Vera Peters: “Cutting the Gordian Knot”

Vera PetersOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Joan Reinhardt-Reiss

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada was a secure male bastion whose ramparts were rarely breached by women. At the 1975 annual meeting, M Vera Peters, MD was the only female speaker. Her superb resume contained more than a hundred publications and globetrotting lectures. Yet, she possessed three major impediments: she was female, unassertive, and endowed with a soft, sometime quavering voice. Her presence was perfection with neatly coiffed brown hair, twinkling eyes behind large, plastic rimmed glasses, a quick smile and a paragon of haute couture. In high school she replaced her archaic name Mildred with the simple letter M. From her bank accounts to a myriad of scientific papers, the signature would forever be M Vera Peters with initials MVP – truly a Most Valuable Player in medicine.

Vera Peters, an expert breast cancer specialist, always found verbal presentation to be a daunting challenge. Among the few friendly faces in the Winnipeg Holiday Inn ballroom was Peters’ physician-daughter, Jenny, who had spent time rehearsing with her mom. Jenny recalled her mother’s nervous recitations, “The night before she practiced repeatedly and smoked cigarettes in between. Now I sat in the back watching the enormous audience of four hundred – mostly men.”

Vera Peters stepped onto the podium to present Cutting the Gordian Knot in Early Breast Cancer. Her speech was punctuated with soft, delicate tones. She poetically stated the analogous relationship between Alexander the Great slicing his sword through the fabled knot and new modalities in breast cancer.

“I am setting out to capture acceptability… by those concerned with taking the risky adventure out of the treatment of early breast cancer,” Peters said in a presentation to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, in Winnipeg, Canada, in January 1975.

Vera Peters was a conservative radical. Her mild Canadian approach belied her rigorous challenge to the surgical lodestar for breast cancer, radical mastectomy or ‘Halsted mastectomy’. The first such procedure was performed in 1882 by William Halsted, a Johns Hopkins surgeon, and was the dominant treatment for almost a century. The surgeon removed the breast, underlying chest muscles, and adjacent lymph nodes, and Halsted himself referred to his ability to “flay the patient’s chest”.

After a Halsted procedure, the cancer was considered cured, although it could still later recur, which contradicted the notion of a ‘cure’.

Peters had described alternatives to risky, radical mastectomy as early as 1953 by systematically categorizing the stages of breast cancer. Now, she detailed her 30-year study, which had involved hundreds of lumpectomy patients and an equal number of matched controls where excision and minimal radiation were compared with the prevailing radical mastectomy and increased radiation. Measured by survival years and absence of recurrence, her minimalist approach produced results equal to or slightly better than the traditional treatment. Peters concluded, “Prophylactic radiation and prophylactic mastectomy could, with few exceptions, be eliminated in early breast cancer.”

Jenny recalled, “She was exceedingly nervous but I felt she had presented well. Everyone listened politely and when she concluded there was reasonable applause, but they were not warmly enthusiastic. I was unaware how upset the audience was.”

The talk ended but audacity lingered – subdued Vera Peters had quietly disputed the need for total mastectomy, the surgeon’s breast cancer elixir. Her statement, that “…radical methods are not in the best interest of the patients” inflamed the male medical world who worshipped the 11th commandment, doctor dictates. The skirmish that began in Winnipeg continued for decades.

Transforming events

Peters made the decision to become a radiation therapist during medical school, when she heard fascinating lectures from the chief of radiology, Gordon Richards. As a student, she found him to be brilliant but formidable.

“He was a big man with red hair, very commanding and quite good-looking,” she said. “The staff was frightened of him because he was so precise but he was a good teacher and very, very ingenious.”

Richards was chairman of the radiology department. He directed both diagnostic and “therapeutic radiology”, later renamed radiation therapy. Richards taught Peters the most current treatments for cancer patients. As a former military man, the gruff exterior was ever-present, but a gentle side dominated with his adoring patients. He also entered Peters’ life in a personal way.

During her medical school tenure, Vera’s mother, Rebecca, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a Halsted mastectomy. Vera had seen mastectomy scars before, but it was difficult to look at her mother’s debilitated state. When Rebecca finally sat up in bed, her face was pale and drawn. Vera applied fresh dressing to the wounds.

“Mother’s chest appeared concave with enormous scars, a complete mutilation. A single breast remained but the pectoral muscle was removed. She had difficulty lifting one arm. I hoped that this surgical assault cured her cancer.”

After seeing her mother, Peters thought that a more benign way to cure breast cancer must exist. Unfortunately, Rebecca’s surgical procedure was unsuccessful.

“When mother began to get recurrences in the chest wall after the major surgery, she was referred to Dr Gordon Richards who was my chief. He impressed me because he seemed so interested and communicative.”

Richards had recognised the curative powers of radium prior to treating Rebecca Peters’ breast cancer, and successfully campaigned for the hospital to buy an infinitesimal amount of radium at an exorbitant price. He had already achieved some positive results by using a plaster cast embedded with radium needles, but when treating Rebecca, he replaced the plaster cast with a more comfortable cotton jacket.

Vera Peters recalled, “The corset involved skin breakdown and created a burning which was awful. Shortly after that therapy, the distant spread of the cancer became evident.”

When breast cancer became personal, Peters knew she was destined to be a radiation therapist and applied for an apprenticeship with Richards. He already had experience with his first female apprentice, Helen Bell-Milburn, who became a breast cancer specialist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. This unique hospital began in 1898 as a women’s clinic, but quickly expanded, and from inception until 1960, the entire staff was female. A likely role model for Peters was the Radiology Chief at Women’s College, Eleanor Stewart, Canada’s first female radiologist.

Richards recognised in Peters traits of curiosity, intelligence and diligence. Her starting salary was $100 a month. After several years, she moved from apprentice to staff.

Vera Peters was an inveterate smoker and the ever-present cigarette had a collegial role in her life. The staff lunchroom at Princess Margaret Hospital was so filled with smoke that it was difficult to distinguish faces. With so few women in medicine, Vera’s smoking became a social interaction with the male medical fraternity.

Curing another cancer

Few physicians ever have a major impact in two diseases. Adding to her work in breast cancer, Vera Peters initiated the earliest cure for Hodgkin’s disease, previously thought to be a uniformly fatal malignancy. The first use of radiation therapy in Hodgkin’s disease is credited to Swiss physician René Gilbert. In 1939, he reported long-term survival rates for certain Hodgkin’s disease patients. Like Gilbert, Gordon Richards and Vera Peters determined that radiation therapy was critical for both the involved lymph nodes as well as adjacent nodes. Richards had purchased a 400-kilowatt X-ray machine that was considered to be state of the art. With this technology, higher radiation doses could be safely delivered without skin damage.

In 1947, a decade after joining Gordon Richards’ staff, he and Vera Peters were striding down the hall when Richards said, “Dr Peters, how would you like to review our experience with Hodgkin’s disease? All our textbooks say that it is a fatal disease, but we seem to be seeing patients who are cured.”

Fueled by coffee, cigarettes and an occasional power nap, Peters began a clinical research odyssey. On her large dining room table, she plotted each patient’s data on five square feet of graph paper using the computer tools of that era: a slide rule and adding machine. After two years of late nights, she declared, “I had demonstrated… through Dr Richards’ experience… that Hodgkin’s disease had a potential for cure.”

In 1949, Vera Peters submitted her report to the Toronto General Hospital staff. A pathologist conducted a microscopic cellular examination and confirmed each Hodgkin’s disease diagnosis. Peters analysed 100 cases that used the Toronto radiation therapy approach and dramatically concluded:

“The overall five year survival rate of 51 percent and the ten year survival rate of 35 percent in this series is considerably better than any other survival rate reported in the literature to date.”

A pale Gordon Richards attended in a wheelchair and felt a surge of pride as his protégée presented their pioneering results. Vera Peters continued alone, as the ailing Gordon Richards died soon after from leukemia, a common disease of radiologists in that radium-exposed era. Yet, Richards’ name will be ever-present as the innovator who established radiation therapy as a bona fide specialty in North America.

Peters submitted the radiation therapy cure for Hodgkin’s disease to the Canadian Medical Journal. The editors rejected the paper for containing “too many tables”. Years later, Peters stated her belief that the submission was rejected due to her gender. Eventually, this 1950 landmark treatise was accepted by an American journal.

Throughout her career, Peters continued to research, publish and lecture. She developed an international reputation as one of the world’s preeminent radiation therapists. In 1969, Robin Farkas, a New York department store executive, was 36 years old when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and was referred to Peters. After a consultation in Toronto, Peters travelled to New York to attend Farkas’ exploratory surgery, which revealed extensive Hodgkin’s disease with numerous lymph nodes involved.

During the 1960s, chemotherapy was starting to be used to treat Hodgkin’s disease. Farkas said, “Dr Peters recommended a chemotherapy protocol being done at Sloan-Kettering in New York. When I asked how long I had to live, she told me two or three years. I asked what determines the length of time?”

Peters softly replied, “The treatment is so caustic that it’s a race to see which one dies first, the disease or you.”

“After each awful treatment, I would spend the next hours throwing up my guts. I kept in touch with Dr Peters and she decided to help me break the chemotherapy protocol, a serious decision since it upset the entire study.”

Farkas then went to Toronto on a regular basis where Peters treated him with extensive radiation therapy. He is almost 80 years old now and has had no recurrence of disease.

“I have the fondest memories of Dr Peters. She was kind, gentle, and professional. She helped me stay calm.”

Early days

The trajectory of Vera Peters’ life began in 1911, the year Marie Curie received her second Nobel Prize. Mildred Vera Peters was born in a rural area outside Toronto, the fifth and youngest child of a poor cattle farmer Charles Peters and former teacher, Rebecca Mair.

Maintaining the farm was a struggle in the depression era, and income barely exceeded a subsistence level. Clothes were made by hand; electricity and a telephone were unaffordable. Mother Rebecca emphasised the importance of excellent grades and the highest level of schooling. The result was a family poor in consumer goods but rich in educational values.

Tragedy arrived early. “My father died when I was 11 from an intestinal obstruction,” she said. “The nearest farm was one mile away so we couldn’t get a doctor.”

That summer, with her brother away, young Vera ran the farm. She milked cows at 4am and drove the tractor. Vera’s oldest sister Catherine headed the household and assigned chores to her siblings creating numerous family arguments. Vera resisted all confrontation whether it was family or, later, in medicine, saying, “An argument is just two people trying to prove they are right. If you know you’re right, what’s the point in arguing? I would just walk away and say nothing.”

Always an excellent student, Peters even found time for athletics like ice hockey and basketball. After high school graduation, she entered a university maths and physics program, but quickly realised that teaching was the only end result. Three weeks later, after a family conference and assistance from a professor-friend, she enrolled in the only Ontario medical school that accepted women, the University of Toronto. Her three teacher-sisters, and her brother, who now ran the family farm, pooled resources to pay for her tuition.

Peters embarked upon six years of medical study. Women in medical school were often considered superfluous in the male fraternity of students and faculty, and were outnumbered 10:1 by men. Even so, Canada was relatively enlightened – the US ratio was 20:1. Peters recalled a dean who was particularly disdainful of women. When she answered a query in class, he replied, “That’s a very female answer.”

Confronting the orthodoxy

In an approach that many male physicians considered heresy, Peters involved her patients in treatment decisions. She remembered all the suffering women who cried in her office after their radical procedures, and never forgot her mother’s agony. She understood the distress and defeminisation that women described after the disfiguring loss of a breast. Most male surgeons believed that a radical mastectomy gave women new life, so cosmetic and emotional concerns were dismissed.

A National Cancer Institute (NCI) breast cancer study of 1,700 women at multiple medical centers questioned the efficacy of the radical mastectomy vs lumpectomy. However, the NCI study was only a few years old, so long term survival was unknown and surgeon-dominated medical groups easily dismissed these results, while continuing to extol the radical approach.

Peters never confronted her critics publicly. Instead she responded with numerous published papers that demonstrated equivalent survival years when lumpectomy and radiation was compared with mastectomy. Regardless, the surgical community reacted with defiance and sarcasm. The American Cancer Society (ACS) replied negatively to lumpectomy, saying, “The American public should not be stampeded into accepting less proven methods.” ACS medical director Arthur Holleb bluntly criticised lumpectomy as an “almost useless procedure”, and renowned Stanford surgeon Lawrence Crowley suggested that mastectomy’s good results were too reliable to risk “…migrating too rapidly to new methods of therapy [lumpectomy] based upon evolving but yet unproved theoretical concepts.”

Peters knew that her approach was anathema to the surgery community, “I was refuted and shunned by most of the outstanding surgeons in the States, except for Dr George Crile.” As the founder of the Cleveland Clinic, Crile learned about minimalist surgery in thyroidectomy procedures. Using that experience, and Peters’ work, he applied lumpectomy to breast cancer treatment beginning in 1955. In spite of ridicule from fellow surgeons, Crile later published The Breast Cancer Controversy, a guidebook for women dealing with breast cancer. He cited Peters’ data showing that lumpectomy-radiation results were equivalent to mastectomy.

The media also played a part in promoting alternatives to mastectomy. In 1972, Time ran an article that included Peters’ lumpectomy approach to early stage breast cancer. She received letters from physicians in remote corners of the world requesting protocol details, and women everywhere learnt about treatment alternatives and lumpectomy.

Many women considered breast cancer to be a female plague, an issue that required secrecy. When famous women began to publicly discuss breast cancer, a dark curtain partially lifted. The advent of mammography in the 1960s vastly increased the ability to diagnose and effectively treat early stage breast cancer. The first celebrity breast cancer patient was the child movie star Shirley Temple Black. In 1972, her mammogram revealed a small mass. Black chose to undergo a biopsy and then reviewed all options before choosing a modified mastectomy. Two years later, Betty Ford, wife of the US President, Gerald Ford, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy. With her public openness and interviews, Ford helped cast light on the hidden breast cancer world. However, some came to the conclusion that the President’s wife would surely have had the best procedure available and, as a result, radical mastectomy continued to be the first line treatment for many women, regardless of their breast cancer stage.

Years later, a major advocate for Peters arose. Bernard Fisher, a University of Pittsburgh surgeon, studied hundreds of breast cancer cases and survival statistics and supported Peters in his 1990 presentation, Biological and Clinical Justification for Relegating Radical Breast Cancer Operations to the Archives of Surgical History.

The male surgical world spent scores of years doing more excessive surgery than necessary and ignoring or decrying Peters’ approach. Her work was re-enforced over time, and by a grateful cadre of female patients. In 2013, an online article in Cancer demonstrated that lumpectomy-radiation provided longer survival times than mastectomy. In spite of excellent data on lumpectomy for early stage breast cancer, many women still debate mastectomy vs lumpectomy when confronted with breast cancer.

Feminist leader

When Peters was cited in popular newspapers and magazines, women began to examine their medical options and rebel against the Halsted approach of paternalistic male surgeons. Peters had an impact on both breast cancer activism and a woman’s right to choose her treatment. Small patient information groups morphed into networks and advocacy, questioning surgical breast cancer decisions, and giving women a new power to determine other health choices. From the work of Vera Peters and others, a new set of feminist voices arose.

Women began flexing their prerogative muscle and moving into male professions like science, mathematics and medicine. Until the late 20th century, few women entered medical school and their specialty areas focused on pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology. Now women were claiming equality based on justice and ability. Peters became an exemplar for female medical students who recognised radiation therapy as an excellent specialty. Gillian Thomas, a young colleague, declared, “Vera was modest and driven by an inherent curiosity. She left her footprints in the snow for us to follow.”

Peters’ tranquil approach to life and work was a medical model for decades. Never argumentative, her data demonstrated her points. She talked with patients and fought at the medical barricades so that women could examine facts with their physicians and together review treatment options.

Family life

During medical school, Peters worked summers as a waitress on the ship SS Cayuga that cruised the shores of Lake Ontario. Among the young wait staff was a charming physical education teacher, Ken Lobb. Vera fell in love with him. They married in 1937 while she was training under Gordon Richards. Their enchanting outdoor wedding photo shows a beaming bride and groom both dressed in sparkling white attire. Her smart suit and perfect hat completed a stunning ensemble. Ken also represented a haberdasher’s dream in his quintessential white suit. He bore a striking resemblance to young Ernest Hemingway, while lovely Vera mirrored a silver screen starlet. Photos of the handsome couple might have been the centerfold in a 1930s Hollywood magazine.

The honeymoon was a long trip through Canada and the US. They loved the outdoors and fishing was enthusiastically pursued. In later years, golf and bridge also occupied important recreational pursuits. Both Vera and Ken were inveterate smokers, an activity considered rather cool at the time.

Vera was one of the early women who successfully juggled the roles of doctor, wife, and mother: Sandy was born in 1942 and Jenny seven years later. Just as she softly presented scientific data and refused to argue, she adopted that ‘keep the peace’ manner at home. Sandy remembers that her mother made more money than her father, but always let him lead the family, except for a name change. When she debated becoming Vera Lobb, she asked Gordon Richards’ advice and followed his proposal to retain her birth name. Sandy and Jenny were acutely aware that phone calls for Dr. Peters came from the hospital while non-medical callers requested Mrs Lobb.

“Mom had a fabulous sense of humor, yet in public Dad was the outgoing one and she let him lead. It was a wonderful relationship. Every morning, Dad brought Mom coffee in bed, before she even put her feet on the ground,” Sandy reminisced.

Ken was the pillar who sustained the family, the supportive husband in an era when men were expected to dominate and be served. He even urged Vera to go to England for six months when she was offered a sabbatical. Jenny was barely nine years old when Vera left. Ken managed his daughters, work, the ever-changing housekeepers, the household, and almost daily letters to Vera. At the end of her sabbatical leave, Ken and the girls joined Vera for a grand European vacation. Other men would have felt dominated by an accomplished physician-wife but Ken gave her full support to quietly confront the male medical world.

As a physical education teacher, Ken was also the football coach. He had a number of winning teams and a devoted following among the boys. Occasionally, a boy from an alcoholic abusive family related his home problem to Ken. The boy would spend major time at the Lobb house, and occasionally moved in. A thankful troop of children (now adults) can attest to Ken’s caring nature.

A housekeeper always had a role in the Lobb family. Supper was family time and if Vera saw a late patient, the meal was held. Dinner was an occasion to share and be together. After supper, Ken would work on projects while the girls did school assignments. After seeing 40 patients during the day, Vera brought home medical charts to analyse survival rates and treatment. The girls enjoyed testing her concentration by making outrageous comments followed by, “Oh Mom will never hear that because she doesn’t hear anything.”

Accompanied by coffee and cigarettes, Peters analyzed data well into the night. One morning the girls came down for breakfast, and found Vera still at the table working.

“Mom, you must have stayed up late and got very little sleep because you’re back at it.”

“Actually, I forgot to go to bed. I got so interested in what I was doing that when I looked up, it was daylight.”

Peters had such extreme dedication that she often fixated on the next activity. One morning, her thoughts focused on a patient as she settled into her car. She then proceeded to toss the car keys out the window and placed her lit cigarette in the ignition.

Summers were spent at a cottage in the resort area of Sundridge, a few hours north of Toronto. Their simple cabin was located on lovely Lake Bernard, a mecca for all water activities. Here the family had a true paradise complete with berry picking, jam cooking, swimming and fishing. For Peters, that summer month was a time to completely focus on family.

While Vera was in England, Ken was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, a problem he hid from Vera, not wanting to interrupt her sabbatical. Six years later, a more serious malady occurred as Ken was playing golf. He developed some chest pain and was diagnosed with a heart condition. Jenny remembers him waking at night, gasping for breath. Vera had Ken placed under the care of a Toronto cardiologist who prescribed barbiturates.

Ken might have been aware of President Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack: The President’s physician was Paul Dudley White, considered to be the founder of modern cardiology, who developed a unique cardiac prevention strategy that involved diet, exercise and weight control. Ken adopted some of the White strategy. He ceased smoking and successfully restricted his diet to lose 40 plus pounds. Jenny remembered, “Dad invested in great suits for his new shape. He even came home from work earlier and had a snooze. He was a different man.”

In 1967, Ken Lobb was counselling a student when he stopped talking and his head dropped. An ambulance rushed him to hospital but this heart attack was fatal. Vera continued alone with her daughters, medicine, and devoted friends. Now a young widow at 56, she sold the family house and moved elsewhere. “I don’t know what I would have done without my work,” she told her daughters.

Hodgkin’s Disease and Henry Kaplan

In 1956, Vera Peters gave her first major presentation at the International Congress of Radiology. The Mexico City audience was replete with medical experts anxious to hear from this Canadian female who had the temerity to cure Hodgkin’s disease. In the audience was the brilliant, young Chairman of the radiology department at Stanford University. Henry Kaplan had done definitive work in cancer radiation using a mouse model system before being recruited by Stanford. Hearing Peters’ talk, he felt inadequate. She documented her Hodgkin’s disease protocol with radiation dosages, treatment of adjacent lymph nodes, and a classification system for disease stages. Her quiet manner belied the fact that she was already one of the world’s preeminent radiation therapists.

Kaplan had a brilliant mind and a commanding presence. He also had the ability to control meetings and issues. His interrogative questioning of Peters in Mexico City set the stage for his entry and later dominance in Hodgkin’s disease. He returned to Stanford and, following Peters’ system, began a 30-year review of Stanford patient records. Kaplan had a talented partner, an equally intelligent but gentler medical oncologist, Saul Rosenberg. Over the next decade, a number of multi-disciplinary meetings were held regarding Hodgkin’s disease and the most appropriate classification system. Rosenberg had great admiration for Peters and during these many conferences he always included Peters and even invited her to the Stanford social gatherings.

Peters quickly learned that whatever Kaplan believed as truth, he dictated to others. In the first Hodgkin’s collaborative study among multiple centers, Kaplan was determined to utilise a staging laparotomy procedure, surgically opening the abdomen to determine the extent of disease. Vera refused to do unnecessary surgery so Kaplan initially excluded Toronto from the study. Rosenberg often intervened between Kaplan and Peters. She once commented, “Saul and I nearly always agreed. We should have worked together.”

Over the next years, a number of multi-disciplinary symposia were held to reach agreement on a classification system for Hodgkin’s disease stages. Kaplan obtained grants and organised a number of these meetings. In 1965, the group met in Ann Arbor and Peters was invited as keynote speaker, since she was the first to introduce a classification system. Each speaker was allotted 20 minutes but as she was giving the keynote, Peters had 40 minutes. As usual, she was nervous, but proceeded to clearly explain her classification system. The conference chairman, however, never received the extended time memo and at 20 minutes, halfway into her presentation, he cut her off. Unbelievably, Peters never protested and quietly sat down.

As the group broke for lunch, Kaplan approached and said, “Vera, you’ll never get me to use your classification in Hodgkin’s disease, never.” As the conference ended, the chairman chose a classification committee and Vera Peters was omitted. Years later she commented, ”I thought it was the worst slap in the face that I ever had.” She still continued her work and published scientific papers that described appropriate classification.

At a Paris meeting, Kaplan and his wife asked Peters to join them for dinner. Halfway through this gourmet repast, he turned to her and said, “Vera, I think you should stop writing about Hodgkin’s disease and concentrate on cancer of the breast.” She did not respond but thought, “I feel sorry for him.”

In treatment protocols, Kaplan was always more aggressive than Peters. He opted for higher doses of radiation while Peters believed in less damaging lower dosages. In the early years of chemotherapy, clinical battles revolved around which combination of drugs worked best and whether or not radiation treatments were also involved. Both Rosenberg and Peters agreed on combining radiation therapy with chemotherapy and thereby decreasing the amount of radiation. At first Kaplan continued with radiation alone but finally agreed on the combination.

Henry Kaplan and Gordon Richards shared a number of traits. Both men were beloved by patients. Richards made Toronto a mecca for radiation therapy while Kaplan did the same for Stanford. Unlike Richards however, Kaplan was intolerant and often verbally abusive with colleagues and those he considered enemies. However, for rising stars in the Stanford orbit he was a tower of encouragement. Sara Donaldson, a Kaplan trainee, is recognised as one of the foremost pediatric radiation oncologists, and once declared, “We thought Henry Kaplan was a god and later learned that Vera Peters had done the early innovations that Kaplan built on.”

Over the years Peters recognised Kaplan’s brilliance, but so disliked his attitude, saying, “I discovered that he was dictatorial and wanted the limelight at all times. He belittled some of the things that I did or said that proved to be true.”

She always credited both Kaplan and Rosenberg with improved treatment approaches including utilization of Stanford’s linear accelerator.

“Henry did a lot of good work and you just can’t ignore good work, even if you hate the man,” she told an interviewer years later. Kaplan did once acknowledge her achievements; as a featured speaker at a Toronto symposium, he praised the now-retired Peters, who was no longer a competitor.

Vera Peters received a multitude of awards and honorary degrees. Among all her accolades, she had two favourites and both occurred after retirement. The 1977 Antoine Béclère Award was presented to her in Paris by the Radiological Society of France. Béclère was the father of radiation therapy in France and Peters was the first woman to receive that commendation.

Two years later she received the gold medal from the American Society for Therapeutic Radiologists (ASTR). Both Jenny and Sandy accompanied her to New Orleans where the award was presented. Chairman of the ASTR Board, Philip Rubin, delivered the opening remarks: “Vera Peters is a very special person who loves to study the natural history of malignant disease. She has a sixth sense about when and when not to intervene. Her contributions to the management of Hodgkin’s disease and breast cancer are pioneering efforts and her insights were clearly ahead of her time. In Hodgkin’s disease the concept of extended field irradiation for uninvolved nodes and in breast cancer, lumpectomy and irradiation are now essential parts of our clinical practice.” Once the medal was placed around her neck, Vera returned to her table where the dessert awaited. As she sat down, the medal dropped into her ice cream. She calmly retrieved it and laughed along with the entire table.

Life after retirement

At age 65, Peters retired. She could have extended her career by another five years, but one issue broke her spirit. Her Toronto hospital committed to join a randomised breast cancer clinical trial in which appropriately matched early stage breast cancer cases were divided into two groups: mastectomy vs. lumpectomy. Yet, the proposal meant that some women with early stage breast cancer would be arbitrarily chosen to undergo unnecessary mastectomy. Peters had shown in numerous retrospective studies that these early stages could be successfully treated with lumpectomy. Maintaining non-confrontational behavior, she never disclosed the real reason for her departure. Later, the hospital abandoned the trial, but by then she had left.

Jenny, a medical resident and her husband Alan, a lawyer, led busy lives in London, Ontario when their son David was born. Their baby-sitter left abruptly and Jenny phoned the best baby-sitter she knew.

“Mom, our sitter has left and we desperately need you to come and take care of David. How soon can you get here?” The perfect timing of that request must have coincided with Peters’ need for a change. She moved to London and became the doting grandmother.

When Jenny and her family moved to Oakville, so did Peters. Jenny opened her geriatric practice and Vera occupied a small section in the office as a consulting cancer physician. Remembering those two years, Jenny said, “One of the most heart–warming pieces of my career was when Mom joined me in the office and took patients on referral. “

In that era, retired physicians lost hospital privileges, so Peters referred her patients to radiation therapists like Mary Gospadarowicz, a colleague who recalled how Peters was idolised by all her patients, “Vera told us that we always had to come here for our follow-up.” And so they did.

Peters continued to write papers, lecture, and enjoy her growing family and friends. Yet during this time her health deteriorated. A positive side effect from her hip replacement was that she stopped smoking. Later she was diagnosed with both breast cancer and lung cancer. She now returned to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, where she’d spent so much of her medical career, as a patient. Simon Sutcliff, a radiation therapist and CEO at the hospital, procured a room for her, and her daughters brought many desired items including an easy chair, a photo wall, a kettle, microwaves, her pink silk jogging suit, creating a space where all visitors were welcome. Anyone who knocked on the door was greeted with a friendly, “Come in!” Hospital staff brought residents to learn from this gracious physician who had the gifts of curiosity and compassion.

At the end of each day, Sutcliff went to her room and the two friends socialised over crystal glasses of sherry with shared tales of life, philosophy, and the future. He said, later, “I wanted to know Vera, she was someone I respected as a major contributor.”

When Peters died, Gospadarowicz and colleagues wrote a moving obituary tribute, which acknowledged Peters’ impact on two cancers while quietly overcoming male prejudice.

“Dr Peters was the ultimate caregiver. Her insight into the disease, wealth of experience, and scientific approach to cancer treatment were combined with a deep empathy and care for each patient. Indeed, many patients admit that once having Vera as their doctor, every other physician seemed second best.”

Further reading

Reinhardt-Reiss, J; Donaldson, S, (2015) “Homage to M. Vera Peters, MD”, Intl. J. Of Radiation Oncology, 92(1) pp. 5-8.

DeCroes Jacob, C, (2010) Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease, Stanford University Press.

Knepper, K. and Donaldson, S, (1996) “Women in Radiation Oncology and Radiation Physics”, A History of the Radiological Sciences: Radiation Oncology, ed. Gagliari, R.A., Radiology Centennial Inc.: Reeston, VA.

Cowan, D.H., (2008) “Vera Peters and the Curability of Hodgkin’s Disease”, Current Oncology (15, No.5) 5-9.

About the author

Joan Reinhardt-Reiss’ renaissance background includes science training, public interest advocacy for environment and health. For a decade she has worked with Breast Cancer Fund to legislatively eliminate toxics in our environment. Additional vitae: ultra-marathon champion, National Public Radio commentator, and grandmother. Travelogues, writing, a published NYTimes letter, and NPR commentaries, can be found onher website.


Stephanie Kwolek: Inventor of Kevlar

Stephanie KwolekOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Suze Kundu

In 2001, a police lieutenant, David Spicer, was recovering in hospital after being shot in the chest and arms at point blank range. Spicer was alive to tell the tale, thanks to the Kevlar body armour that he was wearing at the time.

Kevlar thread is strong because it is made of plastic fibres in which matchstick-like molecules line up and stick to one another, giving it a specific tensile strength of over eight times that of steel wire. Kevlar fabric is even stronger because these fibres are then woven tightly together and are very difficult to prise apart. This is why Kevlar is used for body armour: the amount of energy required to break apart multiple layers of Kevlar fabric is greater compared to the energy that a bullet or a knife can impart. The bullet, knife or other weapon is slowed down and deformed by each layer until it is stopped in its tracks within the body armour, or is moving slowly enough to cause much less damage to the victim if it does break through the body armour.

Spicer had the opportunity to thank Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar, for her practical contributions to materials science that had saved his life. Summing up Kwolek perfectly after their conversation, Spicer simply said, “She was a tremendous woman.”

Kwolek’s career as a research scientist spanned four decades, and the impact of her contributions to science, as well as in encouraging and inspiring more women to take up science, continue to be felt to this day.

Of science and fashion

Stephanie Kwolek was born on 31 July 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Her father, John Kwolek – Jan Chwałek, in his native Polish – was a naturalist, which sparked her interest in science from an early age. Together they would explore the woods and fields near their home, creating scrapbooks of their findings. Sadly, he died when she was only 10 years old.

Kwolek’s mother, Zajdel, known as Nellie, worked in fashion, which exposed her daughter to elements of design and sewing, and allowed her to work with a range of fabrics; her interest in materials would extend beyond textiles as her career developed. Kwolek showed an aptitude for fashion design, but Nellie knew that her daughter was a perfectionist and apparently said that if Stephanie were to pursue this as a career she would starve, as she would never be happy enough with the pieces that she created.

Kwolek initially wanted to study medicine, but the high cost of medical school meant that she needed a plan: she decided that she would study chemistry and work in industry until she had enough money to pursue her dream of becoming a medic. She graduated from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, part of the Carnegie Mellon University, with a degree in chemistry in 1946.

One of the several jobs she applied for was that of chemist at DuPont, where she was interviewed by research director W Hale Charch, who had discovered how to make cellophane waterproof. When he mentioned that they would make a decision within two weeks, she pressed him for a faster decision because another company wanted her answer on their job offer. Faced with the prospect of losing Kwolek, Charch asked his assistant to dictate an offer letter there and then, offering Kwolek the position, which she decided to accept.

Although she initially only saw the job as a means to provide her with enough money to pursue her medical education, Kwolek’s skills as a chemist and her love of teaching the subject led her to decide to stick with chemistry.

Low temperature polymers

Kwolek’s early research focused on finding a new process to create polymers at low temperatures. At that time, the process used for creating polymers through condensation, polycondensation, only worked at high temperatures. Nylon 66, which was first developed also at DuPont in 1935 by Wallace Carothers, formed at 285C, which made it a very energy-intensive and expensive process. Ideally, the industry wanted the polycondensation process to occur between 0C and 40C.

Working on a new process, Kwolek found that nylon can form at the interface of two layers of different precursor chemicals at room temperature. If this layer is pinched with tweezers and pulled away, more nylon forms at the fresh interface, and if it is attached to a device that can rotate, or is able to continually be pulled away from the interface layer, a long nylon thread can be drawn. Kwolek called this the Nylon Rope Trick and won her first award, the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Publication Award, for the paper she published documenting this discovery.

The discovery also gave rise to a whole new area of science – low temperature polycondensation reactions to produce polymers. Her once novel process has become a common fixture in school chemistry labs, and here in the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, undergraduate students extend the ‘trick’ to an investigation as part of their materials science and engineering lab course.

A life-saving discovery

When Kwolek was in her 40s, in 1964, the country faced the prospect of a petrol shortage, which would minimise the volume of crude materials available for manufacturing rubber. Her new research aim was to find a strong but lightweight fibre that could be incorporated into tyres to reinforce them and improve fuel efficiency. She discovered that under certain experimental conditions, the polyamide solutions that she was working with became very runny and behaved strangely. Whilst runny solutions did not normally lead to the production of strong polymer fibres, Kwolek was curious to find out what properties these polymers would have, if indeed fibres could be spun from something so runny. In a speech in 1993, she explained:

“The solution was unusually (low viscosity), turbid, stir-opalescent and buttermilk in appearance. Conventional polymer solutions are usually clear or translucent and have the viscosity of molasses, more or less. The solution that I prepared looked like a dispersion but was totally filterable through a fine pore filter.”

The technician in charge of the fibre spinnerette, Charles Smullen, was initially reluctant to try to spin this polymer, as not only was it runny and difficult to handle, it was also cloudy, which he thought meant that there were tiny particles suspended in the liquid. If that were the case, such particles could become trapped in the fine holes of the spinnerette that the polymer solution was squeezed through during the wet spinning process, the potential aftermath of which he was reluctant to deal with.

Kwolek filtered the solution to test whether it was contaminated – it wasn’t – and, after much persuasion, Smullen agreed to spin some fibres. The results were ground-breaking. The fibre produced from this runny, messy polymer solution was not only lightweight, but also incredibly strong. In an interview, Kwolek said, “I knew that I had made a discovery”. She went on to add, “I didn’t shout ‘Eureka,’ but I was very excited, as was the whole laboratory excited, and management was excited because we were looking for something new, something different, and this was it.”

Unbeknownst to Kwolek, the polymer solution of poly-para-phenylene terephthalamide was displaying properties we now know to be that of a liquid crystal. When the same solution had been synthesised at high temperature, the resultant spun polymer fibres were weak and stiff, but at these much lower temperatures they were five times stronger than steel of the same weight.

This surprised both Kwolek and her colleagues. “Lest a mistake had been made, I did not report these unexpected results until I had the fibers retested several times,” she later said.

Kwolek also found that heat-treating these new fibers increased their strength; the rod-shaped molecules aligned and hydrogen bonds formed between them. This discovery led to a new area of research science on liquid crystal synthetic aromatic polyamide, or aramid, fibres. Thus, Kevlar was born.

Kevlar was launched onto the market in 1975 as a material that was resistant to wear, corrosion, flames and extreme temperatures, both high and low. There are currently more than 200 applications for Kevlar, in sports equipment (archery bows, tennis racquets and skis), transport (boats, cars and aeroplanes) and reinforcement (cables, ropes, tyres and car brakes). Kevlar has recently been incorporated into the Motorola Droid RAZR phone, which boasts a unibody of Kevlar to help protect it from the impact of drops and shocks.

It is also used in pipes to give them strength with flexibility, as my second year undergraduate students finally discovered when presented with a reverse engineering task as part of their lab course. The pipe consists mostly of white plastic, but close examination reveals a layer of a tell-tale yellow fibre. Considering how resistant the material is to most forms of treatment, the students found it very difficult to characterise, but eventually realised what they were dealing with.

Kwolek signed the patent for Kevlar over to DuPont so made no profit from it, and had no influence on its applications either. She was, however, the co-recipient of 17 American patents in total. Although she officially retired in 1986, Kwolek continued to work in consultancy and got involved in schools outreach to encourage children to take up science.

A lasting legacy

In 1994, Kwolek was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, one of only four women out of 113 members. In 1995, DuPont awarded her with the Lavoisier Medal, awarded for outstanding technical achievement and to this day, she is the only female employee ever to be honoured in such a way. In 1996, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology, acknowledging her general contributions to the area of polymer science, and the practical applications of her research. Again, this was an award rarely given to women, much like the Perkin Medal she received in 1997. Sir William Henry Perkin, for whom the medal is named, was a chemist in the Royal College of Chemistry, one of the constituent colleges of Imperial College. The medal has been awarded to the best American scientists for an “innovation in applied chemistry resulting in outstanding commercial development” since 1908, and is regarded as the highest honour that can be awarded in the US industrial chemical industry. Also in 1997, she was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame at the University of Massachusetts, remaining the only woman to be thus honoured until Dr Maureen Steinwall was inducted in 2015.

Kwolek appreciated the under-representation and lack of acknowledgement of women in science, and turned her hand to working with female scientists as a mentor, offering advice and guidance as their careers developed. When Kwolek died, DuPont’s chief executive Ellen Kullman described her as “a creative and determined chemist and a true pioneer for women in science”.

While carrying out my research on Kwolek, I was tempted to contact her, to let her know that I had chosen to write about her, and to perhaps let her know that not only are her contributions to science still valued and highly relevant in the context of modern life, but that her legacy as an early cheerleader for women in science continues to be felt. While awards and accolades are one form of appreciation and validation, during my research, I got the impression that she cared more about the real life impact of her work as a chemist, and as a supporter and mentor for women in science.

I regretfully missed my opportunity to contact Kwolek as she passed away on 18 June 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware at the age of 90. During the week of Kwolek’s death, the one millionth bullet-resistant vest was sold. The vests are sold as part of the standard uniform for many soldiers and law enforcement officers. In a 2007 interview with the Wilmington News Journal, Kwolek said, “At least I hope I am saving lives. There are very few people in their careers that have the opportunity to do something to benefit mankind”.

Further reading

Bregar, B. (2014), “Obituary: Kevlar Inventor Stephanie Kwolek”,

Chemical Heritage Foundation (2014c), “Stephanie L. Kwolek”,

About the author

Dr Sujata “Suze” Kundu is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials at Imperial College London. A nanochemist both literally and professionally, Suze’s research focuses on materials that can capture solar energy. She gives regular public lectures, is a presenter on the Discovery Channel, and is a contributor for Forbes Science and Standard Issue Magazine.

Twitter: @FunSizeSuze

A splendid regiment of women: 20th century archaeologists and palaeontologists

By Newnham College, Cambridge

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Victoria Herridge, Brenna Hassett and Suzanne Pilaar Birch

The familiar narrative of female scholars being sidelined by the establishment is well-entrenched, and deservedly so, given the ample examples available. But to tell heroic tales of the triumph of the lone female scholar misses a key point — networks and collaborations are vital to scientific success. It could also undermine the aggregate contribution of women, potentially allowing them to be dismissed as anomalies.

In this chapter we introduce four British women from the first half of the 20th century who worked in archaeology and palaeontology: Dorothy Garrod, Dorothea Bate, Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Kathleen Kenyon. Frequently presented as islands in an ocean of patriarchal academia, these and many other women were in fact more like a chain of sea mounts and, like these mountains rising from the ocean floor, we must look below the surface to find their true connected nature. Undoubtedly these women achieved much in their own right, but the untold story lies in how they acted as hubs, connecting each other and many other women like them — including us.

A splendid regiment

Women have been part of archaeological, palaeontological and geological research from the inception of these fields. Probably the most famous is Mary Anning who, in the early 1800s, found the first identified examples of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pterosaurs and was possibly the greatest fossil hunter ever.

By the first half of the 20th century these fields appear to be full of women, some working away quietly, others at the heart of major discoveries and advancements. As Glyn Daniel, a legendary figure in archaeology, wrote in an obituary for Dorothy Garrod, she was part of “a splendid regiment of women” marching the discipline forward during this time. Just one example of women in leadership roles is the Prehistoric Society in Britain, which had three female Presidents between 1921 and 1939, including two of the women we focus on. (Although it’s noticeable that following the end of Gertrude Caton-Thompson’s presidency in 1946, there were no further women in this role until exactly sixty years later.)

Apart from a handful of celebrities, such as Gertrude Bell, women’s achievements during this period are still mostly overlooked outside academic circles. Popular and scholarly works have sought to raise the prominence of particular women (examples being Women of Science, Breaking Ground and Ladies of the Field), yet reality is far removed from this picture of a few isolated bastions of female attainment. Not only were there a lot more women — hundreds, in fact — working in these fields than is commonly realised, they were linked by a complex web of connections. By weaving together the achievements of the four women highlighted in this chapter, we also highlight these research networks and how they influenced the future of the discipline.

Tea and sherry at Tibn Towers

From 1929 to 1934, an archaeological excavation took place at Mount Carmel, a Palaeolithic site in Palestine. There had already been varied fieldwork taking place across the Near and Middle East, but the Mount Carmel excavation was different. It was directed by Dorothy Garrod, a young prehistorian who had cut her teeth working with the greatest names of the day in France, and was now forging her own path into the virtually untouched prehistory of Palestine.

Just the year before, Garrod had been elected as the second female President of the Prehistoric Society (following the venerable Nina Layard). Having already worked in Kurdistan she now took charge of digging at El-Wad cave, a project which would last seven years and would see her defining cultural sequences for the region for decades to come. This cemented her reputation and touched the professional lives of many women.

That first 1929 spring season, although not by design, was made up of an international all-women team. Living together in tents, they quickly experienced the strange and wonderful mix of physical hardship, intellectual excitement and intimate friendship which develops on long field projects. The women with Garrod that year were Mary Kitson Clark, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth Kitson, and Elinor Ewbank from the UK, along with Dean Harriet M. Allyn and medical doctor Martha Hackett from the US. Working alongside them was a large local contingent of Arab women — an integral but now mostly unknown part of the team — who quickly became highly skilled at finding stone tools.

Thanks to the discovery of Garrod’s personal archive, including field notes and journals, a remarkable picture of life at Mount Carmel over the years can be drawn. The tents of the early seasons were replaced by mud-brick huts (tibn), known as “Tibn Towers”. Visitors were met as they came up “the Drive”, and tea and sherry were served regularly.

Pamela Jane Smith, who has worked extensively on Garrod’s archive, notes the frequent humour to be found in the team’s field diaries, despite the difficult conditions which included extreme heat and dust, bad water and serious illness of team members. There are also wonderful photographs, including Garrod relaxing with Yusra, one of the local women excavators. It was in fact Yusra who made a ground-breaking find when she discovered the skull of a Neanderthal, which she excavated with Jacquetta Hawkes. Hawkes later became a major name herself in archaeology, and is now best known for her work on the Minoan civilisation of Crete. Excavating with Garrod at Mount Carmel was her first experience of fieldwork.

Yusra dreamed of going to Cambridge to complete a degree in archaeology, but could not follow that path. However, others did move from digging at Mt Carmel to independent research. For example, Mary Kitson Clark went on to have a successful career in Roman archaeology, Elizabeth Kitson worked and published on palaeoanthropological sites in East Africa, while Elinor Ewbank became a chemist.

Many archaeologists worked with Garrod at Mount Carmel, and all three of the other women we have chosen to highlight visited or dug with her there: Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who remained Garrod’s life-long friend, and Kathleen Kenyon visited in the early 1930s; and Dorothea Bate, by that time a venerable animal bone specialist, dug there in 1934. But Tibn Towers is only one location in time and space that links the achievements of these remarkable women. A brief survey of their individual careers serves to underline their accomplishments as well as provide context for the networks between them.

Dorothy Garrod, 1892-1968

Dorothy Garrod is a monumental figure in 20th century prehistoric archaeology and, at least within academia, is mostly acknowledged as such. As the director of the excavations at Mount Carmel, she acts as a node around which we can trace contemporary research networks.

Though she had a degree in ancient history from Newnham College, Cambridge, and a diploma with distinction in Anthropology from Oxford, it was her time spent training in France in the 1920s at the cutting edge of prehistoric discovery that was most formative. She began her career digging there and would return to it towards the end of her years, still seeking to uncover what were then the earliest chapters in human history.

Garrod’s years in France were spent under the direction of the renowned prehistorian Abbé Breuil. She recalled that his approach to instruction had a way of opening up fresh perspectives. But over the course of the next few decades, it was her own work that would completely change academic and public perspectives on the earliest human past.

On one of Garrod’s first independent digs, at Devil’s Tower in Gibraltar, she found the remains of a Neanderthal child, whom she named “Abel”. Following her apprenticeship on the continent, she returned to the UK to write her first book, The Upper Palaeolithic Age in Britain, the first comprehensive overview of the Ice Age period.

The decade that had begun with her as a student on the continent ended not only with her election to the position of President of the Prehistoric Society in 1928, but also her first foray into the Near East, with the famous excavations she led at Mount Carmel. She was one of only a handful of people to work in that region and, in 1939, after years of ground-breaking work, her stellar rise within the field of archaeology culminated in her appointment to the Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. She was the first woman to be appointed to an academic Chair at either Oxford or Cambridge. While she remained in the position until she retired in 1952, it seems she found the world of faculty and lecturing more repressive than the freedom and pure intellectual excitement of fieldwork. In the spring of 1968, just a few months before her death, she was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal by the Society of Antiquaries.

This overview only scratches the surface of her deep contribution to the study of world prehistory and the advancement of archaeology as a scientific discipline. Over the course of her career, she worked at over 20 sites in France, Britain, Iraq, Palestine, Bulgaria and Lebanon. Through her groundbreaking appointment at the elite heart of academia she advanced the position of women considerably as professional scholars in all fields. And while at Cambridge she personally taught and trained many of the ever increasing numbers of women archaeologists.

Dorothea Bate, 1878-1951

By the time she first met Dorothy Garrod in 1923, Dorothea Bate was a well-known and established fossil mammal expert, and twenty-five years into what would be a fifty-two year long career. Dorothea Bate was working at the Natural History Museum, where women were only allowed to be employed as permanent scientific staff in 1928. Bate’s status at the museum was therefore unofficial and paid only on a per-fossil-curated basis. Nevertheless, her academic reputation was the equal of many of her male colleagues. She was widely published, funded by the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and discoverer of ten new species of birds and mammals — both living and extinct. Her achievements in the first half of her career at the NHM are a testament to her tenacity, determination and intelligence, qualities that were clearly apparent from the outset.

In 1898, aged just nineteen, Dorothea Bate had a now infamous interview with the Natural History Museum’s curator of birds, Dr Richard Bowdler-Sharpe. She wanted to work with him and he told her to go away; she did not. Instead, she so impressed him with her ornithological knowledge that within three years, Bate had become part of the museum’s research community — the first woman to do so — and had published her first scientific paper. Her work on the Pleistocene, or Ice Age, fossils found in a British cave near her home in the Wye Valley confirmed her credentials as a serious researcher, and served her as a training ground for her first pioneering expedition, to Cyprus in April 1901.

In Cyprus (1901-1902) and then Crete (1903), Bate’s main aim was to find the fossil remains of extinct mammals, particularly the remains of dwarf elephants and hippopotamus. Her efforts were rewarded on both trips, discovering a new species of dwarf straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon cypriotes) on Cyprus, while on Crete she found dwarf hippopotamus, dwarf deer as well as what we now know to be a dwarf mammoth. Five years later, on Mallorca, she made an even more extraordinary discovery — the fossilised remains of a tiny-brained, goat-like creature, with huge forward facing eyes, ever-growing mouse-like front teeth, and very short legs. Nothing like it had been seen before, and its strangeness required the naming of a new genus, as well as a new species. Bate named it Myotragus balearicus: the mouse goat of the Balearics.

She took considerable risks on her field trips. There were the day-to-day dangers and exertions of the expeditions themselves when she would travel by foot or by mule, often alone except for local (male) guides. But she also braved more substantial hazards when she scaled limestone cliffs or, if the cliffs proved too vertiginous, swam through the sea in search of bone caves she had heard of from local shepherds, or even criminal antiquities smugglers. And when she finally found fossils, sometimes after weeks of searching, she would excavate by any means she could, including explosives, in all weathers and often through high fevers.

The outbreak of the First World War, however, saw a shift in Dorothea Bate’s career from amateur towards professional, and from student to teacher. Her academic achievements were accumulating and the Natural History Museum increasingly needed her skills. After World War One, Bate was completely ensconced within the museum and although she was still not on the permanent staff, she had developed from a woman who sought advice from experts into the expert that others turned to, whenever an ice age fossil mammal from Britain or the Mediterranean needed identifying. Finally in 1948, at almost seventy years old, Dorothea Bate was given her first official position at the Natural History Museum: Officer in Charge at Tring. She stayed in that role, continuing to work and publish on fossil mammals right up to her death in January 1951.

Gertrude Caton-Thompson, 1888-1985

Unlike Dorothea Bate, Gertrude Caton-Thompson came to a scholarly path late in life. Her interest in archaeology was apparently sparked when she visited historical sites on holidays as a young woman, and when she attended lectures on ancient Greek cultures at the British Museum. In 1915 she had her first taste of field work as a volunteer at an excavation of a Palaeolithic site in France. Later she attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 where she met Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, both known for their historical and cultural interests in the Middle East. Her interest in archaeology thus strengthened, she turned down a permanent civil service job in the early 1920s, instead embarking upon a life of studying ancient civilisations.

Caton-Thompson began her archaeological education in 1921, studying surveying, Arabic and Egyptology with Margaret Murray at University College London. She went on her first major excavation at the great Egyptian site of Abydos, a dig run by Flinders Petrie, a key figure in Egyptology. As part of this project, she worked independently at other sites in the country, including digging an early Christian site she discovered with Hilda Petrie, Flinders’s wife, whose own contributions to his projects are frequently overlooked.

Caton-Thompson went on to collaborate with Dorothea Bate in the excavation of the prehistoric cave of Ghar Dalam, Malta, before returning to work on settlement sites in Egypt. With the geologist Elinor Wight Gardner, who would later become another of Garrod’s Mt Carmel diggers, in 1924 she began one of the first archaeological inter-disciplinary research projects, a survey of the Al-Fayyūm region.

Caton-Thompson moved swiftly onto one of her greatest achievements, when in 1929 she investigated the enormously impressive site of Great Zimbabwe, then within the British colony of Rhodesia. Her work here proved that not only was this monumental site the work of an indigenous African culture, but that it had been a great empire with trade links to the Indian Ocean. Following this, Gertrude returned to North Africa to survey the Kharga Oasis in the Sahara Desert, and in 1937 she undertook her last field campaign, this time working outside Africa in Arabia. This was the first major excavation undertaken in the region, and she collaborated once again with Elinor Gardner, while the writer and traveller Freya Stark joined them for her Arabian expertise. Although Caton-Thompson and Gardner were good friends, Stark did not get on well with either of them, and wrote a long, thinly-veiled attack on the pair and their field trip once it was over.

Returning to Britain, in 1939 Caton-Thompson started her stint as the longest-serving President of Prehistoric Society, less than ten years after Dorothy Garrod. Not long before her death in 1985, Caton-Thompson was made a fellow of University College, London. During her career she received many awards, including being the joint-first woman to be awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge and, in 1944, was the second woman to be elected to the British Academy.

Despite a privileged upbringing, including a stint in a French finishing school, Caton-Thompson seems to have grabbed hold of the independence and excitement offered by life as an archaeologist, and at times she needed to be tough. She caught malaria several times, and there are various stories of rough times and dangers during fieldwork, including disturbing a leopard while out surveying, and walking all night when Elinor’s team became stranded in the desert without water.

Kathleen Kenyon, 1906-1978

Dame Kathleen Kenyon, or “K” as she was known to friends, is perhaps the least slighted by public memory of the pioneering female figures discussed here — it would be very difficult to argue that anyone made a Dame of the British Empire could be considered overlooked by history. Her cut-glass voice and imposing physical presence are instantly recognisable in the many high profile radio and television documentaries she featured in. In particular, the 1956 BBC television program Buried Treasure: The Walls of Jericho, available from the BBC4 online archive, portrays a confident presence, evincing little hesitation as she outlines the massive enterprise of her sensational archaeological excavation of the biblical city of Jericho.

Kenyon’s first experience in archaeology was a grand adventure, even for a socially privileged young woman: she took the boat to Africa to work with Gertrude Caton-Thompson at the Great Zimbabwe site. After this character-forming experience, she took to fieldwork in earnest, working on many British sites with Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler, two major figures in the field.

Following work in the Near East, Kenyon was integral to the foundation of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London in 1937, and Kenyon is visible in archival photographs swathed in fur and seated front and centre in this modern academic enterprise. This image of Kenyon represents a transition from the hard-nosed, female scientific explorer codified by her predecessors towards something more recognisable as a modern academic. With Kenyon, we see institutional change in how a woman archaeologist might carry off a career. She enjoyed a long tenure as a respected academic, including important methodological contributions to field archaeology such as the Wheeler-Kenyon system of excavation, which ensures she is remembered for more than being a remarkable women at a time when women were not widely remarked upon.

It was Kenyon’s involvement with the Institute of Archaeology that had the biggest impact on the image of women in archaeology for our modern generation of academics. She is still remembered there as a dominating presence who traveled the halls of the Institute with her pack of noisy, beloved dogs, paying no heed to the terror her presence might strike in the more nervous sort of student. Her memory is alive and well in the institution she dedicated her life to, not as an abstract historical figure, of interest as much for her gender as her work, but as a confident, capable archaeologist.

Perhaps one of the most compelling images of Kenyon comes from the UCL archives of her work at Jericho. In a thoroughly modern image, she stands centred and still, hands on hips, in a denim shirt and matching flared skirt, as a sea of workmen, wheelbarrows, dust and activity eddies around her. The picture was taken nearly 70 years ago, but it could be an image from any of the large present-day excavations which are headed by the women who followed in her footsteps.

Joining the dots

The preceding biographies give a flavour of the impact of just a few of the women who were working in archaeology and palaeontology at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They all crossed paths at Garrod’s Mount Carmel excavation, but beyond this there are many other links which can be traced between them.

As the most senior of the four women in age and research experience, Dorothea Bate influenced both Dorothy Garrod and Gertrude Caton-Thompson by sharing her expertise in fossil animals. In 1922, she trained Caton-Thompson to identify animal remains in advance of her excavations at Ghar Dalam cave in Malta, and then, in 1923, helped Garrod with British Ice Age remains for her book The Upper Palaeolithic Age in Britain. In both cases, this marked the beginnings of life-long friendship and collaboration: Bate later worked with Garrod on Devil’s Tower in Gibraltar and Shukbah Cave, Palestine, and was a key figure in the large network of women archaeologists in the Middle East during the 1920s and 1930s. As well as excavating at Mount Carmel in 1934, Bate worked with Caton-Thompson’s friend and frequent collaborator, geologist Elinor Gardiner, in Bethlehem in 1937.

Dorothy Garrod and Gertrude Caton-Thompson, broadly contemporaries in age and with similar research interests, were also friends, corresponding regularly. Caton-Thompson held a Fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge during Garrod’s tenure, and followed in her footsteps by heading the Prehistoric Society. Much later, Caton-Thompson wrote an obituary for Garrod in 1969, giving some measure of the closeness of their professional and personal relationship.

Caton-Thompson also greatly influenced Kathleen Kenyon, who as we have heard, had her first fieldwork experience with her at Great Zimbabwe, which was another all-woman excavation (excluding local workmen). This seems to have been an equally enthralling and terrifying experience for the young Kathleen. She used her skills in photography to record finds, supervised her own trenches independently, and put her knowledge of automobiles to good use by looking after the project vehicle.

But Kenyon found Caton-Thompson a formidable supervisor and while clearly relishing the expeditions they took together to survey other regional sites, Caton-Thompson’s bluntness and hands-off approach as a teacher was intimidating. Following this challenging but exciting experience, Kenyon embarked upon other fieldwork, including at St Albans in Britain, where she found Tessa Wheeler a much more patient mentor, and at Samaria in Palestine with the Crowfoot family (having already met one of their daughters, Joan, on the St Albans digs). During the Samaria digs Kenyon visited Garrod’s Mt Carmel project and, presumably, was entertained in style at Tibn Towers.

Kenyon had therefore been at the centre of research environments full of women during her formative years, and the connections she forged undoubtedly stood her in good stead later in her career. For example, Garrod served on the committee which recommended Kenyon for her lectureship at the Institute of Archaeology.

Kenyon became a mentor herself, as her Jericho digs were a training ground for key figures in the next generation of women archaeologists, including those like Diana Kirkbride who came from less privileged backgrounds. That is the legacy of the Dame in the denim skirt; not the end of a string of notable women but rather a firm foundation of a professional, academic role for women in archaeology.

The careers of these four women mark a shift from largely self-funded “amateur” to professional academic. Dorothea Bate’s own career neatly illustrates this shift: from being the first woman scientist at the Natural History Museum, where she cut a lone female figure amongst the frock-coats and whiskers, she ended her career — finally — with a prestigious and permanent job, and part of a large and dynamic network of researchers that included many, many women, some of whom she had helped to train.

Bate was part of a trailblazing wave of British women, including Nina Layard, who corresponded with Dorothy Garrod about stone tools; Margaret Murray, who taught Gertrude Caton-Thompson; and Tessa Wheeler, who trained Kathleen Kenyon. And across the Atlantic, in the halls of America’s women’s colleges, another splendid regiment was forming, with their own links to the British contingent, for example, Harriet Boyd Hawes and Edith Hall Dohlan, whom Dorothea Bate met back in 1904 on the former’s excavations in Crete.

Younger generations of archaeologists owed a lot to Bate and company for the barriers they broke down at various institutions, and the support and encouragement they provided. Still later generations owe a similar debt to Garrod and Kenyon and their contemporaries through demonstrating that it was possible to direct enormous field projects, and to ascend the upper echelons of academia. Dorothy Garrod was the first woman to hold a Professorial chair at either Cambridge or Oxford, paving the way for women throughout academia, not just in archaeology. Kathleen Kenyon was acting director of the Institute of Archaeology in London during World War Two, and went on to be Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (1956-67), and then Principal of St Hugh’s College Oxford (1962-73). Although others proved that years of fieldwork did not necessarily mean academic recognition: Gertrude Caton-Thompson was a respected researcher with a huge amount of fieldwork behind her (and was reputedly also considered for the chair awarded to Garrod), but for the most part she did not have the recognition of a permanent position.

Keeping the trowels blazing in the 21st century

As early career researchers in archaeology and palaeontology, we had all heard of various women in these fields. Some individuals’ research we knew intimately, for example VH’s own research on dwarf elephant fossils necessitated delving deeply into Dorothea Bate’s work and original archives. Others we had vignettes of in our minds, as figures of legend within the story of archaeology as a discipline, such as Kathleen Kenyon and Dorothy Garrod. Wanting to celebrate the contributions of women to archaeology, palaeontology and geology, we joined forces to create an online project: TrowelBlazers. We hoped to harness the power of social networks to raise the profile of pioneer women researchers, and to build a community that supports and values the contributions of women researchers today.

As we began to research these trowelblazers, we were struck by the sheer numbers of women scientists and how they connected and supported each other: digging together, advising and collaborating, training later generations. Not only were these women often working long-term with particular individuals (see figure on, they were all woven into an extraordinarily wide web. The complexity of connections is fascinating, but we think it indicates something more important: that networks matter.

Today archaeology has better gender parity statistics than many other scientific disciplines, with an older generation in senior roles, and more women than ever joining the profession, creating ever-renewing connections of training, mentoring and collaborations (as can also be seen in palaeontology and geology). Could this stem from the highly developed and integrated early networks of women that worked together, and competed with each other?

Women in archaeology, geology and palaeontology, individually and together, made enormous advances right from the start of these scientific fields. It is both their scholarly achievements and their research community building that we find inspiring, and hope others do too.


We humbly acknowledge the enormous amount of work done on the history of women in the fields of archaeology, geology and palaeontology that we rely on for this chapter and the TrowelBlazers blog. In particular we thank Pamela Jane Smith, who has spent many years researching Dorothy Garrod, and has been generous in her support of our efforts to open up this amazing story to a new audience; and Karolyn Shindler, biographer of Dorothea Bate, who has been a great source of information and supportive friend to VH — both in respect to this chapter and to VH’s scientific research. A huge amount of original research on Caton-Thompson, Garrod and Kenyon can be found in GM Cohen and MS Joukowsky’s brilliant 2006 book, Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists, which formed the basis for our network figure (available on and much of this chapter. We include in the bibliography further sources we have used in writing this chapter.

Further reading

Cohen, GM & Joukowsky, MS (2006), Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists, University of Michigan.

Davies, M (2008), Dame Kathleen Kenyon: Digging up the Holy Land, Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Irwin-Williams, C (1990), “Women in the Field. The Role of Women in Archaeology before 1960”, in Kass-Simon, G & Farnes, P (eds) Women of Science; Righting the Record, Indiana University Press, pp. 1-41.

Shindler, K (2005), Discovering Dorothea, London: Harper Collins.

Smith, PJ (2009), A Splendid Idiosyncrasy: Prehistory at Cambridge 1915-50, BAR British Series 485, Oxford: Oxbow.

Buried Treasure: The Walls of Jericho (1956). BBC documentary about Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at Jericho. Viewable online at

Full bibliography available on

About the authors

 Twitter: @trowelblazers

Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a Palaeolithic archaeologist, specialising in the Neandertals. She is fascinated by this incredibly adaptable and successful ancient human species, and is passionate about improving their still lamentable public image as the ‘losers of the Ice Age’. She is a stone tool (lithic) expert, scientific writer and consultant. Her postdoctoral research project, funded by the European Commission 7th Framework, involved exploring Neandertal landscapes and territories by looking at the technology and transport of stone tools from sites in the Massif Central, southeast France.

Twitter: @LeMoustier
Bloomsbury author page:

Victoria Herridge

Victoria Herridge is a palaeobiologist at the Natural History Museum, London. She researches the evolution of dwarf elephants on Mediterranean islands, and uses the field notes and diaries of scientists like Dorothea Bate to rediscover the sites that the museum’s dwarf elephant fossils originally came from.

Twitter: @ToriHerridge
Bloomsbury author page:

Brenna Hassett

Brenna Hassett is a physical anthropologist and archaeologist, and Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. Her research interests focus on understanding childhood health, growth, and development by studying human remains, particularly teeth. She has worked on a wide variety of archaeological material and sites ranging from the Upper Palaeolithic to the 18th century AD, and from a variety of locations including Egypt, England, Greece, Thailand and Turkey.

Twitter: @brennawalks
Bloomsbury author page:

Suzanne Pilaar Birch

Suzanne Pilaar Birch is an Associate Professor in Anthropology and Geography and directs the Quaternary Isotope Paleoecology Lab, University of Georgia, US. Her research interests include understanding the effects of climate change and human-animal-environmental interactions in the past. She has worked on a range of archaeological projects spanning from US to Croatia, Turkey, Kazakhstan and China.

Twitter: @suzie_birch
Academic website:

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: What is the Universe made of?

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin sqOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Alice Sheppard

Cecilia Helena Payne was a hugely successful astronomer who discovered the composition of stars when she was 25. She is well known in astronomical circles, but few others know her name despite the significance of her discovery. She was, as fellow astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit remembered many years after her death, “the most brilliant and at the same time the person most discriminated-against at Harvard College Observatory”.

A note on names: Payne is remembered by many names. She is often referred to by her first name or, after she married, as Mrs G. These days, she would be Dr or Professor Payne-Gaposchkin, which seems more appropriate given her achievements. In this account, as we watch her age and status change, Cecilia, Payne, Payne-Gaposchkin or Mrs G will all refer to her.

A bright streak of inspiration

Cecilia Payne was born in 1900 to upper-class but close and loving parents. She was the eldest of three children: two girls and a boy. Humfry, her brother, arrived when she was two and Leonora when she was four. Cecilia’s parents encouraged her love of music, books and stories: Her father began playing scales on the recorder to her when she was two weeks old “to educate” her ear and it was her mother, not a servant, who took her for walks in the pram.

Early in life, Cecilia noticed that opportunities were opened to men first in her own family. Although she got on well with her brother, she felt, from the beginning, that it was Humfry “who really mattered.” Cecilia and Leonora were expected to make themselves “scarce” if Humfry had friends to visit, and Cecilia felt that he was paid the most attention by other adult friends and relatives too. It was imperative that Humfry be helped and financed to go to university; the girls were left to make their own arrangements.

Tragedy struck the Payne family early in the children’s lives, when their father, Edward, died suddenly when Cecilia was four. Edward had been in his sixties, having married late in life. He seems to have had a heart attack and fallen into a river while taking a solitary walk. Cecilia never forgot “that terrible day”, and her mother, Emma, always wept at the mention of him. It was also a financial disaster for the family. Although Edward had run a legal practice, earning a living was not considered respectable in their class, and Emma had no means of making money.

Young Cecilia was an intelligent child who relished learning, and she had a glimpse of her future live before she had even gone to school. “At the age of five Cecilia saw a meteor, and thereupon decided to be an Astronomer. She remarked that she must begin quickly, in case there should be no research left when she grew up,” wrote one of Cecilia’s university friends, Betty Grierson Leaf in a 1923 essay.

When Cecilia was 12, the family moved to London for Humfry’s education. Cecilia badly missed the countryside and disliked her new school, whose emphasis was on religious education at the expense of science subjects — she knew the Bible very well and was annoyed both when people misquoted it or took it too literally. One of her teachers, Dorothy Dalglish, noticing her insatiable appetite for science, gave her an astronomy book and taught her botany, the science of plants. Cecilia had been keeping a collection of dried plants, but Dalglish instructed her to learn to draw them instead. For many years after, she planned on a career either in botany or as an actress because outside school the Payne children were involved with a drama group.

Despite all these successes, she seems to have been lonely. She felt unpopular, and safest remaining silent after older students were admonished for being beaten by her in a test. She sometimes sneaked in to the science classroom to admire its bottles of elements: “the warp and woof” of what the world is made of. (It was only recently that the existence of atoms had been established for certain.)

Growing up, most of the relatives the children saw were women and, while few women went to university in those days, Cecilia’s relatives gave her early encouragement to study science. Aunt Katherine, was a relative of Charles Lyell — the great geologist and colleague of Charles Darwin — and another aunt, Aunt Dora had been to Newnham College, Cambridge. This inspired Cecilia, and she longed to go there too. Indeed, she also often longed to ask her aunts about Lyell and Darwin’s scientific work, but seldom plucked up the courage.

Another, much less liked aunt wished to find Cecilia a rich husband, but she indignantly rejected the notion. Besides the fact that she would have little dowry, she had every intention of going to university and having a career.

When she was seventeen, Cecilia changed schools to St Paul’s, which had a much stronger emphasis on science subjects. She especially enjoyed physics and was fascinated by relativity, a theory about ten years old by this time. When she heard “everything is relative,” she wondered “relative to what?” and the excitement of the thought was like an earthquake to her.

She worked very hard to prepare for her time at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied natural sciences. “The time had come when learning from others was not enough. I wanted to pursue the frontiers for myself,” she wrote in 1979.

Looking to the stars at Cambridge

Cecilia arrived at Cambridge in the happy — for the young — atmosphere of post-war 1919. The university was struggling due to financial cuts and the deaths in the war of many of its younger male staff, but Cecilia’s generation were optimistic for the future. However, women had only started to be admitted within the previous few decades, and were not granted degrees. Several times in the late 1800s and early 1900s the question of whether to grant women degrees had been raised, but each time many male students protested. They burnt an effigy of a woman on a bicycle in the market square in 1897 and battered down the gates of Newnham College in 1921, while Cecilia was a student there. Both times the motion was defeated. There were a few women tutors, but none were able to hold official positions or have a say in university affairs until 1948.

Cecelia studied natural sciences, a four-year course in which students chose three science subjects for the first three years, and one for the final year. She chose botany, chemistry and physics but was disappointed by the first two, especially botany. While she wished to “make new theories”, and was especially interested in evolution, the lecturers and demonstrators merely wished her to amass long-known information and to ignore all theories and specimens not on her course.

The physics department, however, was bubbling with excitement. Famous figures such as Niels Bohr, Francis Aston, and Ernest Rutherford visited to give lectures. Best of all, the astronomy department’s Arthur Stanley Eddington, a highly accomplished mathematician and astronomer, had just returned from a successful mission to test relativity, thus making Albert Einstein famous. Having demonstrated that the Sun deflected the path of light in a manner consistent with Einstein’s theory, a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, Eddington gave a lecture to a packed hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, in autumn 1919.

Cecilia was so fascinated by Eddington’s lecture that she was unable to sleep for three days. She went back to her student room, where studying after 11pm was only allowed by candlelight, and wrote down the entire lecture from memory. The next day she went to her advisors and announced that she wished to drop botany and chemistry in favour of physics and astronomy. As astronomy was part of the mathematics department (and still is in many universities) she was not able to transfer courses; but she took her botany, chemistry and physics third-year exams a year early, allowing herself two years to concentrate on physics entirely and to attend astronomy lectures in her own time.

One night, Cambridge observatory held an open night to the public. Cecilia, who had been reading every astronomy book she could find, asked many questions of the demonstrator that he could not answer, such as why two stars clearly the same age were different colours. (Star colour is determined by its mass, not its age.) Eventually, the demonstrator scurried away to fetch Eddington, telling him frantically that “there’s a woman out there asking questions”.

Before he ran off to find Eddington, the demonstrator told Cecilia that she was now in charge, propelling her instantly from a member of the audience to an impromptu replacement lecturer. She began to tell the audience about the telescope’s current view, the “Andromeda spiral”, which was then thought to be a nebula inside our galaxy but is actually a spiral galaxy much like our own. She was holding a small child up to see the spiral when she realised that Eddington was standing behind her, and leapt at the chance to ask him for some careers advice.

To her delight, Eddington said that he “could see no insuperable objection” to her becoming an astronomer – words which sustained her many times later. Most female science graduates at the time became teachers, if anything. Botany was deemed a dainty and therefore acceptable subject for women; but physics and astronomy were male disciplines.

This was hit home very forcefully to Cecilia when she began to attend physics lectures by Ernest Rutherford, the hero of experimental science. Rutherford was very popular among his fellow scientists. His kindness was remarked on by many, but he seems to have enjoyed humiliating Cecilia. She was frequently the only women in his lectures, and the rules stipulated that she must sit alone at the front, which made her especially vulnerable to his condescending gaze. He would begin his lectures “pointedly” with “Ladies … and gentlemen.” Many male students laughed uproariously and even applauded and stamped their feet. Cecilia never forgot this, and for the rest of her life sat at the back of lecture theatres whenever she could.

To complicate matters, Rutherford’s only daughter, Eileen, was also a Newnham student, and she and Cecilia became friends. Eileen invited Cecilia to her house for dinner. She liked Eileen very much, so she went. Afterwards Eileen told her that her father had said: “She’s not interested in you, my dear, she’s just interested in me.”

Cecilia was incandescent. It was plain that nothing she did, academically or socially, would make Rutherford take her seriously. She seems to have made a conscious decision at this point to apply herself more to astrophysics than her own degree course, and eventually started skipping physics practicals in order to do her own research. If such behaviour seems defeatist or like a display of temper, it was also common sense. She wished to pursue a research career, and Rutherford treating her as an amusement rather than a scientist was a guarantee that physics would not be made available to her.

Rutherford’s behaviour must have been all the more insulting considering that he had previously worked with and admired another female physicist, Harriet Brooks, on radioactivity. Sadly, the very accomplished Brooks had been unable to continue her career due to a wish to get married. Her — female! — boss had insisted she resign, explaining that she would not hire a woman of such poor morals as to put her work before her husband, nor a less useful woman who put her husband before her work. Cecilia also worried that Rutherford might have touched on an element of truth, that she had hoped to gain his respect by entering his house and had thus accepted a favour, which she vowed never to do again.

She was much happier in the company of Eddington and his students and colleagues, where she clearly always felt welcome. On one occasion, she chose to introduce herself to an astronomer by shouting up to him as he worked on the roof, “I have come to ask why the Stark effect is not observed in stellar spectra.” The Stark effect is the shifting and splitting of spectral lines, and was yet another question that the science of the day had not answered. Cecilia examined the effect for herself in later years.

Eddington, who some found difficult and who is remembered for ridiculing Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s predictions of the collapse of heavy stars, was a kind and insightful mentor to Cecilia. He set her two pieces of original research to do: one practical, one theoretical; one she could solve, and one she could not. The practical research was measuring the individual movements of the stars in an open cluster. There were photographic plates from 1903, 1908, 1921 and 1923 which provided a record of the positions of stars at those times. Although all stars move around the centre of our galaxy, they do so at different rates, and many clusters are gravitationally bound, so the stars exhibit motions relative to each other. Cecilia had therefore been given a 20 year record of star positions but, as their movement was three-dimensional, it was a complex problem. Cecilia’s work led to her first paper, Proper motions of the stars in the neighbourhood of M36 (NGC 1960). The paper is largely tables of each star’s position, but her language is already that of the established scientist, mentioning by name the use of many different scientists’ methods.

The other problem was a mathematical examination of the interior of a star. No one knew why stars shine. Some thought that it might be due to atomic energy, but Rutherford had pointed out that such energy was too feeble. Stars’ interiors could not be examined directly, of course, but it was possible to discern the mass of various stars orbiting each other by examining their rates of orbit. Eddington had already worked out that pressure and temperature must greatly increase towards the core of the star. He set Cecilia a problem of a “model star” and asked her to integrate all its properties, from the core to the surface. Calculators were not available at the time and there were so many unknowns, especially when she tried taking into account the star’s rotation, that she was unable to find a solution. Eddington reassured her that he too had tried and failed!

In her final year at Cambridge, a friend took Cecilia along to a talk in London given by an American astronomer: Harlow Shapley of Harvard College Observatory, Massachusetts. Cecilia, who could be a very serious person, disliked his attempts at humour in the lecture but was otherwise enthralled. She knew by then that “there was no future for me in England other than teaching” which, having tasted real scientific research, seemed to her like “an abyss opening beneath my feet”, and asked him if she could come and work under him. She was most upset not to get a First for her degree, later putting it down to both her own preoccupation with her astronomical research and sexism on the part of one of the examiners. However, she did win a scholarship, the second ever to be given to a woman, to move from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She remained at the latter for her entire career.

A stellar discovery

When Cecilia arrived at Harvard in the autumn of 1923, thousands of photographs of stars had been taken. They were stored as black and white images on plates of glass, all still present in the archives of Harvard College Observatory. Each star is a black dot on a white background, with a tiny smear of a spectrum at its side, no more than a centimetre across.

Edward Charles Pickering, director of the observatory at Harvard from 1877 until he died in 1919, had discovered a method to measure multiple spectra of stars by putting a prism in front of a photographic plate. The prism splits the light into a rainbow, but some wavelengths were missing. Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff had discovered that when heated to a very high temperature, various elements produced very thin, bright lines of particular colours — often the very colours, or wavelengths, that were missing from the solar spectrum.

This provided a way to work how which elements were present by looking at which wavelengths are missing from the spectrum, because the burning elements absorb those wavelengths of light. Pickering, along with Williamina Fleming, studied these spectra and developed a classification system of stars which will be familiar to all students of astronomy. Pickering, Fleming and Fleming’s successor Annie Jump Cannon developed a classification system which included O, B, A, F, G, K and M-type stars, with later astronomers adding S, L and T. Fleming’s original classification had been alphabetical, with A stars apparently showing the most hydrogen. This system was then replaced by Cannon’s, which ranked stars by temperature, and ended up with O-type stars as the hottest.

Cecilia had expected to study photometry, the study of the positioning of stars, under Shapley, but her attention soon turned to spectroscopy, which was to become the love of her scientific life. Although the spectra could show which elements were present in stars, they could not shed light on their abundance. Things were complicated further by the fact that ionised atoms — atoms which have lost some of their electrons, which is the case for most atoms in stars — have different spectra to non-ionised atoms. The solar spectrum was a forest of lines, but it was clear that stars contained atoms of the same types that were found on Earth, despite the fact that their behaviour, as an unimaginably hot gas, was very different.

By the time that Cecilia arrived at Harvard, Pickering and Fleming had all died. But Cannon was still there, working under Harlow Shapley. Cecilia liked the rest of her new colleagues: Cannon was “extraordinarily kind” to her, and she got on especially Adelaide Ames, who had won the scholarship to Harvard a year before her and became Shapley’s scientific assistant. Cecilia and Adelaide gained the nickname of the “Heavenly Twins”, which is also a nickname for the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini.

Shapley was a charismatic, encouraging and much-loved boss, known as “DD” standing for “Dear Director”; but he was manipulative and tightly controlled his workforce. Shapley noticed whenever a staff member was not at her desk, and wrote enquiring notes to any absentees. He planned work in “girl-hours” and played individuals off against each other. He asked Cecilia, “Do you realise how easily Miss Cannon could have chucked a monkey wrench into the works for you?”, creating worry that Cannon might jealously guard her thousands of spectra from the new student brought along to examine them. He brought in another student, Donald Menzel, to work on spectra alongside Cecilia, but set them up to regard each other as a threat rather than allow them to work together. He let Cecilia know he expected her to be “disturbed” at her fellow student’s presence, and insisted that Menzel work on cooler stars and Payne on hotter ones. Decades later, Menzel became her boss, and they finally became friends with Shapley no longer around.

Why do stars have different spectra?

Whilst working on the spectra problem, Payne discovered the work of the Indian physicist Meghnad Saha, whose Saha equation predicts what proportion of atoms of a particular element would be ionised at a given temperatures. She also found a 1923 paper by two Cambridge scientists, Fowler and Milne, which used Saha’s equation to analyse absorption lines in spectra.

Payne realised, using the work of all three plus the Harvard plates, that some elements were much more easily ionised than others. Calcium, for instance, let go of its electrons easily and thus produced many absorption lines. Hydrogen, on the other hand, only has one electron which is close to its nucleus and is thus hard to ionise.

As Payne described it in 1952: “At the sun’s temperature nearly all the calcium atoms are in the right state to emit light, but the atom of hydrogen is more recalcitrant, and is only about one-millionth as prone to emit as calcium at 6000°C. Hydrogen atoms are more than ten thousand times as common as atoms of calcium, but even so, the lines they produce in the spectrum of the sun are less than one-hundredth as intense.”

After struggling with the spectra for nearly two years, and impressing Shapley by refusing to publish a paper on her work until she was fully satisfied that she had solved the problem, Payne drafted what today would be considered her PhD thesis in the summer of 1925. It was to be examined by the imposing and especially accomplished astronomer Henry Norris Russell. Payne feared Russell, observing that “his word could make or break a young scientist.”

Payne had solved the problem of why stars had different spectra. It was nothing to do with their composition, as was thought, because they all had a very similar composition, and was everything to do with their temperature. Different types of atom become ionised at different temperatures, and so the amount of ionisation indicates the star’s temperature. For most stars, temperature is an indication of mass, and mass dictates all other properties such as a star’s luminosity, its lifetime, and whether it will die a white dwarf, a neutron star or a black hole.

The discovery was no less than the composition of the entire Universe. Ancient Greek astronomer Anaxagoras had proposed that the Sun was a ball of white-hot iron not much bigger than Greece and, until Payne’s thesis, predictions had not got much further than that. Iron and nickel are the most common elements on the Earth, though most are found in the core, and Payne had shown that other elements such as silicon and carbon existed in the same ratio in the Sun as on the Earth. That meant there was no particular reason to think that two rare gases, hydrogen and helium, should be abundant there.

She had concluded that hydrogen and helium were vastly more abundant than on Earth, hydrogen one million times more common than most other elements. But her examiner Russell, probably out of sensible caution rather than malice, told her that result was impossible so Payne pragmatically watered down her thesis. She still gave her figures for hydrogen and helium, whilst hedging her bets by stating that they were probably “spurious and almost certainly not real”.

Payne called the book of her thesis Stellar Atmospheres: A Contribution to the Observational Study of Matter at High Temperatures. It was over 200 pages long, yet highly readable, explaining all the new quantum theories that had made her findings possible. It was, said her greatly respected colleague, Otto Struve, “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy” and “full of useful suggestions for the practical worker. Nearly every page contains references to problems which are open to investigation by the spectroscopist.”

Denied her due

Payne’s book was very well received by the astronomical community, selling 600 copies, which was rather a lot for a book of its type. But not everyone gave Payne her due. Her old Cambridge mentor, Eddington, wrote that the result was “less extraordinary than one might think” and that perhaps she had discovered that “there was a lot of hydrogen on the Sun” rather than inside it. He thought that, like the Earth, perhaps the heaviest elements were in the core and the lightest on the surface. In fact, Payne’s result rescued Eddington’s own hypothesis about how the Sun shone: nuclear fusion required the conversion of hydrogen into helium. And Payne’s old nemesis, Rutherford, is said to have remarked triumphantly to a friend: “My daughter’s friend is doing well in astrophysics, an understatement in the light of Stellar Atmospheres.”

Payne’s result should have made her world-famous, but it was not fully accepted until a few years later, when Henry Norris Russell himself drew together enough independent evidence to be certain that it was not a mistake. Research by Stewart and Unsöld, working independently on spectral lines, also showed a huge abundance of hydrogen. Four years after Payne’s thesis, Russell later wrote of the various strands of evidence, “The most important previous determination of the abundance of the elements by astrophysical means is that by Miss Payne.”

Unfortunately, Russell himself is often credited with the discovery, rather than Payne, Stewart and Unsöld.

Owen Gingerich, Astronomer Emeritus at Harvard University, who prides himself on being Payne’s favourite ever PhD student, suggests that today’s sense of injustice at Payne’s obscurity may be somewhat exaggerated. “In the end it was Russell who had the connections and the maturity to bring the many threads of evidence together, and the prestige to persuade the community of the validity of the result,” he wrote in 2000. “Cecilia Payne’s thesis had clearly played a seminal role in the development of astrophysics … Like Moses, she had glimpsed the promised land, but hadn’t quite got there.”

She had, however, other achievements for which she seems to have earned at least unofficial respect at the time. She had made stars simple: they only appeared to have different compositions, and different spectra, because their different masses and temperatures led to different states of ionisation. They were, fundamentally, all the same. She had, as Gingerich states, solved “a hot problem in astrophysics. Her solution was so ingenious and satisfactory that it essentially turned the temperature problem into a non-problem, with the result that astronomers tended to forget the significance of this achievement and its consequences.”

Payne was young, but the first to make such an outrageous proposal as that hydrogen, a rare element on Earth, should be the most abundant in the Universe. She is well known to modern astronomers, but not to the general public. Modern astronomy textbooks mention little or none of her work, while huge space is devoted to equations developed by other astronomers from her day. Perhaps it is not so much her contemporaries who were unjust, but ours. The cosmology writer Marcus Chown suggests, only half-jokingly, that there is a curse on her: when he wrote an article about her for the New Scientist magazine, an error at the printer’s removed all her face except for the tip of her hat!

It is not known what Payne herself thought of her comparative obscurity. A modest woman, she never seems to have mentioned it to any friends or family. But she once hinted to Gingerich that she had been sure that she was right about the hydrogen and helium all the time.

And, perhaps without ever knowing, she did something else very special. The physicist Richard Feynman had a younger sister, Joan, who passionately wished to become a scientist but was told by family, teachers and religious leaders that it was not a possible move for a woman. But one day, Richard gave Joan an astronomy book. On page 407, there was a table named “Relative strengths of the Mg+ absorption line at 4,481 ångstroms … from Stellar Atmospheres by Cecilia Payne.” It was this that proved to Joan that a woman could be a scientist, and despite obstacles even greater than Payne’s, she too became an astrophysicist, specialising in magnetospheric studies and the Earth’s aurora.

Briefly losing her bravery

After the publication of her thesis, Payne’s scholarship ran out and it was time for her to look for a job. She was offered a position at the Lick Observatory in California; Shapley was annoyed when he heard this, feeling entitled to have been the first point of contact. He offered her a job at Harvard College Observatory. Young, inexperienced and immensely trusting, Payne did not know or think to ask about employment conditions, and accepted on the spot. She was thus employed as Shapley’s “technical assistant” on such a low salary that she did not dare tell it to her family.

Harvard, sadly, was still taking a dim view of female graduates and employees. At the time of her thesis, Shapley informed Payne that the chairman of the Physics department, Theodore Lyman, had refused to accept a female candidate for a PhD thesis, and was reluctant to sign her application for her PhD, although he finally did. Shapley also told Payne that Lawrence Lowell, the President of Harvard, would never allow a woman to have an official position there while he was alive. Nevertheless, Shapley created the Department of Astronomy specially for Payne, although it was a double-edged sword as she was kept as a low-status worker for many years.

She also lost most of her freedom to choose her own research. Shapley made her the editor of all Harvard College Observatory’s publications and requested that she turn her attention to photometry, an important but “arid field” of rigorous precision. Her “memory and imagination”, her ability to bring many strands of science together, were no longer of any use.

Payne was also not permitted to do much practical observing, for what now seem quite ridiculous reasons. Shapley’s correspondence with other astronomers shows that she would not have been permitted to use other observatories. The Royal Observatory in London required any astronomers using it to climb a rope, something thought inappropriate for a woman. Another excuse was that she “would not be safe from blacks” whilst using the observatory — racism used to excuse sexism. And when a position for a spectroscopist at Harvard College Observatory came up, Shapley refused Payne’s application and employed Donald Menzel to do the work Payne loved best.

Her talent thus wasted, Payne seems to have lost much of her younger bravery. When her second book, The Stars of High Luminosity was published, it was much influenced by Shapley, who did not believe in an effect called reddening: as blue light is more easily scattered by particles, it is filtered out as it passes through dust clouds in space. Hence, faraway stars become redder. She was persuaded to ignore this effect in the book, and cursed herself when it became clear that reddening is a very important effect in astronomy.

She was also dissuaded by Shapley and Russell from publishing more spectroscopic work on the Stark effect. She had found that the Stark effect did exist in some stellar spectra, although the conventional wisdom was that it did not, but took their advice to keep quiet. Later, Otto Struve came to the same conclusion, and published. She told him about her earlier work, and he offered to credit her, but she was so angry with herself that she refused.

“I had given in to Authority when I believed I was right,” she recalled over 50 years later. “That is [an] example of How Not To Do Research. I note it here as a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position … Loyalty and devotion are not sufficient to qualify one to do research.”

In the early 1930s, Payne threatened to accept a job elsewhere, and bravely wrote Russell a long letter detailing her grievances: that Shapley kept ignoring her in favour of other individuals; that she was “quite honestly … worth more than $2300”; that her lectures were not listed on the catalogue and she was an invisible member of staff — and also kept invisible socially, astronomers’ wives were in more contact with each other than she was with anyone. She asked for a pay rise, for time off to do her own research elsewhere as did a male colleague named Plaskett (who always talked to her “as a woman, never as a scientist”), and more social inclusion. Her threat seems to have worked. She did receive a small pay rise, and Shapley made her a member of the Faculty Club and employed another woman to edit the Harvard College Observatory publications for three months a year.

One still wonders why she remained at Harvard. Possibly she feared that things would be even worse elsewhere. Doubtless she recognised that her low status was not personal, but would be applied to any female astronomer. Furthermore, Shapley was a charismatic man and great conversationalist, who seems to have made her feel ignored and special by turns. She once thought she might succeed him to run the Observatory.

Otto Struve planned to come and work there at one point, and Shapley’s encouraging letters to him that all his colleagues would be delighted to work with Struve mention Payne with exactly the same respect as the others. But Struve eventually declined the job, telling Payne privately that Shapley had promised “Miss Payne will give up spectroscopy” and, knowing her love of the subject, he was unwilling to allow this to happen.

Personal loss, compassion and love

In 1932-3, three of Payne’s friends, including her colleague Adelaide Ames, died suddenly. Payne was heartbroken, and berated herself for having been so attached to her work that she had not spent enough time with other people. She fell into a severe depression. She was encouraged to travel, and visited friends and colleagues in England, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Due to arrive in Germany in summer 1933 for the Astronomische Gesellschaft astronomy conference, she took a two-week detour to Russia. Her colleagues, fearful for her safety, did their best to dissuade her — one had a quarrel with her that brought her to tears, telling her untruthfully that her Russian-inscribed visa had already expired. The American Embassy in Estonia informed her that she could go, but nobody would be able to help her if anything had happened.

But Payne was not so easily daunted. She braved the lack of knowledge of Russian, and of Soviet guards searching her and her luggage on the train, and went to meet an astronomer friend in Leningrad named Gerasimoviç. Payne was appalled and shaken at the extreme poverty — the lack of food, the poor state of the Observatory — and “the atmosphere of tension”. The Russians were stealing each other’s food and materials in order to survive, and afraid that the Germans might invade at any time. A young woman begged Payne to help her leave the country, but Payne could not think of any way to do so. When she left, she knew she would never see her hosts again.

When she arrived in Germany, she saw the same anxiety she had seen in Russia. People were nervously saluting those in Nazi uniform and looking over their shoulders to see if they were being overheard. On the first day of the conference, she was approached by a young man who asked in German if she was Miss Payne. He gave her a note to read. It turned out that Sergei Gaposchkin was an astronomer who had been made jobless by the Nazis. Several of the other astronomers were worried about him and hoped to help him find a job in America.

Payne lay awake all night. Some days later, on a rattling train between London and Cambridge, she wrote a long letter to Shapley. Gaposchkin, she explained, was a Russian who had ended up in Germany by accident after a storm had blown his boat across the Black Sea and officials refused to let him go back across the border. He had eventually settled in Berlin doing manual labour while attending free lectures, including by Einstein, to learn German and slowly gain a PhD thesis on eclipsing binary stars — stars that orbit each other in a plane within the line of sight of the observer, so they eclipse each other by turns. Gaposchkin had been working as an astronomer under a man named Guthnick, who had been forced by the authorities to let him go. Gaposchkin now had no income, had again been refused access back to Russia, and was in danger of being sent to a concentration camp.

Payne devoted one perfunctory paragraph of the letter to update Shapley on their astronomical colleagues and her visit to Cambridge. The rest, in between apologies for the train’s motion affecting her handwriting, is about Gaposchkin: her impression of his work (“good but not brilliant”), the other astronomers’ concern, and her conviction that he must be rescued. “I think we should find a place for him in America, probably at Harvard. It seems like a sort of national and personal responsibility. I have never seen a man more determinedly bent on a scientific career. Already to get his PhD he has gone through more hardship than most of us.” She asked how to get him into America (he was stateless and had no passport) and how to pay him; she even volunteered to pay him out of her own salary if all else failed.

One hesitates before including the tale of “how she met her husband” in a short biography of a female astronomer, given that a male astronomer’s biography would be unlikely to ascribe a wife such significance. But Sergei Gaposchkin’s subsequent travel to and employment at Harvard, due to Cecilia Payne, tells both of Payne’s compassion and quiet influence, and of the political situation in the 1930s that went on to destroy many scientists’ friendships as well as so many lives.

The variable stars team

Sergei and Cecilia married in March 1934. A story went around that they eloped, and Shapley announced it at a meeting which caused Annie Jump Cannon to fall down in a dead faint. In fact, they told their colleagues they were getting married, Shapley sent them red roses, and they went on a long honeymoon around various observatories in the western states. They had three children: Edward, Katherine and Peter, in 1935, 1937 and 1940.

Gaposchkin and Payne-Gaposchkin were given offices far away from each other, and graduate students thought this was “to keep the two stormy personalities from asserting themselves too conspicuously”. Three years later, in 1938, Payne-Gaposchkin finally received an official position in the department at which she had worked for 13 years: the Phillips Astronomer. Sergei was known in the department by his first name, and Payne-Gaposchkin became known as “Mrs G”.

Payne-Gaposchkin’s earlier work on photometry had not, after all, been utterly wasted (although newer equipment at other observatories had made much of it redundant), for she was aware that there were thousands of variable stars waiting to be found and classified. The Gaposchkins classified 1,512 variable stars using photographic plates from 1898, back in Pickering’s early years, until the present, and making over a million observations in total. Variable stars, previously considered an anomaly, turned out to have many different properties. The Gaposchkins identified 11 types, including Henrietta Leavitt’s Cepheid variables and Sergei’s own eclipsing binaries.

One of Payne-Gaposchkin’s fascinations was novae, or new stars that seemed to appear from nowhere, and worked on them for many years. In 1939, she and Sergei travelled to England to speak at a conference on novae and white dwarf stars, which were then thought to be two separate phenomena. White dwarfs are dead stars that have burnt all their hydrogen; novae are brief explosions of material around a white dwarf; and supernova are stars that have exploded. She was delighted to see her old friend and mentor Eddington again, although it was for the last time. World War II broke as their ship made its way home across the Atlantic.

In 1940, Payne was invited to give a guest lecture at another university. She was, unfortunately, pregnant and the time. A flurry of apologetic and embarrassed correspondence went between the establishments about her “condition” and the questionable suitability of her public appearance, without anyone, apparently, even asking her opinion. Shapley wrote to Payne-Gaposchkin that he must formally disapprove of her plans to go. Eventually, the lecture was called off.

Slow improvements

Payne-Gaposchkin’s job remained low status and, depressed by the war, she suffered occasional bad temper and jealousy when she witnessed male colleagues automatically being treated better than she was. By this time, however, the loneliness and lack of confidence she had felt a decade ago seem to have mellowed to some degree. She was “excruciatingly busy” lecturing, writing and socialising with colleagues.

In 1944, when Cambridge finally got around to awarding degrees to their female students, Payne-Gaposchkin wrote to Newnham to request a qualification, and got it. She was in touch with astronomers around the world, fascinated by all branches of astronomy.

In 1952, as a result of a lecture series she gave about the evolution of stars, Payne-Gaposchkin wrote a popular science book, Stars in the Making. Two years later, she published Introduction to Astronomy, a textbook for all astronomy students. “Most people agree that this is the best general book on astronomy available in the English-speaking world,” said the flyleaf, along with a quotation from the Times Educational Supplement: “The most complete, balanced and readable elementary account of the universe that the reviewer knows.” A great lover of many subjects besides science, she mischievously encouraged the reader to check art galleries for “impossible moons”, such as a full moon near a sunset.

In 1956, Harlow Shapley retired. Payne-Gaposchkin, as a woman, was not considered for his successor. The candidate finally appointed was none other than Donald Menzel, the one given so much spectroscopy work for which young Cecilia Payne had longed — and who was kept so separate from her that she did not mention any of his work on the spectra of cool stars in her groundbreaking 1925 thesis. Menzel, however, was more modern and generous than Shapley. He was shocked to learn Payne-Gaposchkin’s salary, doubled it, and awarded her the title of Phillips Professor and position of Chairman of the Astronomy Department.

Payne-Gaposchkin sent a handwritten note to all the female astronomy students to invite them to celebrate with her in the library. She made a speech in which she said: “I find myself cast in the unlikely role of a thin wedge.” One of the students recalled: “It brought down the house. She was a very large person, but she could make fun of herself and see the humour of the whole business.”

Fighting for women’s right to speak

In her mid-fifties by the time she finally gained the position she should have had for decades, Payne-Gaposchkin had so many duties, such as supervising assistants and teaching, that she had little time for her own research. She and Gaposchkin, however, had undertaken two more gigantic variable star surveys. The two small irregular galaxies visible from the southern skies, the Magellanic Clouds, had been jealously kept by Shapley for his own work, but with his retirement they were able to make millions more observations. They discovered a huge amount about stellar evolution, and developed a whole new classification system.

Fellow female astronomer, Vera Rubin, who is largely responsible for the discovery of dark matter, once asked Payne-Gaposchkin if being a woman had made any difference in her career. “Oh no,” she replied at once, “it had made no difference.” But she approached Rubin the next day, saying “You know those questions you asked me last night? I decided I had given you all the wrong answers.” Rubin recalls: “She then proceeded to detail the many injustices she had ignored, in order to do her astronomy. I puzzled for years over this turn-about. Now I understand that these indignities only bothered her at times. Most likely, throughout her life she realised she was taking steps never before open to a woman, and accepted them as part of the difficulties of being first. As a pioneer, she suffered from many of the prejudices of her male colleagues. But she also must have recognised that her achievements not only advanced science, but also opened doors for succeeding generations of woman astronomers.”

Rubin bravely tried to have Payne-Gaposchkin nominated for membership of the US National Academy of Sciences, which was only open to men, but Payne-Gaposchkin died before enough progress had been made to allow her election.

In 1975, Payne-Gaposchkin received the ultimate honour for any astronomer: the Henry Norris Russell Prize. She was the first woman to receive it, and there have only been three others since. The prize’s recipient gives the most prestigious lecture at the American Astronomical Society meeting, which takes place in a different state every year. Payne-Gaposchkin gave her talk, Fifty years of novae, in Hawaii in 1977, the full text of which is now online. She began by telling the audience about the “emotional thrill … [that] engenders what Thomas Huxley calls the Divine Dipsomania” the young scientist feels upon being the first to make a discovery, and the old scientist gaining the same delight in seeing many such discoveries grow together to make a picture, like many artists completing a drawing between them. She told the audience many stories of her and her colleagues’ remarks and observations over the last five and a half decades, took them through the different stages of a nova.

Payne-Gaposchkin published many books throughout her career, and her papers were referenced in other scientific papers, on average, over 100 times every 10 years. As she neared the end of her life, she seems to have been asked by friends and family to write an autobiography. Never one for the spotlight, one senses her reluctance to do so in a letter she wrote a friend, in which she explained that she wished to give an overview of astronomy’s progress over the twentieth century and was finding it impossible to omit herself. She called the book The Dyer’s Hand, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnect CXI, as he describes his career in the theatre: “My name receives a brand, And almost thence my nature is subdued, To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”

The Dyer’s Hand was privately printed and is clearly only intended for friends, colleagues and family. It contains no scientific explanations, as those were all tackled in her other books, but mentions many recollections of scientific findings. As well as details of her family life, it also contains both calm and resentment at the discrimination she faced as a woman in science. “We were scientists, we were scholars (neither of those words has a gender),” she writes at one point, recalling how many of her colleagues never treated her any differently. But she also makes it only too clear how other colleagues, not to mention society and the universities’ rules, closed many doors to her based solely on her gender.

Cecilia never lost her love of travel, but returned home very poorly after a long trip abroad in 1979. Chain smoking had been a habit of hers since the 1920s, and she died of lung cancer that December. She donated her body to scientific research. Sergei never got over his bereavement.

A few years later, her daughter Katherine Haramundanis and a few other astronomers re-printed The Dyer’s Hand as a book for publication, with four introductions on various aspects of her life and work and also including a delightful essay written about her by a Cambridge friend, one of the friends she had lost in 1933. And to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth in 2000, a symposium was held at Harvard College Observatory and a small book produced, The Starry Universe, with contributions from many of Payne-Gaposchkin’s colleagues, as well as Katherine.

In her long life, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin helped lay the foundations for both the use of spectroscopy in astrophysics, and for the advancement of women in astronomy. Between then and now, both male and female astronomers have signed documents and worked hard to improve women’s situation. Today, about 25 percent of astronomers are female.

Dr Helen Walker of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and founder of the She is an Astronomer project which launched in 2009, writes firmly that women are held back not by intellect or preference to study other subjects but by social expectations, for some countries have no female astronomers, and in others, women make up over 50 percent. Walker persuaded the International Astronomical Union to put out a resolution to find ways to redress the balance: In 2010, a conference was held to discuss women in astronomy, and a website set up with the biographies of many historical female astronomers, a third of them from Harvard College Observatory. A calendar was printed, including Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Today, following such efforts, and with the explosive popularity of the internet, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s legacy is beginning to revive.


I first thank Chris Lintott for alerting me to Suw Charman-Anderson’s Ada Lovelace Day book project, and for being enthusiastic about my research from the beginning, including recommending me to Harvard and Cambridge’s archives. Marcus Chown effectively introduced me to spectroscopy and Payne-Gaposchkin in his book “The Magic Furnace”, and encourages me to break the “curse” that seems to prevent her from receiving published recognition today. Alison Doane kindly showed me the plate stacks at Harvard College Observatory. Jonathan McDowell of Harvard University helped me find many of her papers and showed me around the department where he now works and she used to; he also introduced me to Owen Gingerich, who told me many of his memories of her and gave me a copy of “The Starry Universe” which is not available for sale or in any library in the UK – his contribution to which was invaluable material to me. Ultimate thanks, of course, go to Katherine Haramundanis. I am eternally grateful that she met me in Boston to answer my endless questions about her mother, gave me permission to view archival material, and has treated my intrusion out of nowhere with nothing but kindness and welcome.

Further reading

A few of the quotations and anecdotes, particularly regarding Sergei Gaposchkin, come from conversations with Katherine Haramundanis and from the Harvard University Archives. However, most of the material is available in books and online.

Byers, N & Williams, G (eds) (2006), Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics, Cambridge University Press.

Chown, M (1999), The Magic Furnace, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katherine Haramundanis, K (ed) (1984), The Dyer’s Hand: An autobiography and other recollections

Payne-Gaposchkin, C (1952) Stars in the Making, London: Methuen

Payne-Gaposchkin, C (1954), Introduction to Astronomy, Prentice-Hall.

Philip, AGD & Koopman, RA (eds) (2000), The Starry Universe, New York: The L. Davis Press.

About the author

Alice Sheppard is an amateur astronomer, astrophysics student and “citizen scientist”, the lead moderator of the discussion forum of the public astronomy website Galaxy Zoo, and Community Manager for ExCiteS, UCL. She writes occasional articles for the Astronomy Now and Society for Popular Astronomy magazines, and gives regular talks on astronomy at Skeptics in the Pub, astronomical societies, and her charity lecture series, Galactic Orchids, which raises funds to fight female genital mutilation. She was also a forum moderator for the 2009-10 She is an Astronomer project and an organiser of and speaker at the 2010 conference. She is working on a biography of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and invites anyone who knew her or works in similar fields to get in touch.

Academic website:
Twitter: @PenguinGalaxy

Karen Spärck Jones: Unravelling natural language

Karen Spärck JonesOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Bill Thompson

The renowned computer scientist Karen Spärck Jones died in 2007, aged only seventy-one. Her husband Roger Needham, another computer scientist who she’d married in 1958, had died of cancer in 2003 shortly after his sixty-eighth birthday. I wrote her obituary for The Times, as I’d written Roger’s four years earlier. I’d written an obituary for their colleague David Wheeler in 2004, and already had Maurice Wilkes’ on file, though it wasn’t needed until 2010 as he lived to be ninety-seven.

Although writing obituaries was never a full-time occupation, as a technology journalist with a computing degree I was regularly commissioned by The Times to cover well-known figures in the computing industry or computer science, and these four clearly merited coverage in “the paper of record”. After all, Spärck Jones, Needham, Wheeler and Wilkes had been key members of the generation that created modern computing and shaped the world we live in today, and it was important to reflect on their careers: without their achievements in the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory I think it unlikely that the world of computing would have the shape it does today.

I also wanted to mark their passing because the four of them were also my teachers. I’d studied for the Diploma in Computer Science at Cambridge, and they had all been teaching or working in the Lab. Writing an obituary of someone you know is very different from pulling someone’s life together from a quick clippings job and a few short chats with family and colleagues. I had known all of them, spent time in their presence, had to defend my views to them — with more or less success. I’d watched them as they lectured on their own work, and had to face the occupational hazard of writing an essay on a topic knowing that it would be assessed by the person who had actually made the theoretical breakthrough you were discussing.

I completed my one-year Diploma in 1984, and Karen was one of the few senior women in the Lab at the time. I discovered later that she didn’t have a full-time position for many years, and relied on short-term research contracts to fund her work. Despite this, Karen’s academic career was impressive: She published nine books and over two hundred substantial papers; she served as president of the Association for Computational Linguistics in 1994; and she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995.

Karen was a research fellow at Newnham College from 1965 to 1968, a Fellow of Darwin College from 1968 to 1980, and became a Fellow of Wolfson College in 2000, becoming an Honorary Fellow in 2002. In 2007 she was awarded the Lovelace Medal by the British Computer Society and was the first woman to receive it. She was also given the Allan Newell Award and Athena Lectureship by the American Association for Computing Machinery. She is not only one of the most significant women in computing, she is simply one of the most important people in computing.

Not all words are equal

Karen’s interest in language may have had a lot to do with her intellectual development, but it was also a matter of luck, as it is for most of us. Karen was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, in 1935 and after attending a local grammar school she came up to Girton College, Cambridge in 1953 to read history. After her degree she studied philosophy, or Moral Sciences as it was called at the time, for a year.

After a brief and unsatisfying spell teaching she was invited to join the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU) by its director Margaret Masterman following an introduction from Roger Needham, a friend from undergraduate days who was studying for a PhD in what was then called the Mathematical Laboratory but is now the Computer Laboratory.

CLRU was working on natural language processing, looking at how computers could determine the meaning of sentences. Masterman, reflecting Wittgenstein’s philosophy, believed that meaning not grammar was the key to understanding languages and wanted to explore how machines could be programmed to implement this approach. For her part, Karen decided to try to build a thesaurus automatically, which meant transcribing the whole of Roget’s Thesaurus onto punched cards and working closely with Needham on ways to classify information automatically.

She married Needham in 1958, and obtained her doctorate in 1964. Her thesis, published as Synonymy and semantic classification, remains important even today.

In the 1960s she began working in the field of information retrieval, and in 1968 she moved from CLRU to the Computer Laboratory where she stayed.

You could say that Karen’s work made Google and Siri possible, if you were writing headlines for The Daily Mail and wanted to overstate a complicated chain of causality. She was, after all, a pioneer in information retrieval and natural language processing and her contributions helped lay the ground in which the seeds of modern search engines and speech recognition were planted.

For example she pointed out that not all words were equal when searching a text and, in her 1972 paper A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval, argued that not all hits should be weighted equally as the occurrence of keywords that are broadly distributed throughout the texts being searched matters less than the occurrence of terms that appear in few documents. Her work on information retrieval underpinned the development of search long before the web made it a vital area for research and product development.

While Needham and Spärck Jones both remained at Cambridge University after their marriage Needham rapidly obtained a tenured position and eventually became head of the Computer Lab while Spärck Jones had to rely on short-term research grants to fund her work until she was awarded a personal professorship in 1999. This was not a very stable existence. The grants had to have a principal investigator from the department, but Karen was funded as a Senior Research Associate and was not, technically, a member of the faculty. At least things seem a little easier now for distinguished computer scientists like Wendy Hall.

In October last year Stuart Schieber wrote a post about Karen for Ada Lovelace Day, noting that she was “a leader in my own field of computational linguistics, a past president of the Association for Computational Linguistics” and expressing his happiness that “because we shared a research field, I had the honour of knowing Karen and the pleasure of meeting her on many occasions at ACL meetings.”

Connected through computing

I can’t claim such intimacy, and I doubt that Karen ever noticed me in my days as postgraduate student hanging around in the Titan Room, but I observed her very carefully. In the early 1980s I was very active in the Cambridge University Women’s Action Group and had founded a small society called Men Against Sexism, holding debates and screening films like Rosie the Riveter to groups of similarly minded people. There were only four or five women on the Diploma in Computer Science out of forty or so, and Karen was one of very few female lecturers in the Lab. So I noticed her.

I was also interested in her research. I’d come to computing after having studied first philosophy and experimental psychology, and her work in language processing was especially interesting in contrast to lectures on compiler design and operating system scheduling algorithms — it offered an opportunity for reflection on the way words worked that appealed to me after years studying Wittgenstein. It was only while reading up for her obituary that I was reminded that her first academic job was in the CLRU looking at how computers could determine the meaning of sentences, working for a former student of Wittgenstein, which probably explains why I found her work intriguing.

I worked in the computing industry in Cambridge for several years after I graduated, some of the time at Acorn Computers, and would spend time in the lab and see her around at seminars and lectures, and we would talk about her work. Later, as a freelance writer, I’d do occasional pieces for the Cambridge Alumnus Magazine, and have a reason to visit the library. I remember passing Karen on the stairs of the old Computer Laboratory when it was in the tower on Corn Exchange Street, or exchanging a few words with her over coffee outside the library when I was in there to research a newspaper article, by which time she was Professor of Computers and Information.

In 1999 the Lab celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, or EDSAC, one of the first stored program electronic computers. I was there for the celebratory events which Karen had organised with her usual efficiency. I had the opportunity to see her in action and also catch up with her and other old friends and teachers as we looked back over the achievements of the computing industry and reflected on how they had built on the work done in the lab since EDSAC ran its first programme.

A legacy assured, if unwritten

Since Karen’s death, the British Computer Society has inaugurated an annual lecture that honours women in computing research in her name alongside their regular Lovelace Colloquium for women undergraduates in computing and related subjects. Karen’s reputation, like that of other woman computing pioneers such as Grace Hopper, Anita Borg and Barbara Liskov, seems assured, at least within the profession.

This would almost certainly have pleased her. She once said, “My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men”, going on to note, “I think women bring a different perspective to computing; they are more thoughtful and less inclined to go straight for technical fixes.”

There isn’t a biography of Karen Spärck Jones, despite her many achievements in computer science and language processing or her remarkable life, but then again there aren’t very many biographies of the post-war generation of British computer scientists who defined the field and laid the groundwork for today’s information society, male or female.

While all may have merited obituaries in The Times neither Karen, nor her computer scientist husband Roger Needham, nor the inventor of the subroutine David Wheeler, nor even Maurice Wilkes, builder of EDSAC and director of the computer laboratory where Karen did much of her work, have biographies that I can find, perhaps because they came of age and did their work in a time before we were all so entranced by social network sites and smartphones. We may have to wait awhile for these pioneers to find biographers willing to engage with their lives and work, as we did for Babbage and Turing, or perhaps we’ll have transcended the book format and will make do with extended Wikipedia entries for such things.

But I hope that when these biographies come to be written they will encompass the lives and achievements of Karen and the other women who did so much to build the discipline of computer science, kickstart the computing industry and shape the modern world.

Further reading

Abbate, J (2001), “Karen Spärck Jones: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate”, IEEE History Center Oral History,

Shieber, SM (2012), “For Ada Lovelace Day 2012: Karen Spärck Jones”,

Spärck Jones, K (2007), “Karen Spärck Jones”,

The Daily Telegraph (2007), “Karen Spärck Jones”,

The Ada Project, “Pioneering Women in Computing Technology”, School Of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University,

About the author

Bill Thompson has been working in, on and around the internet since 1984 and spends his time considering about the ways digital technologies are changing our world. A well-known technology journalist, he is Head of Partnership Development in the BBC’s Archive Development Group, building relationships with partners around ways to make archive material more accessible, and a Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art.

During the 1990s Bill was Internet Ambassador for PIPEX, the UK’s first commercial ISP. He appears weekly on the BBC World Service’s Click, writes a column for Focus magazine and advises a range of arts and cultural organisations on their digital strategies. He is a member of the board of Writers’ Centre Norwich and of the Collections Trust, and was a Trustee of the Cambridge Film Trust. He also manages the Working for an MP website.

Twitter: @billt