The Women Who Mapped the Universe (you probably haven’t heard of them)

by | Posted November 22nd, 2013


the women who mapped the universe - the harvard computers
In 1873, a doctor and Harvard professor wrote that “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time—that girls who spent to much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems.” It was not satire.

His advice was promptly and thoroughly ignored by women’s colleges of the time, where women were encouraged to study the sciences. Unfortunately, women’s colleges were still largely underfunded. They sometimes needed to pair with other colleges for support. It was in one of these pairings that the ‘Harvard Computers’ were formed.

The ‘Harvard Computers’ were a group of women mapping the universe as a team lead by Williamina Fleming – a maid for Edward Pickering. She ended up in the position after Pickering fired his incompetent male assistant. The ‘Harvard Computers’ are still not well known, rarely being recognized in history or science books… but at least they’re (mostly) not referred to as ‘Pickering’s Harem’ anymore. To find out more about these underappreciated scientists, check out the Smithsonian’s blog post on the topic.