Williamina Fleming (1857 – 1911)

April 24, 2018

Williamina Stevens Fleming, a maid turned astronomer, was born May 15, 1857 in Scotland.

Mina Stevens was educated in her home country and moved to Boston in 1878 with her husband, James Orr Fleming. Following the failure of her marriage, Fleming became a maid for Edward C. Pickering (Lot 3041 Maple Avenue), an astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory. Pickering was an advocate of women in the workforce, especially as research assistants. When his own male assistant proved incompetent, Pickering stated that his Scottish maid could do better. Fleming was given a temporary position at the observatory, and was hired on permanently two years later.

Fleming indexed and examined the photographic plates used to record astronomical research. She demonstrated a strong sense of analysis and logic which propelled her forward in her field. Using objective prism plates, Fleming discovered ten novas and over 200 variable stars, and famously discovered the Horsehead nebula.

Harvard Corporation recognized Fleming’s contributions to the university and the observatory by appointing her Curator of Astronomical Photographs in 1898. It was the first corporation appointment given to a woman. She was the first American woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society of London, an honor given to her in 1906. Fleming died of pneumonia in Boston in 1911.

Williamina Stevens Fleming is buried at Lot 6188 Maple Avenue.

Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Williamina Stevens Fleming, 1998.


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