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A Tribute to Margaret Burbidge

By Vera C. Rubin

January 2001

Vera Rubin has astronomy degrees from Vassar College and Cornell University and a Ph.D.
from Georgetown University. She has been on the staff of the Department of Terrestrial
Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington for over 35 years. A longtime
friend and colleague of Margaret Burbidge, Vera has been honored extensively for her
work in observational cosmology, and like Margaret, is a member of the National
Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the National Medal of Science.

MARGARET PEACHEY BURBIDGE, born in England in 1919, was interested in astronomy as a youngster and read the books of Sir James Jeans, to whom she is distantly related. She attended University College, London, and was surprised to discover that a degree in astronomy was offered. She earned a B.Sc.
from University College, and a Ph.D. from the University of London Observatory. In 1948 she married
fellow graduate student Geoffrey Burbidge. She and Geoff have a daughter, Sarah, and a grandson.

In 1951, Margaret and Geoff left England for the U.S., she to Yerkes Observatory and he to Harvard
College Observatory; by the next year, the Burbidges were both postdocs at Yerkes. Margaret's earliest research concerned chemical abundances in stars. In 1954, following their return to Cambridge, England,
they approached Willy Fowler, there on sabbatical. Fowler affectionately recalled a day when a
“wonderful Charles Laughton replica” (Geoff) walked into his office at the Cavendish Lab and
asked “Why not work on problems important for Astrophysics?” This query culminated in the
now-classic work by Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, and Hoyle (familiarly known as B2FH) entitled
Synthesis of the Elements in Stars.

When Fowler returned to the U.S., the Burbidges followed him to Pasadena. With their usual adaptability, Margaret was a postdoc at Kellogg Lab at Caltech, Geoff was a Carnegie Fellow at Mount Wilson Observatory (which was not available to females). Not surprisingly, whenever Geoff went off to Mount Wilson to observe, Margaret “coincidently” appeared. In 1957 they returned to Yerkes, Margaret again as a postdoc, and continued their observations and analysis to understand the physics of stars. With the McDonald 82-inch telescope, their observations centered around both stars and galaxies. In the early 1960s, with the founding of the University of California at San Diego, both Margaret and Geoff moved again, Margaret to the Department of Chemistry and Geoff to Physics, for nepotism rules prohibited the couple to have appointments in the same department. I was working with the Burbidges during the 1963-’64 academic year, and heard Margaret give her wonderful inaugural lecture on Astrochemistry. Shortly thereafter, with the change of rules, Margaret moved to the Physics department. In addition to her position as Professor of Physics, Margaret was for many years Director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at UCSD.

Throughout her career, Margaret has been a leader in the study of galaxies, rotation of galaxies,
QSO redshifts, and their interpretation. She has also played a leadership role on many
national committees for space science and for setting priorities in astronomy. Her achievements
have been recognized with numerous honors, prizes, and honorary degrees. She was
President of the AAS, she shared the AAS Warner Prize with Geoff, she is a Fellow of the
Royal Society (London), and in 1978 was the first woman astronomer elected to the U.S.
National Academy of Sciences. In 1983, she was awarded the National Medal of Science.

Margaret Burbidge has met each challenge of her career with brilliance, with originality,
with dedicated hard work, and with grace. She has been a mentor to students and
young astronomers. She was a role model for many, even before we knew the word. Thank
you, Margaret.

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