Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was a brilliant astronomer whose groundbreaking research on the composition of stars radically changed the prevailing views on their composition.
Cecilia was born to a wealthy British family in 1900. She was the oldest of three children born to Edward John Payne, a skilled writer, Oxford fellow, judge, musician, and barrister, and her mother, Emma Leonora Helena, who was a gifted artist. Tragically, Cecilia’s father drowned when she was just four years old, leaving Emma’s mother to raise three children under five all on her own.
Though it could not have been an easy way to grow up, Cecilia benefitted greatly from her mother’s dedication to ensuring her children were well educated. Cecilia was exceptionally bright and intellectually curious — so much so that she was asked to leave her high school at sixteen because they determined there was nothing else they could offer her. She went on to attend Cambridge University on a full scholarship.
The reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience.
Being a woman at Cambridge was difficult during this period. Cecilia felt resented, both by the male students and the male faculty. She wasn’t allowed to sit in the same row as the men, reportedly often being forced to sit in the front row of the lecture hall entirely by herself, and for much of her time there, she was the only woman in the program.
However, despite the discrimination, Cecilia found Cambridge to be tremendously inspiring. Though she initially came with the intention of studying botany, a lecture on relativity by Sir Arthur Eddington so thoroughly inspired her that she changed her major to physics the very next day.
For the first time I knew the leaping of the heart, the sudden enlightenment, that were to become my passion… These moments are rare, and they come without warning…
Cecilia actually wanted to change her major to astronomy, but it was classified under maths during that period, and as such, the change wasn’t allowed. However, that didn’t stop her from studying astronomy in her free time, often at the expense of her physics. She was published by the Royal Astronomical Society before she had even finished her undergraduate work.
Cecilia finished her coursework at Cambridge in 1923. Discouraged by the opportunities for women in astronomy in England, she decided to move to America to continue her studies at Harvard University. Just two years later, she became the first person in history to earn a PhD in Astronomy from Harvard — though, technically, her PhD was conferred by Radcliffe College, as Harvard did not grant degrees to women during this period either.
During her time at Harvard, Cecilia wrote a thesis, later published under the title Stellar Atmospheres, which was acclaimed. In it, she chronicled her research on spectral lines and the composition of stars. In conducting her research, Cecilia determined that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, a discovery so thoroughly revolutionary that, upon advice, she added an addendum to her thesis saying that the results of her calculations were “almost certainly not real.”
They were real however, and in a few years time, her findings had been replicated and accepted as scientific fact. However, ironically, because of the disclaimer placed in her thesis, a disclaimer which was meant to protect her reputation, Cecilia never really received the credit or recognition she deserved.
She did, however, continue her work at Harvard, eventually going on to become the first woman to earn the title of full professor there, as well as Harvard’s first female department chair. She also met and married her husband, a Russian physicist, and had three children, two of whom grew up to be astronomers and one whom became a neurosurgeon.
Cecilia died of lung cancer in 1979, donating her body to science so that she could continue to contribute to the field even in her death.