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Happy Belated International Women’s Day Henrietta Leavitt, you deserve to be among the ranks of fantastically intelligent women who rose above the men and said, “I, too, am smart (and deserve a raise)!”
Henrietta Leavitt | 1868-1921
Miss Leavitt attended Oberlin college in 1892 where she discovered astronomy and her passion for it. After college she continued pursuing her love for the subject, but later went deaf while suffering from an illness. In 1902 she was hired as a staff member at the Harvard College Observatory after volunteering countless hours. Charles Pickering, director of the observatory, appointed her the chief of the photographic photometry department, along with the duty to keep the telescopes in perfect working condition.
Her $0.30 salary was every dollar shy of her mental capacity when she was given the task of being in charge of the photographic photometry department, which studied the magnitudes of stars through photographs.
As head of the department she developed a standard for determining the magnitude of stars using the north polar sequence. Her system was later recognized as an important standard in 1913 and was adopted by the International Committee on Photographic Magnitudes.
She also discovered over 2,000 variable stars, which later led her to the period-luminosity relationship. Through observation and complex mathematics, not commonly seen in women’s minds in this period, she discovered a correlation between a star’s magnitude and the time of its luminosity. What she found was that the luminosity of a star did not depend on its distance, but its magnitude.
Her discovery was very important (and very revolutionizing), being recognized and used by Edward Hubble as the “yardstick of the Universe” to find the age of the Universe, and surpassed others’ use of their mathematics to measure magnitudes of stars up to 100 light years; Miss Leavitt’s method could span up to 10 million light years.
She is undoubtedly one of the most unrecognized women in science, and despite her 30 cent wage at the Harvard Observatory even Charles Pickering recognized her as the “most brilliant woman at Harvard”.
No doubt the field of astronomy would have seen more spectacular findings from Miss Leavitt had she not died of cancer in 1921.