Innovation
Meet Williamina Fleming, the Maid-Turned-'Human Computer' Who Changed Astronomy

Williamina Fleming was the maid-turned-‘human computer’ who made history for classifying more than 10,000 stars.

“She was probably the first person to see a pattern in one of the star-forming regions that actually looked like the head of a horse,” “The Glass Universe” author Dava Sobel stated. “Still today, it’s called the Horsehead Nebula.”

Fleming was an astronomer who started working as a domestic servant at the Harvard College Observatory in the 1870s. Within three decades, she helped usher in a new age of astronomy, led other women “human computers,” and set the stage for generations of women in science at Harvard.

A former schoolteacher, Fleming was recognized for her intelligence by the head of the Observatory Edward Pickering. She was hired in 1879 to do administrative work at the Observatory before traveling back to Scotland to give birth to her baby. When she returned, she learned how to do astronomy calculations

Fleming went on to become the first woman to hold the Harvard University title of Curator of Astronomical Photographs.

“And there is still that job at the university today and it has it’s been held by women all these years, since 1899,” Sobel said.

Fleming and other Harvard Observatory human computers (people who did mathematical calculations by hand), like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, became astronomers at a time when women were commonly barred from pursuing a college education.