Skip to main content

The Pioneering Woman Astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and how-to topics. I have written over 70 books.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin at her desk at Harvard College Observatory.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin at her desk at Harvard College Observatory.

Who Was Cecilia Payne?

Victorian England was a stifling place for bright and ambitious young ladies. The social expectations for young women were simple: find a husband, take part in his business and interests, and raise a family. Before marriage, a girl would learn the skills of a housewife, such as weaving, cooking, washing, and childcare. The rules were a little different for daughters from wealthy families. The maids did the chores while the young debutantes focused on the social graces and entertaining. From either rank, education for women was limited--for what was the purpose? It was a man’s world and they were mere onlookers. This mold would be broken by a young English girl from a rural village just northeast of London. Cecilia Payne was a trailblazer, opening the doors wide for women in the sciences and the upper ranks of the halls of academia. This is the story of a brilliant female astronomer who took the world on her terms.

Early Years

Cecilia Payne was born in Buckinghamshire, England, on May 10th, 1900. She was the first child of parents who had married late; at her birth, Edward Payne was fifty-five and Emma Pertz was close to thirty. Cecilia’s father was a barrister and scholar whose family had lived in the area for centuries. Her mother came from a family of scholars, with origins in Germany, Russia, England, and even the United States. Her father died when Cecilia was just four years old, forcing her mother to work as a painter and musician to support the children. It was early in her life that Emma introduced her children, Cecilia, Humfry, and Lonora, to classic literature and began to encourage their education.

Even though the family was struggling financially, Cecilia’s mother went against the norms in Victorian England and worked to provide an education for her daughters. Cecilia developed an early interest in nature, recalling in her autobiography the excitement when she learned about the natural world. “My mother had told me of the Riviera-trapdoor spiders and mimosa and orchids, and I was dazzled by a flash of recognition. For the first time, I knew the leaping of the heart, the sudden enlightenment, that were to become my passion.” For this was the moment in her life where she realized that the study of nature was to be her passion in life. Throughout much of her schooling she found little encouragement for a girl to consider a career in science. In England, her only opportunity would be to become a science teacher one day. Opportunity knocked when she was almost seventeen and was forced to transfer to St. Paul’s Girls School in London. There she found instructors who encouraged her study of mechanics, dynamics, electricity and magnetism, light, and thermodynamics. Her hard work paid off when she received a scholarship to Newnham College, a Cambridge University affiliate.

College Years

At Newnham College she first focused on the study of botany but soon realized her interest lay in physics and astronomy. She switched majors several times, but after a lecture given by Cambridge’s renowned astronomer, Sir Arthur Eddington, on Einstein's theory of relativity, she became entranced with astronomy and changed her major for the final time. The speech by Eddington ignited a fire within her and she later wrote of the incident, “For three nights, I think, I did not sleep. My world had been shaken so that I experienced something like a nervous breakdown. The experience was so acute, so personal…” Eddington took an interest in Cecilia’s education, taking her under his wing.

Payne filled her course schedule with as many astronomy courses as she could and was involved in the Newnham College Astronomical Society. While at Newnham, she discovered the neglected observatory and there through the small telescope she began to explore the night sky, observing the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. She organized public observing nights and began to observe variable stars and record their changes. She installed an observing logbook in the observatory, posting a notice that all who used the telescope should record their name and date.

Miss Payne pushed herself, wanting to learn all she could, even approaching Eddington for a research project. He was primarily a theorist and posed the problem of integrating the properties of a model star, starting from initial condition at the center and working outward. She attacked the problem with the enthusiasm of youth, later writing, “…the problem haunted me day and night. I recall a vivid dream that I was at the center of Betelgeuse, and that, as seen from there, the solution was perfectly plain; but it did not seem so in the light of day.” She ran into insoluble problems with her calculations, took her incomplete solution to Eddington, and asked him how to overcome the difficulty. He smiled and said, “I’ve been trying to solve that problem for years.”

One of her teachers was Ernest Rutherford, who later helped reveal the structure of an atom. Rutherford, a New Zealander by birth, was a large man with a booming voice and brusque demeanor. Though he could be very abrasive, many claimed he was the greatest experimental physicist since Michael Faraday. He was cruel to Payne and frequently tried to get the men in the class to laugh at her. Harassment like this was expected and even encouraged, so Miss Payne as the only female in the class had to learn early on how to hold her own in a man’s world.

A Change Meeting with the American Astronomer Harlow Shapley

Though she completed her course work in 1923, women were not allowed to receive formal degrees. So, all her education lacked the diploma to back up her coursework. In the United Kingdom in 1925, the option for women to obtain a master’s degree or higher was limited. Things changed drastically for Cecilia when she attended the centennial meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1922. There she met the guest speaker from Harvard College Observatory, the new director, Harlow Shapley.

After meeting Shapley her friends encouraged her to consider moving to America, telling her there were more opportunities for women to advance there. Grasping the opportunity, she applied for a Pickering Fellowship through Harvard College. The Pickering Scholarship was one of the few awards at the time reserved exclusively for female students. After receiving the meager scholarship, she packed her belongings and traveled to America to begin her new life as a graduate student at Harvard. Her connection with Harvard would be long and productive as she would spend the rest of her career in Boston, Massachusetts, which she called her "stony-hearted stepmother."

Hubble Space Telescope photo is but a small portion of one of the largest seen star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula.

Hubble Space Telescope photo is but a small portion of one of the largest seen star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula.

Harvard College Observatory

Payne worked under the guidance of the director of the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley. She continued her study of astronomy at Harvard, while splitting her time with the Harvard College Observatory. It was during the work on her doctoral thesis that Payne took the first step towards the discovery that would make her a person of note in the field of astronomy.

In her Ph.D. thesis called Stellar Atmospheres, she proposed a new formula for the composition of stars that was based on the theory of the abundance of helium and hydrogen within the universe. Miss Payne was the first person to propose that the simplest element, hydrogen, was actually the most abundant element in the universe. She suggested that the range in strength, between stars, the absorption lines of the stellar spectra were due to different temperatures and not on a varying chemical composition as previously thought. Her thesis expounded on the work of Indian physicist Meghnad Saha, which theorized that there was a correlation between ionization of stars to their temperature and chemical density.

Using the Harvard collection of stellar spectra, she established the cosmic abundances of the chemical elements and showed that the wide variety of spectral types of stars resulted from temperature rather than abundance differences. One of the implications of her study was the overwhelmingly high abundances of hydrogen and helium, a conclusion that the eminent astronomer Henry Norris Russell rejected as physically absurd. It was not until the end of the decade before astronomers realized that these two light elements were the major constituents of the universe.

What the Light from Stars Reveals

When Cecilia Payne came onto the scene at Harvard, the composition of the stars was not well understood. It was believed that stars had basically the same chemical composition and relative abundance of elements as the earth. This assumption was based on the relatively new science of spectroscopy. It was Payne’s work in her Ph.D. thesis challenging this convention that made her work so important to science.

In 1859, Gustav Kirchoff and Robert Burnsen in Germany observed the spectra of heated chemical elements and found that each element had its own characteristic set of spectral lines. This gave each element a unique identifier in their spectra. In 1863, the English scientist William Huggins observed many of these same lines in the spectra of stars. This was important because this implied that stars were made of the same elements as those found on earth. Unfortunately, this new science of spectroscopy was not very good at determining the abundance of the elements in the spectra. This shortcoming of this technique led to incorrect assumptions about the composition of the stars. By observing spectra from several stars, astronomers had identified elements like calcium and iron as responsible for some of the most prominent lines. The natural conclusion from these observations, which turned out to be wrong, was that the heavy elements were among the major constituents of the stars.

Chart of stellar spectra. The O stars have a much higher temperature than the relatively cooler M type stars. The sun is a G type star.

Chart of stellar spectra. The O stars have a much higher temperature than the relatively cooler M type stars. The sun is a G type star.

Harvard Computers

By the time Payne arrived at Harvard, a comprehensive study of stellar spectra had long been underway led by Annie Jump Cannon. She and the other lady “computers” of the Harvard College Observatory had sorted the spectra of several hundred thousand stars into seven distinct classes. She devised an ordering scheme based on differences in the spectral features. Astronomers assumed that the difference in spectra classes were due to different temperatures within the stars. The new burgeoning science of quantum physics explained that the pattern of spectral features for an element was due to the electron configuration of the individual atoms. At higher temperatures, these electrons where stripped away from the nucleus of the atom, thus creating an “ion.”

The Harvard Computers. Cecilia Payne is second from the left in the top row, Annie Jump Cannon is second from the left in the middle row.

The Harvard Computers. Cecilia Payne is second from the left in the top row, Annie Jump Cannon is second from the left in the middle row.

Career as an Astronomer

She received her Ph.D. from Radcliffe College for her thesis, since Harvard did not grant doctoral degrees to women. Her thesis work was later praised by astronomers Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs as “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.” After graduation, she continued at Harvard as a post-doctoral fellow. Before the fellowship ended, Shapley offered her a paid staff position at the observatory with a salary of $2,100 per year.

Miss Payne became a full American citizen in 1931, shortly after the completion of her degree. In 1933 she met her future husband while at an astronomy conference in Germany. The following year she married the Russian astrophysicist, Sergei Gaposchkin, thus helping him gain American citizenship. Miss Payne helped Gaposchkin, who was trying to escape Nazi persecution, emigrate to the United States. She collaborated with him on much of her research throughout her career. Cecilia and her husband had three children: Edward in 1935, Katherine in 1937, and Peter in 1940. It was Katherine, now Katherine Haramundanis, who collected all of her mother's scientific research and writings and published them in 1984. The book is titled Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections. The youngest of the children, Peter, became a noted physicist and programming analyst.

Dr. Payne-Gaposchkin with her husband undertook an ambitious systematic investigation of all known variable stars brighter than the tenth magnitude (tenth magnitude is about the brightness of a star on a very dark night as seen through a pair of binoculars). The work was completed in 1938 and quickly became a standard reference on variable stars. During the 1930s and 1940s they, along with 29 assistants, made more than 1,250,000 observations of variable stars from the Harvard photographic plates. Dr. Payne-Gaposchkin’s fondness for the classification of stars and her formidable memory made her a walking encyclopedia of variable star data. During the 1960s she and her husband made more than two million visual estimates of variable star magnitudes in the two small irregular galaxies next to the Milky Way, known as the Magellanic Clouds. This work made extensive contributions to our knowledge of the “two immense cauldrons of developing stars” next to our own galaxy.

During her time at Harvard, Payne-Gaposchkin actively participated in teaching. She was not formally awarded the title of professor until 1956, becoming the first woman to achieve this position at Harvard. She also became the chair of the astronomy department in the same year. Her promotion began a long line of female professors at Harvard and other colleges across the United States.

Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.

— Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Awards and Recognition

The American Astronomical Society recognized Payne-Gaposchkin's contribution to her field and awarded her the Annie J. Cannon Prize in 1934. Two years later she became a member of the American Philosophical Society. This was the beginning of a long line of awards, recognitions, and honorary doctorates she would receive. Her honorary doctorates came from Wilson College in 1942, Smith College in 1943, Western College in 1951, Colby College in 1958, and Women's Medical College of Philadelphia in 1961. She also received a master of arts and doctorate in science from Cambridge. She was the first woman to receive the Henry Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society in 1976. Radcliffe College gave her an Award of Merit and the Franklin Institute presented her with the Rittenhouse Medal. Perhaps her greatest honor came in 1977 when the minor planet 1974 CA was officially renamed Payne-Gaposchkin in her honor.

Later Years

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin published over 150 scientific papers during her lifetime and several monographs. Most notable amongst these are Variable Stars (1938), an astronomy reference book she wrote in collaboration with her husband and The Stars of High Luminosity (1930), an encyclopedia of stellar astrophysics.

Though Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin officially retired in 1966, she stayed active with the work of the observatory, since renamed the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and continued to teach some classes at Harvard until 1976. Her last scientific paper was published just before her death on December 7, 1979, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In his 1969 autobiography, Through Rugged Ways to the Stars, Harlow Shapley reminisces about Cecilia Payne: “Cecilia Payne (now Cecilia-Payne-Gaposchkin) was and is a genius type of person. She got her first doctor’s degree in astronomy by applying some brand-new astrophysical ideas to stellar spectra. She showed that, in spite of the diversity of spectral types, stars are pretty much all made of the same atoms. She is one of the two or three leading women astronomers of the world and has been for the past thirty years.” Cecilia-Payne-Gaposchkin was truly a pioneer in astronomy and a model for the advancement of women all over the world.


  • Boyd, Sylvia L. Portrait of a Binary: The Lives of Cecilia Payne and Sergei Gaposchkin. Penobscot Press. 2014.
  • Gingerich, Owen. “Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Society (1982) Vol. 23, pages 450-451.
  • Haramundanis, Katherine (Editor) Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An autobiography and Other Recollections. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1996.
  • West, Doug "The Astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin - A Short Biography." C&D Publications. 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Doug West


Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 04, 2020:

What a fascinating woman from the Victorian era. Accomplishing all those things that made her one of the top astronomers was not easy. She moved the recognition of women far.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on October 04, 2020:

What an amazing woman. Going forward from so many obstacles, then at Harvard and finally becoming a professor. She certainly was ahead of her time.