Williamina Fleming

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Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming
Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming circa 1890s.jpg
Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming
Born (1857-05-15)May 15, 1857
Dundee, Scotland
Died May 21, 1911(1911-05-21) (aged 54)
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality Scottish
Fields Astronomy
Alma mater None

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911) was a Scottish-born and American astronomer. During her career, she helped develop a common designation system for stars and cataloged thousands of stars and other astronomical phenomena. Among several career achievements that advanced astronomy Fleming is noted for her discovery of the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.[1]


Williamina Stevens was born on May 15, 1857, to Mary and Robert Stevens; he a carver and gilder of Dundee, Scotland. There, in 1877, she married James Orr Fleming, an accountant and widower of Dundee. She worked as a teacher a short time before the couple emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, USA, when she was 21.[2]

Harvard College Observatory[edit]

After she and her child were abandoned by James Fleming, she worked as a maid in the home of Professor Edward Charles Pickering, who was director of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO). The story was told that Pickering was often frustrated with the performance of the (all-male) "computers" at the observatory and, reportedly, would complain loudly: "My Scottish maid could do better!"[3]

In 1881 Pickering hired Fleming to join the HCO and taught her how to analyze stellar spectra; she was the first of an all-women cadre of human "computers" created by Pickering at HCO.[3] Soon she devised a system for classifying stars according to the relative amount of hydrogen observed in their spectra. (Stars showing hydrogen as the most abundant element were classified A; those of hydrogen as the second-most abundant element, B; and so on.) Later, Annie Jump Cannon developed an improved classification system based upon the surface temperature of stars.

Fleming contributed to the cataloging of stars that later were published as the Henry Draper Catalogue. In nine years' effort she cataloged more than 10,000 stars. During her career she discovered 59 gaseous nebulae, over 310 variable stars, and 10 novae. In 1907 she published a list of 222 variable stars she had discovered.

"Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and Antonia Maury.

In 1888, Fleming discovered the Horsehead Nebula on a telescope-photogrammetry plate made by astronomer W. H. Pickering, brother of E.C. Pickering; she described the bright nebula (later known as IC 434) as having "a semicircular indentation 5 minutes in diameter 30 minutes south of Zeta Orionis". Subsequent professional publications neglected to give credit to Fleming and W. H. Pickering for the discovery; the first Dreyer Index Catalogue omitted Fleming's name from the list of contributors having then discovered sky objects at Harvard, attributing the entire work merely to "Pickering"—presumably to mean E. C. Pickering, director of HCO. But by the time of the second Dreyer Index Catalogue, in 1908, Fleming and her colleagues at HCO were sufficiently well-known to receive proper credit for their discoveries; still, her first observation of the Horsehead Nebula was typically uncredited.

In 1886 Fleming was placed in charge of the dozens of women hired to compute mathematical classifications and edit the observatory's publications. In 1899, she was made Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard, and in 1906, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, the first American woman to be so honored.[2] Soon after she was appointed honorary fellow in astronomy of Wellesley College. Shortly before her death the Astronomical Society of Mexico[es] awarded her the Guadalupe Almendaro medal for her discovery of new stars. She published A Photographic Study of Variable Stars (1907). She published her discovery of white dwarfs (1910).[2] Also she published Spectra and Photographic Magnitudes of Stars in Standard Regions (1911).

She died in Boston on May 21, 1911.[2]



  1. ^ Cannon, Annie J. (June 1911). "WILLIAMINA PATON FLEMING". Science (published June 30, 1911). 33 (861): 987–988. Bibcode:1911Sci....33..987C. doi:10.1126/science.33.861.987. PMID 17799863. 
  2. ^ a b c d e biographies/a/wflemingbio.htm "Williamina Fleming: A Woman Astronomer at Harvard" Check |url= value (help). About.com Education. Retrieved 2016-03-31. 
  3. ^ a b Lindsay Smith. “Williamina Paton Fleming.” Project Continua (March 14, 2015): Vol. 1, (date accessed), http://www.projectcontinua.org/williamina-paton-fleming/

Further reading[edit]

  • Sobel, Dava (2016). The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. Penguin. ISBN 9780670016952. 

External links[edit]