Woman of Faith and Science – Henrietta Leavitt

Henrietta Leavitt (1868–1921) USA

A minister’s daughter and noted astronomer who was the head of Photometry (astronomy) at Harvard. A practicing Congregationalist, Leavitt was the descendant of early Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritan settlers. Her parents, who were said to have been strict Puritans, did encourage Leavitt to use her intellect. The majority o

f people in that period did not support education for women.

After graduation she took another astronomy course, but then suffered a debilitating illness. It left her profoundly deaf

She discovered the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. A graduate of Radcliffe College, Leavitt started working at the Harvard College Observatory as a "computer" in 1893, examining photographic plates in order to measure and catalog the brightness of stars. Though she received little recognition in her lifetime, it was her discovery that first allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and faraway galaxies Edwin Hubble’s discoveries, who established that the Universe is expanding, were made possible by Leavitt’s groundbreaking research. "If Henrietta Leavitt had provided the key to determine the size of the cosmos, then it was Edwin Powell Hubble who inserted it in the lock and provided the observations that allowed it to be turned," wrote David H. and Matthew D.H. Clark in their book Measuring the Cosmos.[15]

To his credit, Hubble himself often said that Leavitt deserved the Nobel Prize for her work. Leavitt was a hard-working, serious-minded individual, little given to frivolous pursuits and selflessly devoted to her family, her church, and her career.

Leavitt was not allowed to pursue her own topics of study, but researched what the head of the observatory assigned. Because of the prejudices of the day, she didn’t have the opportunity to use her intellect to the fullest, but a colleague remembered her as "possessing the best mind at the Observatory," and a modern astronomer calls her "the most brilliant woman at Harvard." She worked at the Harvard College Observatory until her death from cancer in 1921

"Miss Leavitt inherited, in a somewhat chastened form, the stern virtues of her puritan ancestors," Solon I. Bailey, a Harvard professor wrote of Leavitt in 1922, quoted on the AAVSO website. "She took life seriously. Her sense of duty, justice and loyalty was strong. For light amusements she appeared to care little. She was a devoted member of her intimate family circle, unselfishly considerate in her friendships, steadfastly loyal to her principles, and deeply conscientious and sincere in her attachment to her religion and church. She had the happy faculty of appreciating all that was worthy and lovable in others, and was possessed of a nature so full of sunshine that, to her, all of life became beautiful and full of meaning.


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