Cecilia Payne

Why did Wendover Parish Council decide to fix a blue plaque to a house in Wendover? It was the birthplace on 10 May 1900 of an astonishing woman who acknowledged the important part Wendover played in allowing her to do the genuinely world beating work she did in Harvard. That led to her obituary in the Washington Post, no less, in December 1979.

She only had to cross Chiltern Road from number 47 to number 36, a private school run by Elizabeth Edwards – who told her classes that women were the stronger sex. At age eight, Cecilia decided to become a scientist. This happened after she recognized a plant she had previously known only from her mother’s description of it – the bee orchid. Cecilia learned to read and became an avid reader. There were frequent exercises in mental arithmetic. Miss Edwards required her girls to learn lengthy poems by heart – Cecilia said this helped her later scientific work because it developed her memory to a very high level. Cecilia loved her school so much that when the family moved to London, the twelve year old found her new school “inferior to the little school in Wendover” because there was not much mathematics or science. Just before her seventeenth birthday her school told her it could do no more for her and asked her to leave.

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By 1918 she had moved to St Paul’s School where she was taught by Gustav Holst (The Planets) who urged her to study music but she preferred to focus on science and the following year won a scholarship that paid all her expenses for Newnham, Cambridge, to study botany. She was inspired by a lecture on astronomy and that was the field she worked in for the rest of her life. Although she completed the course, she couldn’t be awarded her degree from Cambridge until 1948. Her only professional option was teaching but she managed to win a fellowship to encourage women to study at the Harvard College Observatory. She was the second female student to join. Her thesis concluded that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars. Her supervisors were sceptical and suppressed this finding but in 1923 she became the first woman from the observatory to be granted a PhD. A few years later, astronomer Otto Struve described her work as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”. Her findings were later accepted and although astronomer Henry Norris Russell later admiringly acknowledged Payne’s earlier work and discovery, he is often credited for the conclusions she reached.

Dr Payne had to take a job as an “assistant” at Harvard, despite her qualifications but she was allowed to lecture. She met astronomer Sergei Gasposchkin in Gottingen, Germany in 1933 and engineered his escape to Harvard from the new Nazi regime. They married later. Her obituary described her as Phillips professor of astronomy emeritus at Harvard University. Recognition at last.

Recent You Tube stories about Cecilia Payne Gasposchin.

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