Birthday: July 4, 1868
Died At Age: 53
Sun Sign: Cancer
Born in: Lancaster, Massachusetts
Famous as: Astronomer
father: George Roswell Leavitt
mother: Henrietta Swan
Died on: December 12, 1921
place of death: Cambridge, Massachusetts
U.S. State: Massachusetts
education: Cambridge College, Radcliffe College, Oberlin College
Henrietta Swan Leavitt was an American astronomer whose extensive research led other scientists to discover the ever-expanding nature of the universe. She was also the first person to determine the correlation between Cepheid variables and brightness. Born and raised in Lancaster, Massachusetts, she graduated from ‘Harvard University.’ During her years at ‘Harvard,’ she intensely studied a wide range of topics, including philosophy, calculus, fine arts, analytic geometry, and classic Greek. In the early 1900s, she started working at the ‘Harvard College Observatory,’ where she was assigned to the study of variable stars. She concluded in one of her early papers that the brightness of variables was directly proportional to the period of their luminosity. Although she remained anonymous for most of her life, her papers were analyzed later and paved way to several scientific breakthroughs. Her research results were regarded as the first “standard candle” that was used to measure the distance from our galaxy to faraway galaxies. Edwin Hubble, who concluded that the universe was always expanding, gave the credit of his discovery to Henrietta’s luminosity–period correlation.
Childhood & Early Life
Henrietta Swan Leavitt was born on July 4, 1868, in Lancaster, Massachusetts, to George Roswell Leavitt and Henrietta Swan Kendrick. Her father was a local congregational church minister. Theirs was a financially prosperous family, and she was the eldest of the seven siblings. Two of the siblings died as babies. The family had a history of sicknesses, and Henrietta herself struggled with ill health during most of her childhood.
Her father’s job had him frequently moving from one place to another. As a teenager, she spent a lot time in Cleveland, where her father worked in a local church. After graduating high school, Henrietta joined ‘Oberlin College’ in Ohio for a year-long preparatory course.
She studied several undergraduate programs for the next two years and also learned music for a year. When she was in her early 20s, the family moved back to Massachusetts. She then wished to join the prestigious ‘Harvard University.’
To her dismay, the world-renowned university did not accept female students at that time. However, female students were allowed at ‘Harvard Annex,’ an establishment that was operated by the ‘Society for the Collegiate Instruction for Women.’ During her years at ‘Harvard’ and ‘Oberlin,’ Henrietta studied a wide range of topics such as classical Greek, fine arts, philosophy, analytical geometry, and calculus.
Her interests shifted majorly during her fourth year at college, when she became extremely interested in studying astronomy. There were not many female astronomers at that time, and this led to some trouble initially, but she was determined to go ahead with it.
At the age of 23, Henrietta graduated with an equivalent of a ‘Harvard’ BA degree. She was offered many jobs that were not related to astronomical studies, but she volunteered to stay back and work as a research assistant to Edward Charles Pickering.
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The American educational society deemed women unworthy of operating telescopes and conducting the study of stars and other heavenly bodies. Thus, after her graduation, she traveled to Europe and also worked as an art assistant at ‘Beloit College’ in Wisconsin. However, she soon got sick and lost her hearing partially.
In 1903, she arrived back at the ‘Harvard College Observatory’ and began to work without any pay. She was known as a member of a group known as the ‘Harvard Computers.’ It was a group of highly skilled women Pickering had hand-picked to go through the enormous data collected by scientists.
She survived on the money that her father sent her. A few months later, she started earning 30 cents an hour from ‘Harvard.’
As each person in the group was given a specific subject for research, Henrietta was assigned work on variable stars. Those variable stars illuminated differently at different times, but the exact reason for the same was not understood by scientists back then.
She focused on thousands of variable stars in the ‘Magellanic Clouds’ and noticed a strange pattern. She intensified her study and concluded that the brightness of a variable star determined its period of variability. In 1908, she published her findings in a paper titled ‘Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College.’
She focused on the Cepheid variables, a group of highly luminous stars. She became the first-ever person to determine the relation between their period of pulsation and their luminosity. She also created a formula to calculate the period–luminosity relationship of the stars.
She published another paper in 1912, which was signed by Pickering himself. Following her immense contribution to the world of astronomy, she was bestowed with several honors during her lifetime. She was made part of associations such as ‘Phi Beta Cappa,’ the ‘American Association of University Women,’ the ‘American Association for the Advancement of Science,’ and the ‘American Astronomical and Astrophysical Society.’
She was also made an honorary member of the ‘American Association of Variable Star Observers.’ Esteemed physicist Harlow Shapley was made the director of the ‘Harvard’ observatory in 1921, and he made Henrietta the head of stellar photometry.
Henriettas Impact on Astronomy
Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s findings were the base for the discoveries of several future astronomers. The period–luminosity relationship was the foundation of the theory of the “standard candle” in astronomy, which was the key aspect of measuring distance to the remotest galaxies in the observable universe.
When astronomers started focusing on other galaxies, it was revealed that other galaxies also had Cepheids. They thus became a key clue to determine the presence of the “spiral nebulae” as independent galaxies located far away from the ‘Milky Way.’ This led to probably one of the greatest astronomical discoveries that took away the ‘Milky Way’s assumed central position.
The structure and the overall scale of the universe became clearer with ‘Leavitt’s Law.’ Edwin Hubble made some major discoveries and earned a huge name for himself, as a direct result of his understanding of Henrietta’s research studies.
Hubble proclaimed that Henrietta deserved a ‘Nobel Prize’ for her work. She was almost nominated for the prize by Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a member of the ‘Swedish Academy of Sciences’ in 1924, but by then, she had been dead for 3 years. Unfortunately, the ‘Nobel Prize’ is not awarded posthumously.
Personal Life & Death
Henrietta Swan Leavitt was a highly religious woman throughout her life. She never married and dedicated her entire life to the study of heavenly bodies instead.
She suffered from ill-health all her life. In the last few decades of her life, she had significantly lost her hearing abilities. She died after a prolonged fight with cancer, on December 21, 1912, in Massachusetts.
She was buried at a cemetery where her parents and two of her siblings who had died in infancy had been buried.
A play based on her life, ‘Silent Sky,’ follows her journey from ‘Harvard’ to her death.
George Johnson wrote her biography, ‘Miss Leavitt’s Stars.’