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The sad story of H. Leavitt and R. Franklin

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lmk's picture
The sad story of H. Leavitt and R. Franklin

It wasn't just H.L. who suffered the shameful discrimination by her male scientific colleagues back in those "good old boy days". I bet most have heard of Watson & Crick, but how many know about Rosalind Franklin's contributions toward the structure of DNA? She didn't share the Nobel prize, even though her experimental X-ray diffraction was the foundation for the discovery!

Because of this shunning by the male scientific establishment of the time, she has been largely forgotten, just as Ms. Leavitt was too.  The mores of the times were not just in Astronomy, but most scientific fields, I think. But on a positive note, how things have changed for the better in recent times. 

In some ways the good olde days weren't...

Mike LMK

I loved the DOUBLE HELIX, and

I loved the DOUBLE HELIX, and I read it at least twice. Oddly enough, I got the feeling from their own book that they might not have been giving Rose her due. 

SHA's picture
Leavitt and Pickering

 I think that the situation of Henrietta Leavitt at Harvard may be more complicated than the fine but necessarily brief writeup by Gael Mariani might indicate.  It is probably unfair to Edward Pickering to say that he "claimed the right of superiority over his minion by publishing her findings in his own name".  A good argument can be made that Pickering was claiming the work for the observatory not for himself.  In fact, some have called the Harvard College Observatory in Pickering's time a scientific factory, and it is clear that Pickering favored the big observatory projects over individual research.  That approach would be a subject of some dispute between Pickering and George Ellery Hale, who would run the Mount Wilson Observatory under quite different lines. It is not clear that Pickering, who died in 1919, ever fully appreciated the importance of Leavitt's period-luminosity relation.  The relation would never be exploited at Harvard under Pickering's directorship.

That is not to say that there was not discrimination against women at Harvard.  I have always thought that it would be an interesting parallel lives study to compare Leavitt's career to that of her male contemporary, Solon Bailey, perhaps most known today for his early work on globular cluster variables.  

HJZ's picture
The sad story of H. Leavitt and R. Franklin

Yes, certainly the Double Helix and other reviews and comments when the book was published does give one the feeling that Rosalind's contributions weren't fully recognized.

Of course she did not share in the Nobel prize beause she had passed away from ovarian cancer before the prize was awarded to Wilkins, Crick, and Watson in 1962.  The Nobel rules are that the prizes are not awarded posthumously.

Yes, the negative view in the

Yes, the negative view in the essay is excessive. Women were certainly discriminated against at the time. But Leavitt's name appeared on papers in the observatory's publications, and she is universally recognized as the discoverer of the period-luminosity relationship; Pickering gets no credit.

Within the realm of female subordination at the turn of the century, Harvard in fact gave professional opportunites to talented women that were not available elsewhere. The pay may have been low, but the jobs were there and the leading Harvard Observatory women stayed for years and decades. Harvard Observatory was a haven for women who wanted to work in astronomy, within the social and economic conventions of the time.

wlm's picture
Henrietta Leavitt Forgotten???

It seems likely that careful review of the literature will reveal that Henrietta Leavitt has hardly been forgotten by historians of science, and especially not by historians of astronomy. See, for example, Lang's nice article about her in Hockey, Thomas, ed. Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, 2007, Springer, Vol. 1, pp. 682-684, which includes a useful selected list of additional references to the literature of the history of science. Lang could not have known that a popular work on Leavitt would be published in the same year as the BEA, Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. George Johnson (W. W. Norton, New York 2007). A review I wrote of Johnson's book for the Journal for the History of Astronomy was critical of that book but nevertheless the fact that Norton published it indicates that Leavitt has not been forgotten in the popular press either. Finally, Mike Saladyga and I gave Ms. Leavitt a great deal of credit for her work in Advancing Variable Star Astronmy, The Centennial History of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, Cambridge University Press, 2011, not to mention frequent references to Leavitt by Dorrit Hoffleit and others in the JAAVSO.

So I think WI's comment as well as that of SHA are right on target.

BTW, SHA has a great idea about the comparison of Leavitt and Solon I. Bailey, and I would be happy to discuss that with him off-line at

Tom Williams

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