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Dorrit Hoffliet: From four-leaf clovers to variable stars

by Pangratios Papacosta

January 2006

As a young girl she could pick four-leaf clovers out of the field so easily she often made them into little bouquets for family guests. In her professional work she used the same keen eye to pick out variable stars in photographic plates at the Harvard College Observatory. After reading about Mendelism, at age 12 she decided never to marry, fearing that her children may inherit the genetic characteristics of her grandmother, who died in a mental asylum. At that young age she worried that something was wrong with her due to her quiet demeanor and “do not speak until spoken to” attitude. While stationed at the Nantucket observatory she was nearly killed during a hurricane because she rushed to secure a tripod on the roof of the observatory during the eye of the storm, which she mistook as the end of the storm. Despite these and the many other struggles that she endured in her personal and professional life, she kept a cheerful and optimistic outlook toward life, so much so that she chose Misfortunes as Blessings in Disguise as the title for her recent autobiography. To Dorrit Hoffleit, every difficulty in her life often had a silver lining.

I did not know what to expect as I walked towards the office of Dorrit Hoffleit, who graciously agreed to meet with me that January 2003 cold winter day at Yale University in New Haven. I was overwhelmed by a mixture of feelings — pleasant anticipation, reservation and admiration, among them — as I knew this was not an ordinary astronomer but the embodiment of living history. I was about to meet a 95-year old lady whose autobiography I had just read and whose monographs on the history of astronomy I have studied and used in my work. As I entered her office, Dorrit stood up and walked toward me in welcome with an unforgettable smile on her face, one that radiated calmness and kindness of the rarest sort. After some refreshments I set up my tape recorder and started recording a two-hour conversation. She spoke slowly with elegance, humor and an impressively sharp memory about events that took place almost a century ago.

Dorrit Hoffleit was born on March 12, 1907 on their family farm in Florence, Alabama, of German parents who came to America for a better life. Her father, Fred Hoffleit, could not make a living out of the farm so he was forced to start a new job as a bookkeeper in New Castle, Pennsylvania few months earlier. He left behind his wife, pregnant with Dorrit and his two-year old son Herbert.

When a few months after her birth the farmhouse was burnt down (Dorrit suspects by arson) they moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania. Life was hard and everyone had to do some extra work; mother worked as a nurse and little Dorrit helped out as a sharecropper, picking vegetables, berries and apples. These were hard times yet they were also filled with moments of joy, like playing chess with her brother Herbert, whom she admired and adored, and reading from such books as an early Webster unabridged dictionary, an atlas of reproductions of fine arts paintings, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. On Sundays the children accompanied their mother in singing Psalms and read books on biblical stories. Sometimes their father would take them on long walks through the woods, pointing out fascinating creatures and plants.

Compared to her brilliant brother, Dorrit admits that she was merely an average student. Encouraged by her physics teacher and her mother, Dorrit enrolled at Radcliffe College; Herbert, who entered Harvard at age 14 and graduated at 18, was going on for a doctorate. She was unhappy that she could not combine mathematics and fine arts as her major. Ultimately, Dorrit chose mathematics because she loved geometry. She also took the only two available astronomy courses offered at the time. Upon her graduation in 1928, she accepted a position as a research assistant at the Harvard College Observatory (HCO), where she earned a minimal salary — just 40 cents per hour. She chose this over a much higher paying job working with a statistician, and never regretted the decision. On the subject of choosing a career after graduation, she offers this advice to young graduates:

“Figure out what the least salary is you can live on and within that limit pick what you like best, otherwise you won’t ever be happy. Because if you’re working for money, it’s drudgery when you have an interest in something else. Whereas if money is all you’re interested in then fine, but if you’re interested in astronomy then don’t go into banking (laughter).”

Harlow Shapley, the director at the Harvard College Observatory at the time, encouraged Dorrit to pursue graduate work. Dorrit took graduate classes at Radcliffe and earned an M.A. in 1932. She loved to work on meteors, a phenomenon that she found fascinating. She remembers an August evening in 1919 when she and her mother witnessed the rare and spectacular phenomenon of a bright Perseid colliding with an equally bright sporadic meteor. That event, etched permanently in her mind, was the single cause of a life long fascination with the night sky. Eventually her work on meteors was published and earned favorable reviews from experts in the field. Harlow Shapley, pleased by the success of his young assistant, knew that she could rise to the next level. One day he called her to his office and despite her pleas that she was never an “A” student he convinced her to pursue a Ph.D. in astronomy. Dorrit, who dedicated her autobiography to Harlow Shapley, admits that this was the happiest day of her life, explaining,

“It is because if it hadn’t been for that day I would have stayed, oh something like Henrietta Swope’s assistant or something like that and enjoyed life moderately and probably lost the job in the depression and so on. Whereas this way Shapley is responsible for my life being successful. And he was also responsible for my learning how to fight. (Laughter) Not with a gun but by talking back to the boss.”

Dorrit completed her doctoral degree at Radcliffe with a thesis on the spectroscopic absolute magnitudes of stars, for which she won an award for best original work. Dorrit worked at the Harvard College Observatory for 27 years (1929–1956), most of which were under the directorship of Harlow Shapley, whom she regarded not only as her boss but also as her mentor. Her work included such areas as the study of variable stars, meteor velocities and stellar distance measurements using trigonometric and spectroscopic parallaxes. Work at the Observatory was often demanding and posed special challenges for any woman who worked there. She remembers well the unfair treatment that women astronomers and dear friends like Cecilia Payne and Antonia Maury had to endure (see box "Treatment of women astronomers"). Compounding the gender discrimination, women doing research in astronomy were often also the victims of petty ego wars amongst some of their male colleagues and victims of outright professional jealousy. The hardships and pressure of work finally caught up with her health, creating a severe medical situation. Once feared to be due to a brain tumor, medical diagnosis showed that the symptoms were due to overwork and malnutrition.

During her many years at the HCO she met and or worked with many distinguished astronomers like Henrietta Swope, Antonia Maury, Annie Cannon, “the great” Ejnar Hertzsprung, Ernst Opik, Peter van de Kamp, Fritz Zwicky, Donald Menzel, Henry Norris Russell, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. But standing above all is Harlow Shapley, whom Dorrit admired and respected as a colleague, as mentor and for his vision as a scientist. Like his predecessor Edward Pickering, Shapley reached out to astronomers everywhere and tried to boost astronomy on a global scale. His work included collaborations with astronomers from many countries, including some from the Soviet Union. This known pacifist’s help of Russians, even during the cold war era, raised eyebrows among some of the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and in November of 1946, Shapley was summoned for questioning. Yet under these most difficult of times, Shapley demonstrated courage by standing up to Joseph McCarthy and his interrogating committee. No apologies were needed for being a pacifist. Having the courage of standing up for what he thought was right was a trait that Dorrit admires. Commenting on those events, she says,

“That was a horrible time for Shapley. He lost a lot of friends during that time because many people thought that the person who was persecuting him was a patriotic person. Being a pacifist doesn’t necessarily mean you are unpatriotic. …It seems that politicians thought that if they didn’t understand something then it must be anti-American.”

(1) Dorrit adored her brother Herbert. She remembers when he taught her how to play chess and she enjoyed all the games that they played. She lost most of them. Once when she was sick she won the game but she suspects that Herbert allowed her to win so to cheer her up. Herbert was a brilliant student at Harvard. He graduated at the age of 18 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in three years. His field was Classics and he taught Latin. He was a professor at UCLA. In 1938 they took a trip together to Europe. In 1946 he got married despite the objections of his mother who never liked his wife. She even “ordered” Dorrit not to meet “that woman.”

In 1952 Harlow Shapely retired and Donald H. Menzel became the new director of the Harvard College Observatory. The following four years were some of the saddest in Dorrit’s long tenure there because she felt a Persona Non Grata. Menzel was not too enthusiastic about her research (he considered
it obsolete), and his desire for more office space resulted in the removal of much of the photographic plates collection that gave HCO its global prestige. For the same reasons Menzel also forced the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) out of Harvard’s premises. Since its creation by Edward Pickering, the AAVSO assisted loyally in the tedious work involved in the study of photographic plates and without any cost to the Observatory. Dorrit believes that their eviction may have been the greatest blessing in disguise for the AAVSO, because it was forced to become the independent organization that it is today. Menzel also reassigned Dorrit (she prefers the term “evicted”) into a much smaller office next to the men’s room. Instead she moved to an office at Radcliffe, and soon after that, with great sadness, decided to leave the Observatory.

In 1956, at the age of 49, Dorrit became the director of Nantucket’s Maria Mitchell Observatory, which operated mostly during the summer season. She was also offered a position at Yale University for the rest of the year. During her 21 years at Nantucket, she initiated and supervised a summer program that provided 102 college-aged women with research opportunities in astronomy. Of these young women more than 20 have gone on to become professional astronomers. Consequently these women astronomers became role models to hundreds of other young women aspiring to such a career. The summer program that Dorrit Hoffleit ran was a very effective program, adding many women astronomers to the profession. Since Maria Mitchell (1818–99) was America’s first woman astronomer, it is most appropriate that such a program was connected to her name by another kindred spirit, Dorrit Hoffleit.

Like most women scientists of her time, Dorrit had to endure gender discrimination in her profession. She writes in her autobiography “Being a woman seemed to be a natural handicap wherever I was.” But besides the pains of professional discrimination, Dorrit is not shy to describe in her autobiography another kind of pain, the one of the emotional neglect she felt from her own mother. She writes, “I was yearning for the same obvious love she bestowed upon my beloved brother.” Her birth was a disappointment to her mother who is known to have said, “The good Lord could not be good to me twice; it’s only a girl.” Once, her fifth grade teacher told her mother that she was not as bright as her brother was(1). What hurt young Dorrit most was her mother’s response: “What can you expect? She’s only a girl!” She also recalls ethnic discrimination experienced at school. During the years of WWI she was isolated and treated as “the enemy” by her classmates who knew of her German origins. Yet none of these forms of discrimination caused hatred or bitterness in her heart, only sadness and at times a reasonable degree of anger. During our conversation I noticed these qualities in her, particularly her remarkable degree of kindness and seeming peace with the world. This prompted me to ask about the role that religion may have played in her life. She said:

“Father was an atheist and mother was a very devout Christian, but she was also true to her husband and so she fixed things up so that she gave us the Christian religious training. I think it was good. We did all the reading but we were not supposed to take things for granted — we had to think. And I have a feeling that if people have to think about some of the things that are required in religion, how can they believe it all? They are analogies and people take them for facts.” In her autobiography Dorrit writes: “We were to make up our own minds about what to believe and what to question. Ultimately brother became an atheist while I am an agnostic, a term meaning uncertain. To the moral issues in the Bible I subscribe, but Genesis is scientifically unacceptable.”

During WWII Dorrit, like many scientists at the time, took a leave of absence to volunteer for service. She worked on the theoretical calculation of trajectories of cannons fired from Navy vessels. Upset by the demeaning treatment she received, she resigned to go back to the Observatory(2). Soon she was invited to join the team of scientists at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where she was interviewed by none other than Edwin Hubble, whom Dorrit calls in her autobiography “the enemy of Shapley.” When I asked her to discuss the meaning of the term “enemy” she said:

“What Hubble tried to tell me was that while he, Hubble, was engaged in patriotic work at Aberdeen Proving Ground, pacifist Harlow Shapley was at Mount Wilson Observatory stealing Hubble’s research project. I discussed this with both Shapley and Hubble and finally with several astronomers at Mount Wilson. One astronomer, who had been at Mount Wilson while Hubble was there, confirmed that Hubble had never done any work that Shapley was subsequently doing at Mount Wilson. Shapley had never stolen anything. He did not work on anything that Hubble had been doing!”

(2) Dorrit Hoffleit gives two examples of the demeaning treatment she received while serving for a brief period in the Navy. (Page 42 of her a utobiography). During the period when she was helping out with computations of cannon trajectories she writes “…I was treated as though I was no better than a high school computer. In the early stages of the project I had been introduced to the Naval Officer who came occasionally from Washington to check on progress. Later when he came he treated me as though I were non-existent; he never even deigned to respond to my ‘Good Morning’ salutation.”

Dorrit’s task at Aberdeen Proving Ground was to work on computations of anti-aircraft missiles. Once again she felt she was unfairly treated, assigned to a far inferior status only because she was a woman. She did not complain, but after a stir she was finally given the appropriate status. Later she was transferred to a ballistic measurements team that towards the end of the war used V2 rockets captured from the Nazis. V2 rockets were then launched from White Sands in New Mexico to study the upper atmosphere. She recalls the embarrassment caused to her team when in one launch she saw one V2 rocket go astray and land south of the Mexican border. Dorrit writes: “This caused the Commanding General of White Sands Proving Ground to make a hasty trip to Mexico! The missile was reported to have landed on a deserted road between a cemetery and an abandoned small airport — quite an appropriate resting place for so famous a rocket!” (German rockets such as V2 and a substantial part of the German rocket team, including the director Werner von Braun, became part of the American space program.)

For a scientist whose professional work spanned two world wars as well as the cold war, it is inevitable that war be a part of her life as well as impact her profession. In a 2003 interview, around the time that Saddam Hussein of Iraq was suspected of having weapons of mass destruction, she talked about war in general, the post-September–11 tension and preparations for war in Iraq:

“With present conditions people appear to think that a war is fought in order to rectify a serious wrong, especially a wrong involving the loss of many innocent lives. But thereby many more lives are sacrificed. My view of war? Wholesale murder to somehow rectify the murders by the nations we are opposing. The world needs to improve diplomacy to make it more successful in preventing murderous wars. The United Nations does not seem to have been successful in this.”

Her mentor, Dr. Shapley, a known pacifist and one who fought to include the letter S for Science in the acronym UNESCO, also contributed in the writing of its constitution; its Preamble declares that “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

Although she retired from the astronomy department at Yale in 1975, Dorrit still retains the title of senior research astronomer there. She walks each morning to her office from her one bedroom apartment across from the astronomy department. Every day, from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, she works with the same energy and enthusiasm as that of a young post doc. She is known for her saying “Most people work for a living. I live in order to work. It’s what I love to do.” This love of work has produced a substantial body of work. She discovered over 1000 new variable stars and is credited with over 400 scholarly articles and other writings in astronomy. Amongst them is The Bright Star Catalogue, a compendium of 9,100 of the brightest stars seen in the sky with the naked eye. Some have called this book “the bible of stellar astronomers.” She is also the co-author of The General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes, which provides precise distance measurements of 8,112 stars in our galaxy. She also produced a series of publications on the history of astronomy (especially on the role of women astronomers) as well as Astronomy at Yale, the official book of the history of astronomy at Yale University in its first 250 years.

Dorrit has received numerous honors and awards, amongst them Honorary Degrees, Certificates of Appreciation and Medals from academic and state institutions, even the military. In addition to being the Director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket (1956–1978), she served as President of the AAVSO (1961–1963), and in 1987 the International Astronomical Union decided to honor her by naming asteroid #3416 Dorrit. (Jokingly she said that this asteroid would be the celestial home she will go to when she dies.) In 1988, Hoffleit was awarded the George Van Biesbroeck Prize by the American Astronomical Society for extraordinary lifetime service to astronomy.

When she celebrated her 90th birthday in 1997, astronomers from all over gathered at Yale University to celebrate this extraordinary woman. They honored her with a special symposium, the Anni Mirabales, which included the presentation of 27 papers by 36 authors. These, along with the bibliography of 416 papers by Dorrit Hoffleit, were printed in a special book entitled Anni Mirabiles: A Symposium Celebrating the 90th Birthday of Dorrit Hoffleit (L. Davis Press, Inc). Dorrit considers Anni Mirabiles to be one of her most prized possessions. It is compendium of a long lifetime’s work along with papers presented by people whose lives she has touched.
Dorrit Hoffleit lived and worked through the entire 20th century, and has seen many breakthroughs and innovations in astronomy. I asked if any one specific discovery or technological advancement stood out as most important to her. “Well,” she said, “I think the overall development of astrophysics, not to cite any specific evidence, but just the real good cooperation between physicists and astronomers to make good astrophysics.”

“What are the common and essential traits that an astronomer must have in order to succeed?” I asked. With intensity in her eyes and a smile on her face, Dorrit answered,

“The love of the subject, I think, is extremely important, not just the curiosity but the love of it. And then of course there is the curiosity and trying to satisfy the curiosity. How well those two characteristics go together, love and curiosity [determines success]…. I think probably a higher percentage of astronomers are happy with their research than in any other field because they had to make the choice on the basis of what they like and not on the basis of the remuneration.”

Appendix 3 of her autobiography Misfortunes As Blessings in Disguise, contains a sample of colorful quotes from those who knew her best, friends, colleagues and students. These were words of gratitude and recollections of the best memories, compiled during Dorrit Hoffleit’s 90th birthday celebration at Yale University in 1997. One of these was written by a colleague, astrophysicist Richard B. Larson. It captures the essence of Dorrit Hoffleit who as a young girl fell in love with the night sky.

“To me, Dorrit has above all been a symbol of endurance, and of dedication and perseverance
through thick and thin; she has been a fixed star in an ever-changing firmament…. Day after day, year after year, she has been there and always in her office, working steadily as the world turned…. I am pretty sure that she has logged more hours, directed more projects, supervised more assistants, made more contacts and friends throughout the astronomical world and published more pages than any one of the rest of us. […] The going hasn’t always been easy, and suitable recognition has not always been immediately forthcoming, but Dorrit exemplifies to me how, in the long run, sheer perseverance and endurance can overcome all obstacles, win all battles, and even all scores. I think that all of us can learn a lesson from this, and we can thank Dorrit for having shown us such an inspiring example.”


I wish to thank Columbia College Chicago for a grant that enabled me to do this project and Michael Saladyga of AAVSO for some of the photos.

Misfortunes as Blessings in Disguise: The Story of My Life, by Dorrit Hoffleit, published by AAVSO (The American Association of Variable Star Observers) Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002.

Personal interview, (Papacosta and Hoffleit) Astronomy Department, Yale University, New Haven, 29 January 2003.

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