Forgotten Women in STEM: Cecilia Payne

In April I wrote an article on the so-called “Matilda effect” (click here to read it) and this gave me the idea of writing posts on the countless women in STEM, who have been erased from history.

Today I am writing about Cecilia Payne, an astrophysicist who suggested for the first time that the stars are primarily composed by hydrogen and helium.

Her life

Cecilia Payne was born in the UK in 1900 and won a fellowship at the Cambridge University, where she fell in love with astronomy after attending a lecture of Arthur Eddington. She successfully completed her studies in 1922, but she wasn’t awarded her degree because she was a woman.

In 1923 she became the second woman (after Adelaide Ames) to pursue a career at the Harvard College Observatory.

Her career

At the Harvard College Observatory she studied the stellar atmosphere and discoveries were published in her PhD thesis: “Stellar Atmospheres; A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars”. Cecilia Payne is the first person to earn a PhD from the Radcliffe College of Harvard University. In her thesis she demonstrated that hydrogen and helium were much more abundant in stars than on Earth, suggesting that hydrogen is the major constituent of stars. Her work was not recognized at the time because it contradicted the current scientific belief of the time. In 1929 Otto Struve published a paper with the same results as Payne’s, acknowledging Payne’s early discoveries. But…. Otto Struve is usually credited for this scientific discovery (Thank you, Matilda effect!).

Payne worked at Harvard her whole life, when women were banned from becoming professors. In 1956 she became the first woman to be promoted to full professor of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She also became the first woman to be head of a department at Harvard.


Did you know that….

  • the Asteroid 2039 Payne-Gaposchkin was named after her
  • the Payne-Gaposchkin Patera volcano on Venus is named after her
  • one of the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae telescope in South Africa was named after her
  • the Institute of Physics (IOP) introduced the Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Medal and Prize in her honour


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