Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

Williamina Paton Fleming – Scottish astronomer

Every morning I receive a daily feed of significant “things” for the day, and every morning I generally dismiss it all as irrelevant tripe, as a search of the text generally reveals every item that might be of interest turns out to be about a footballer, baseball player, or unknown band member who happens to be called “Scott” or similar, and is usually an American as well.

This morning, however, there was something interesting in the list. And I almost missed it, but for spotting the word astronomer beside an obituary carrying a woman’s name.

A Scottish astronomer, and a successful female Scottish astronomer at that, from the days when women were frowned upon if they tried to do anything other than get married, keep house, and bear children.

Williamina Paton Fleming

Willamena Paton Fleming

Willamena Paton Fleming

Williamina Paton Fleming was born in Dundee on May 15, 1857, to Robert and Mary (née Walker) Stevens.

Her education took place in the public schools of Dundee.

She married James Orr Fleming, and moved to America, where the family settled in Boston, and needing to support herself, Williamina became a copyist and computer at Harvard College Observatory in 1181. It is also said that she worked as a maid in the home of Professor Edward Charles Pickering, who became frustrated with his male assistants at the observatory and, according to legend, declared that his maid could do a better job, and hired her to do clerical work there. She would eventually be placed in charge of dozens of women hired to do mathematical classifications, and edit the observatory’s publications.

She devised and helped implement a system of classifying stars by assigning them a letter according to how much hydrogen could be observed in their spectra. ‘A’ had the most hydrogen, ‘B’ the next most, and so on. Later, another woman – Annie Jump Cannon – would improve and simplify the system, using temperature as the criteria.

In nine years, Fleming catalogued some 10,351 stars which went on to be published as the Henry Draper Catalogue. During her work she discovered 59 gaseous nebulae, more than 310 variable stars, and 10 novae, by noting the presence of bright lines within their spectra. In 1907, she published a list of 222 variable stars which had been discovered in the course of her work.

In 1888, She discovered the Horsehead Nebula on Harvard plate B2312, describing the bright nebula (later known as IC 434) as having “a semicircular indentation 5 minutes in diameter 30 minutes south of Zeta [Orionis].” William Henry Pickering (Edward’s brother), who had taken the photograph, speculated that the spot was dark obscuring matter.

But, all subsequent articles and books seem to have denied both Fleming and WH Pickering the credit for the discovery. Fleming’s name was absent from the list of objects which were then discovered by Harvard, and JLE Dreyer, who compiled first Index Catalogue, merely attribute the entry to “Pickering”, which most readers of the time would have assumed to mean EC Pickering, then director of Harvard College Observatory.

However, by the time the second Index Catalogue was issued by Dreyer in 1908, Fleming (and others at Harvard) had become famous enough to receive proper credit for later object discoveries… but not for her earlier observation of IC 434 and the Horsehead Nebula.


In 1899, Fleming was given the title of Curator of Astronomical Photographs.

In 1906, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, the first American woman to be so elected, and was soon after appointed honorary fellow in astronomy of Wellesley College.

She was also a member of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America, and the Société astronomique de France.

Shortly before her death, the Astronomical Society of Mexico awarded her the Guadalupe Almendaro medal for her discovery of new stars.

Personal life

Although dedicated to her work, Williamina Fleming enjoyed a full domestic life at home as well, and had a son, Edward P Fleming, who graduated as a mining engineer from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1901, and was employed as the chief metallurgist of a large copper company in Chile. She was also an ardent supporter of the Harvard eleven, and followed their games to the stadium.


Her publications included A Photographic Study of Variable Stars (1907), and Spectra and Photographic Magnitudes of Stars in Standard Regions (1911).

Brief illness and death

She had suffered poor health for a number of years, but her enthusiasm for her work had maintained her.  However,  feeling unwell at the start of May 1911, she went into hospital to rest, where her condition was found to be critical. She developed pneumonia, which proved fatal, and she died in Boston on May 21, 1911.


Just days after I put this article together, the BBC published an appeal for information relating to the bombing of Edinburgh Royal Observatory. A suffragette protest of the time:

Information on the mystery bomber who 100 years ago attacked the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh during a suffragette campaign is being sought.

The bomber was never caught following the blast that shattered windows, splintered floors and cracked stone on the observatory’s tower on 21 May 1913.

The bomb, a jar with gunpowder, exploded at 01:00 when nobody was inside to be injured.

Blood, a ladies’ handbag and a note were found at the scene.

Scrawled in ink on a scrap of paper was the phrase: “How beggarly appears argument before defiant deed. Votes for women.”

Plea over Edinburgh Royal Observatory suffragette bomb mystery

The action took place in 1913, only two years after Williamina’s death, confirming our opening observation about attitudes to women at the time.

As well as the timing of the article, there is a second coincidence in the date of the attack, May 21, the same as Williamina’s death, albeit two years later, in 1913.


May 21, 2013 - Posted by | Civilian, photography | , , , , , , ,

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