Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979)
Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England
Digital Illustration, 24" x 32", 2022
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin made the groundbreaking discovery that stars were made of hydrogen and helium and that the Sun and Earth had no significant elemental difference between them.
In 1925, Payne-Gaposchkin was the first woman to earn her Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University. While working on her doctoral dissertation, she looked at the relationship of spectral classes of stars and their actual temperature. Her thesis concluded that hydrogen and helium were the overall makeup of stars. Payne-Gaposchkin’s research found that the Sun and Earth were predominantly hydrogen, making them similar elemental compositions. Her advisor, Henry Norris Russell, initially argued against her findings but later after completing his own research, rescinded his original argument finding that she was correct. He is often credited for her conclusions.
Payne-Gaposchkin continued her research at Harvard largely unrecognized. She opened many doors for women in the Harvard astronomy program, eventually becoming the first female professor in the college of Arts and Sciences and Chair of the Astronomy department. As a woman in a primarily male driven field and a mother of three children, she became a trailblazer and a role model for many female scientists.