Dorrit Hoffleit featured in The Times


Dorrit Hoffleit featured in The Times

Cristin Bell with The Times, in London, published an article on Tuesday Aug 12, 2003, that features Dorrit Hoffleit. The original article may be found at the following URL:,,171-774380,00.html, however, you will need a subscription to view it. With kind permission, they have let us reprint the text of the article below.

Retire? I live to work

By Cristin Bell

American universities boast a large number of officially retired but still very active academics. The UK should follow that suit, says our correspondent.

RETIREMENT is not a concept that a rare breed of individuals still working nine-to-five at 80-plus accepts. It is not for the love of money that they continue their day jobs - that has been tucked away into pensions, property and under mattresses for a long time now. They do it for love. Nearly a century of living has brought them to a place in their life where they would not change a thing.

E. Dorrit Hoffleit, Ph.D. Radcliffe, 1938

"Most people work for a living. I live in order to work. It is what I love to do." This is the motto that Dorrit Hoffleit, eminent astronomer and senior researcher at Yale University, has lived by for all of her adult years. She is 96.

Though officially retired since 1975, Hoffleit continues her research in Yale's astronomy department. It is a career that spans seven decades and is still going strong. "I have four or five projects going on right now. I am flattered that people think that I can still do something. I always say yes. I am extremely popular," she says. You don't get false modesty from nonagenarians.

Pierre Demarque, professor emeritus of astronomy at Yale, is Hoffleit's colleague and previous head of the department. He came to Yale as a department chair in 1968. "Dorrit seemed like an old lady to us then," he says, adding that her presence at Yale is as valuable as it has ever been. "People have immense respect for Dorrit. They treat her with great affection."

Hoffleit's astronomical career began in 1929 at Harvard University. She earned 40 cents an hour while the men earned a dollar, but she still felt privileged. "It was an honour to be working at Harvard Observatory on a subject that was dear to my heart," she says. Fast-forward nearly 75 years and Hoffleit now writes papers, reviews books and helps to update The Bright Star Catalogue, a book that documents the thousands of stars visible to the naked eye.

Dr Susan Hockfield, provost at Yale University, says that it is extraordinarily lucky for Yale to have a woman such as Hoffleit in its community. "Dorrit suffered setbacks as a young female astronomer, but she persevered."

Hockfield was so impressed by Hoffleit's autobiography, Misfortunes as Blessings in Disguise: The Story of My Life, that she intends to give it to her 11-year-old daughter as a birthday present. The autobiography is written in an engaging and non-scientific style with amusing anecdotes that will appeal to younger children, especially girls.

When Hoffleit was 11 her teacher told her mother: "Dorrit is not as clever as her brother." And her mother replied: "What do you expect? She's only a girl." We can only imagine the chagrin that comment engendered. She certainly proved her mother and her teacher wrong - in spades.

Dorrit maintains strong ties with the AAVSO and its Director, Janet Mattei

Age may have slowed Hoffleit slightly, but her routine has changed little over the decades. Her working day is hardly different from her that of her younger colleagues; she reaches the office between 10am and noon and, like them, rarely leaves before 5pm.

Her one-bedroom flat is opposite the astronomy department. "All I have to do is cross a busy street and a busy parking lot. It takes me about ten minutes. It used to take two or three minutes but now I have three legs." One of the few concessions to her age is a walking stick. Hoffleit's health is relatively good, except for the occasional bout of arthritis that keeps her up some nights. And as for her eyesight: "It is pretty good for my age," she says. Sometimes she pops home for lunch; other times she eats in the cafeteria. When it comes to cooking, she says: "I still have an old-fashioned gas stove." And when it comes to research: "I will look for the book, but I don't search the internet."

Technology may not be her forte but she reads, writes, replies to and deletes her e-mails, spam and all. She finds her Apple Mac computer a little daunting but an asset. "It is a big improvement over the typewriter," she says. "During the Second World War, we had a secretary who was not allowed to make any typo errors because the enemy might think it was a coded message." It was also at this time, when she was working at the Ballistic Research Lab computing trajectories for missiles, that Hoffleit fought hard to change her sub-professional ranking to a professional one, the same as her male equivalents. "They were discriminating against women, but I fought and won," she says. Her numerous complaints caught the attention of the Inspector General of the Baltimore District, who upgraded her ranking.

Hoffleit never married, and she is not embarrassed to admit that the stars are her only hobby. Today she has hundreds of journal articles to her name, plus two full-length books. A committee of her peers named Asteroid Dorrit after her because of Hoffleit's contributions to astronomy.

Retirement is flexible in universities around America. If people such as Hoffleit wish to continue working in their field, there is usually a place for them. It is different in the UK.

Dr Barry Smith, head of school, department of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, says: "The standard retirement age for academics in the UK is 65. Most will want to go on working but feel it is difficult to contribute fully to the subject without an office, regular contact with academics and some teaching to keep them involved with their subject. Many UK academics in philosophy, worried about their looming retirement, look for jobs in the States."

Considered by many to be the foremost American philosopher of the latter half of the 20th century, 86-year-old Dr Donald Davidson knows a number of UK professors who have found it painful to retire. "I think the way the English treat people who retire is terrible," he says.

Dr Davidson lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, where he spends half the year teaching, and travels around the world for the other. During the summer vacation, he writes eight hours a day, answering questions from his huge number of former students around the world.

He may not ski any more but age has done little to change his working life. This year alone he has travelled from Taiwan to Tanzania, giving talks and a series of lectures. And he writes books. "I owe Harvard one book and Oxford two," he says. He has emerged as one of the major figures in post-Second World War analytic philosophy. Like Hoffleit, Dr Davidson is officially retired, but, he says: "It makes absolutely no difference because my department asks me to stay on."

Jane Emery is another 86-year-old Californian academic. She is preparing to teach a new course called Neglected Classics at Stanford University. "Jewels," she calls these recently translated short works of major 19th-century European writers. Among the works she has chosen are "Joseph Von Eichendorf's Life of a Good-for-Nothing" and "Honore de Balzac's Colonel Chabert."

Dr Emery has just given up driving but her life is still in the fast lane. She can often be found deep among the shelves of the humanities library but, unlike Hoffleit, she also does much of her research on the internet these days. She, too, is officially retired but again, university policy is flexible. "I am not treated as an antique," she says, "although there are days when I think of my fifties as adolescence."

These 80 and 90-year-olds are treated with great respect by their younger colleagues and provide inspiring role models for people who are reluctant to end their working lives at a date that is dictated by their birth certificate.

Individuals like these prove that if you are intelligent enough and hale and hearty enough - and have the desire to - it is possible to continue doing what you love long past "retirement". Since all the predications are that there will soon not be enough young people to keep the economy buoyant, perhaps the flexibility customary in American universities will be universally adopted.