astronomy for all her research and findings. 

I live in a very rural area, so most nights I can walk outside and see an array of stars that are not blocked out by city lights. Do you like to watch the stars? I can't imagine studying the elements found in stars like Cecelia did. What about you?

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning, best-selling author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats and dog, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: 


  1. Thank you for this interesting post! I do like watching the stars but we have a yard light so it's hard to get a good view.

    1. Connie, it is amazing to me how much a little light can block out the stars. The night sky can be so beautiful.

  2. Nancy, a fascinating post on the stars. I've loved looking at the stars since my parents watched the first Star Trek series in the 1960s. I think if I lived in that era, I might have been one of the first to sign up for Star Fleet Academy. :) But seriously, astronomy fascinates me, and I'm awed at God's handiwork in the sky. I even took two courses in it in college--the second one being a physics course for non-majors where I did a paper on neutron stars. So thanks for this very interesting post.

  3. Donna, how fascinating. I love the stars but prefer to keep my feet on the ground. I would not have volunteered for Star Fleet Academy although I loved Star Trek. Thank you.