Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming

by catcher Tuesday, June 5, 2012 12:18 AM

'The Astronomer's Maid'


Born: 15th May 1857, Dundee, Angus (Forfarshire), Scotland.
Died: 21st May 1911, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, USA

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming will always be remembered by Astrophotographers for her discovery in 1888 of the ‘Horsehead’ Nebula, probably the most famous and iconic of all astronomical objects in the heavens. A remarkable achievement, considering that she had begun her astronomical career as the housekeeper of Edward Charles Pickering, the then Director of the Harvard College Observatory.

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming never took a photograph of an astronomical object; indeed there is no evidence to suggest that she took a photograph of anything. Yet her place in the history of astrophotography is assured - because of a discovery she made – one for which modern Astrophotographers should both revere and revile her, for in almost equal measure.

For in 1888 she found on a photographic plate an object which is without doubt the most iconic and beautiful of all astronomical objects ever to be seen by human eyes – the famous ‘Horsehead’ Nebula. Let us now tell her story, which is one any author of fiction would be proud to write - of how a housemaid with no scientific training or qualifications became one of the world’s a greatest astronomers.

Her life begins not in the hallowed halls of Harvard College where she worked or amongst the stars of Orion where her ‘Horsehead’ lies, but in the streets of the ancient Scottish city of Dundee.

To read more on her life and work read the eBook chapter on Williamina Fleming: or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

'Horsehead' Nebula, 8-inch Bache Astrograph, Harvard College Observatory, 6th of February 1888

Buy the eBook or Printed Book at the 'Catchers of the Light' shop.


Pioneers of Astrophotography

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Stefan Hughes began his career as a professional astronomer, gaining a 1st Class Honours degree in Astronomy from the University of Leicester in 1974 and his PhD four years later on the 'Resonance Orbits of Artificial Satellites due to Lunisolar Perturbations', which was published as a series of papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. After graduating he became a Research fellow in Astronomy, followed by a spell as a lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Queen Mary College, London. Then came a ten year long career as an IT Consultant. In 'mid life' he spent several years retraining as a Genealogist, Record Agent and Architectural Historian, which he practiced for a number of years before moving to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where for the past ten years he has been imaging the heavens, as well as researching and writing the 'Catchers of the Light' - A History of Astrophotography.