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Essays

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

By Tim Hunter

 

“Miss Leavitt inherited, in a somewhat chastened form, the stern virtues of her puritan ancestors.  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.”  Written  obituary of Henrietta Swan Leavitt by Solon Bailey as quoted by George Johnson in Miss Leavitt’s Stars.

"When the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, its first planetarium show concerned the universe-and credited Hubble with discovering the period-luminosity law for Cepheids.  My letters to the directors of the museum and the Harvard College Observatory solicited some activity, but the conclusion was that the program taped by a famous movie star could not be corrected.”  Vera Rubin (2005)

 

1. Introduction – Henrietta Leavitt and her legacy

 

Figure 1. Henrietta Leavitt.  From: http://www.aavso.org/vstar/vsots/0900.shtml

Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) was a quiet, hard working, modest individual who never sought fame or honors.  She was burdened in her later life with considerable health problems and was deaf for a significant portion of her adult life.  For nearly three decades she toiled away on the tedious task of measuring the brightness of star images on Harvard’s large collection of photographic plates, initially as an unpaid volunteer.  Yet, by the end of her lifetime, Henrietta Leavitt had achieved world fame in astronomical circles even if it was far less than she deserved because of the poor treatment afforded women astronomers in the early 20th century.  She was even nominated for a Nobel prize, and her legacy endures to this day (Johnson, 2005; Papacosta, 2004; Moore, 2002). 

Leavitt published approximately 35 papers, several of which were printed posthumously.  Table 1 summarizes her publications.  All her papers detail her variable star work, and her posthumous publications were catalogs of data that she had worked on during her lifetime that had not been fully completed or had been overlooked for publication. 

Leavitt discovered half the world’s known variable stars in her lifetime, and her discovery of the Cepheid period-luminosity relationship is one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the 20th century.  Her Cepheid legacy remains with us today nearly 100 years after its discovery.  It is one of our most important tools for examining the Universe.  If one uses the NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) hosted by the Computation Facility at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to search for references having the word “Cepheid” in their abstract for the period January 1, 2005 through August 31, 2005, 1026 selections are found.  This truly reflects the importance of Cepheid variable stars.   

 

2.  Henrietta Leavitt’ early life and education

Henrietta Leavitt was born in July 4th 1868 in Lancaster, MA, into a family with ties to early Puritan ancestors and with ties to four centuries of Leavitts in Yorkshire, England.  In the 1880’s her father was the pastor at the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Cambridge, MA.  Her mother’s name was also Henrietta Swan, and she was named for her mother.  Henrietta was the eldest of seven children of the Reverend George Roswell Leavitt and Henrietta Swan [Kendrick] Leavitt.  At least two of young Henrietta’s siblings would die at an early age (Johnson, 2005; PBS).  The Leavitts were relatively affluent and well educated.   

After the family moved to Cleveland in 1885, Henrietta enrolled in Oberlin college and completed two years of an undergraduate education there.  She returned to Cambridge in 1888 and enrolled at the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women (later Radcliffe College) and graduated in 1892 at the age of 24.  Her degree was a certificate that stated if she were a man she would have been awarded a bachelor of arts degree from Harvard.  Leavitt did not concentrate on science, but her courses included natural history and analytic geometry and differential calculus.  In her senior year she also took a course in astronomy at Observatory Hill which is just up Garden Street from Radcliffe (Johnson, 2005; PBS).  For the next two years she earned graduate credits in astronomy and worked for free at the Harvard College Observatory.

 

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