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Search for a #WomanAstro, Somerville, and a Death

The most widely received tweets I post on Twitter (@WomanAstronomer) are obviously about women astronomers, particularly historical. People want to know about them. They want to know who they were, what they accomplished, and why they mattered.

That’s a lot to know about someone, especially someone hidden by history. But science needs female role models.

The day before Christmas, I pulled up my WomanAstro calendar to see who to share on Twitter. Flora McBain Saddler (1912-2000), a googled name added to my list, previously shared, but not recently researched.

I wikied her. No Wikipedia entry. Always disappointing. I know most academics aren’t particularly fond of Wikipedia, but it’s an easy search for the public and the record should be complete.

Sadly, it isn’t.

It takes time and a good deal of searching sources to write about a woman astronomer – deciding validity, determining facts, finding an image, reading a lot, googling some more. Wikipedia is easy, and relatively reliable. It’s discouraging when I stumble across another WomanAstro who hasn’t been given her Wikidue.

I thought I would write about Flora here, put together a little bio. At least that’s how this blog started out.

Here’s the draft of the first paragraph:

Flora, a Scottish woman born of limited means – her father a cart pusher, her mother a maid – obtained a physics and mathematics degree in 1934 from the University of Aberdeen where she later worked as a researcher and lecturer. A solar eclipse trip to Siberia in 1936 ignited her interest in astronomy.

But as I was writing this happened:

Flora, a Scottish woman born (brothers, sisters?) of limited means – her father a cart pusher (name? had to look up “carter”), her mother a maid (name?) – obtained a physics and mathematics degree (why these subjects) in 1934 from the University of Aberdeen (archives?), where she worked as a researcher and lecturer (archives?). A solar eclipse trip to Siberia in 1936 lit her interest in astronomy (why did she go?).

There was still so much to learn about her. In one reference, Flora was described as “a thin quiet, unmarried woman who smoked a good deal. She was somewhere in her forties.” Her sudden marriage to Donald Sadler was also described as “a sensation.” Most intriguing. And no photograph of her to be found either.

That’s as far as I got. I saved Flora for another day. Christmas was coming, and I had spent too much time on research, so I didn’t tweet anything. I should have.

 

The day after Christmas, Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was born. Widely known, she does have a Wikipedia page. Easy tweet.

The summer 1998 issue of theWoman Astronomer newsletter also ran a feature story about her. I pulled out a copy.

Serendipity struck on the front cover. At the bottom of the page, an article on how to research “the elusive woman astronomer.” As I read the article, my Twitter feed began to rush by like a raging river. I put aside Somerville for another day.

 

Vera Rubin had died.

Such a sad day. Such a loss for science, for astronomy. Such a loss of a graceful mentor, smart scientist, role model, mother, all the people a woman can be. And, sadly, the loss of her due, a Nobel Prize.

Her loss was devastating.

I checked my files for Vera. No file. I knew somewhere in my vast collection of “To Be Filed” was an old letter from a student who had sent a copy of her report on Vera.

More serendipity. I found the March 1999 correspondence within seconds. In her letter, the student wrote:

rubin-vera-resume-scan-161228“Hello again! This is a copy of my final report on Vera Rubin. You can keep it – I am going to turn in the other copy on Monday. The assignment was to write a resume for a woman or minority scientist, following a certain format. We drew names, and I drew Vera Rubin. I actually enjoyed doing the research (for once) because I had never heard of her before and I do have an interest in astronomy.”

I wonder if this student knows Vera died. I wonder how much this report influenced her life choices. Is she an astronomer now? Was Vera the role model that set her life in a new direction? I should do some research. Another day.

Back on Twitter, the most endearing posts about Vera were personal. People shared their anecdotes of her, their pictures, and the ways she influenced their life. It was heartwarming to see how much she meant to her community, what she gave to science, and why she mattered.

Vera’s Wikipedia page updated the day she died. I have no doubt there will be plenty of research, articles, maybe a new book written about this remarkable astronomer.

In the meantime, Flora deserves her page in history, too.