GUTSY WOMAN: Cecelia Payne

Updated: Jan 30



Do you recognize her picture? Or her name? Cecelia Helena Payne (1900-1979) is the woman who discovered what the Universe is made of! We learn in school of the importance of Charles Darwin to evolution, Albert Einstein to relativity, but have we heard about Cecelia Payne? No. This British-born American woman discovered that hydrogen is the most abundant atom in the Universe. She wrote in her 1925 Doctoral thesis that stars are made of hydrogen and helium; her ground-breaking conclusion was of course rejected until Henry Russell came to the same conclusion four years later. (He of course, was given the credit for the discovery.)


This young woman won a scholarship to Cambridge where she completed her studies but was not given a degree because she was a woman. It was then she moved to the United States to begin work at Harvard. Cecelia was the first woman to ever earn a PhD.in astronomy from Radcliffe College. She not only discovered what the Universe is made of but also what the Sun is made of–and again she was not given the credit for it. Russell, a fellow astronomer, is given the credit for it (he told her not to publish her findings). Ever hear of variable stars? Their brightness as seen from the earth fluctuates–and Cecelia discovered this as well! She was the first woman from within Harvard’s walls to be promoted to full professor. Cecelia is credited with being the woman who broke Harvard’s “glass ceiling” in the science department and astronomy.



This amazing astronomer was a mother to three children, “an inspired seamstress, inventive knitter, a voracious reader” and life-long Unitarian. A homemaker like so many of us with a passion for the stars–her scientific findings did indeed “change the world”. You and I can be inspired by Cecelia because we can identify with the ordinariness of her home life as well as her brain!


sources-Jeremy Knowles (via aliterate). Wikipedia.org


Book Recommendation: “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier’s

“It is a stunning story, compassionately reimagined“ the Guardian

Tracy Chevalier’s stunning novel of how one woman’s gift transcends class and gender to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century.


A revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.


In the early nineteenth century, a windswept beach along the English coast brims with fossils for those with the eye…


From the moment she’s struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is marked for greatness. When she uncovers unknown dinosaur fossils in the cliffs near her home, she sets the scientific world alight, challenging ideas about the world’s creation and stimulating debate over our origins. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is soon reduced to a serving role, facing prejudice from the academic community, vicious gossip from neighbours, and the heartbreak of forbidden love. Even nature is a threat, throwing bitter cold, storms, and landslips at her.


Luckily Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly, intelligent Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who is also fossil-obsessed. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty and barely suppressed envy. Despite their differences in age and background, Mary and Elizabeth discover that, in struggling for recognition, friendship is their strongest weapon. (Amazon review)


Personally, I loved this historical fiction novel! It actually made me look up a picture of each fossil and shell that was discovered by Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpott. It’s another example of women doing everyday things against very big odds.


Perhaps you have a favorite historical fiction novel that features strong women–if so, please email me and make me aware of it so that we might talk about it here on my blog. You can reach me by email–rosemary.roenfanz@gmail.com. You can also see pictures of the gutsy women in my book on Instagram @gutsy_women

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