Celebrating International Women’s Day through the Life of Astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit


Dorrit Hoffleit (1907 – 2007) receiving an Honorary Doctorate from CCSU in 1998

If you are fortunate, you encounter a special mentor in your life, someone who helps to shape not only your career, but your entire life. I have been fortunate to have had several such individuals while a college student and young academic. One of the most influential was Dorrit Hoffleit. If it were not for her, I would not be President of the AAVSO today. In celebration of Dorrit’s remarkable life and career, I offer here a summary of her achievements. – Kristine Larsen


The daughter of German immigrants Fred and Kate Sanio Hoffleit, Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit was born on her father’s farm in Alabama on March 12, 1907. According to Dorrit, her father named her Ellen, her mother named her Dorrit, and in her words, “the woman in the house always has her way.” After a suspicious fire destroyed the family farmhouse when Dorrit was still an infant, Fred moved the family to New Castle, Pennsylvania, where he had been working as a bookkeeper for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The marriage eventually fell apart and Fred moved back to the farm by himself when Dorrit was nine years old.

Dorrit recounted that watching Perseid meteors with her older brother Herbert was an important step towards becoming an astronomer. As a child, Dorrit fell into her brilliant older brother’s shadow, facing constant comparisons from teachers who were impressed with his natural talent for languages. As she explained, “One of my grade school classes I had the same teacher that my brother had had a few years previously. My mother and I were walking down the street one day and we bumped into my teacher and Mother and teacher started talking … and the teacher says ‘Dorrit isn’t as bright as her brother, is she?’ where upon my mother says, ‘What can you expect, she’s only a girl.’” Dorrit was deeply hurt by that remark but years later her mother explained that she was referring to the teacher’s intelligence, not her daughter’s. Dorrit was deeply proud of her brother, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard in Classics at the young age 21, and subsequently became a professor at UCLA. She later explained that “The contrast between my brother and me is an exemplification of the childhood tale of the tortoise and the hare. Herb learned quickly and achieved early in life. I was slow but deliberate and finally made the grade. It is hard to say whose influence was the greater on our respective students.”

Dorrit was sent to Radcliffe College by her mother “so that her brilliant son wouldn’t be ashamed of his ‘dumb’ sister.” At Radcliffe, Dorrit became a mathematics major as Radcliffe only offered two astronomy courses at the time. Dorrit learned her first taste of independent research quite by accident at Radcliffe when she incorrectly conducted an astronomical transit experiment. For her, it was a valuable learning experience but in her words “I don’t think my professor appreciated the educational value of that experiment. I think I got a lot more out of the pole star than I did out of what the thing was intended for. So you see, independence wasn’t appreciated even then.” Dorrit graduated Radcliffe cum laude in 1928 and began taking graduate classes while looking for work. Through a classmate she landed a job as a research assistant at the Harvard College Observatory for 40 cents per hour, half of a man’s salary. She turned down a higher paying statistician job to work there, and several times subsequently turned down other, higher paying offers because of her growing love for the HCO and respect for its Director, Harlow Shapley, who encouraged independent thinking. Her original position was working as an assistant to Henrietta Swope, daughter of the president of General Electric Company. Henrietta had discovered a large number of variable stars, and her father was so proud of her that he funded the assistant position that Dorrit filled. Dorrit proved herself to be an expert discoverer of variable stars in her own right, finding approximately 1200 over her career.

At Harvard Dorrit came into contact with the American Association of Variable Star Observers, or AAVSO, an organization of amateur and professional astronomers that had been founded at Harvard in 1911 by Observatory Director E.C. Pickering and variable star observer William Tyler Olcott. She became an official member of the organization in 1930, and a life member in 1943. Of her eventual 450+ professional publications, her first two (published in 1930) were directly related to variable stars: the first was on variable stars in Centaurus, and the second was a collaboration with AAVSO Recorder Leon Campbell on the color curve of the variable star RV Centauri. Thus began Dorrit’s lifelong love for the AAVSO and its members.

Dorrit completed a MA in Astronomy from Radcliffe in 1932, as she put it, “the highest degree for which I felt qualified.” She continued her work on variable stars during the day and worked on independent research projects at night on her own time, including a pioneering study of the light curves of meteors using the accidental photographs of meteors in the Harvard plate collection. She brought her completed paper to Shapley, who submitted it for publication and then called Dorrit into his office, where colleague Bart Bok was also waiting. As Dorrit described it, Shapley said “‘We were wondering why you were not continuing to work for your Ph.D. Go back to your office and think it over.’ I had never been particularly bright, and this was the greatest expression of confidence in my abilities I had ever heard.”

With more prodding from Bart Bok, Dorrit went back for her Ph.D. at Radcliffe, which she completed in 1938 with work on determining the absolute magnitudes of stars from their spectra. Her thesis was awarded the Caroline Wilby Prize for the best original work in any department by a student that year. Dorrit continued her work at the HCO as a research associate and then astronomer with tenure, continuing her research on variable stars and other astronomical objects. She came into contact with some of the biggest names in astronomy and made a reputation for herself as a diligent worker. For example, Ejnar Hertzsprung sent her so many requests for observations of variable stars that Shapley had to finally put his foot down because it was taking too much time away from Dorrit’s Harvard assignments.

At Harvard, Dorrit met and worked with many of the now-famous female “computers” and astronomers, including Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, all of whom made contributions to variable star astronomy. But her favorite was undoubtedly Antonia Maury, with whom she became good friends. After Antonia’s death, Dorrit became a champion for her and the rightful place of her work in astronomical history, and wrote numerous articles about her friend.

Dorrit also developed an overall passion for the history of astronomy, seen most tangibly in a later work she was quite proud of, The History of Astronomy at Yale. She was also interested in illuminating the important role played by women in astronomy, as seen in her short works Maria Mitchell’s Famous Students and Comets Over Nantucket (1983), Women in the History of Variable Star Astronomy (1993), and The Education of American Women Astronomers Before 1960 (1994).

During World War II, Dorrit, like many Harvard astronomers, became involved in “war work.” She felt more compelled than more to become involved because of her German heritage, and because during World War I young classmates had taunted her as one of the enemy. In 1943 she took a leave from Harvard and began work at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, preparing aircraft firing tables. There she found herself in a private war against gender discrimination. As an academic with a Ph.D., she was clearly eligible for a professional rating but was instead relegated to a subprofessional class even though she was assigned to do professional class work. This led to a conflict which Dorrit rates as a defining experience in her career. In her words, “After I’d been there for about a year the inspector general of the Baltimore district, where Aberdeen is, discovered there was a woman Ph.D. with the subprofessional rating, and he came around on a day when the colonel was down at Washington instead of in Aberdeen and he wanted to find out all about the story about why I was on a subprofessional [rating]…So when the colonel came back the next day and heard about what had happened …[he]told the major to tell me that there was no room for professional women …, that I’d have my choice – either I could transfer to the Pentagon where women were welcome, … or the poor major was to make sure that I did nothing but subprofessional work because if I didn’t do anything but subprofessional work then it would be all right to keep me on subprofessional rating. So I told the poor quaking major that… since the colonel wouldn’t talk to me himself, he, the major, could go back and tell the colonel ‘thanks, I don’t accept either alternative, that isn’t what I came down here for.’” Dorrit eventually won her “war” with the military brass and afterwards returned to Harvard, but continued as a consultant – with the proper professional rating – at the Proving Ground until 1961.

Dorrit’s life was drastically changed by Shapley’s retirement from Harvard in 1952. His replacement, Donald Menzel, did not apparently value independence, so despite having tenure at Harvard, Dorrit was forced to follow her conscience and “defected” to Yale in 1956 where she worked on large astrometric catalogue projects and where, to her unhappy surprise, she was not afforded the same independence she had enjoyed at Harvard. Fortunately, at the same time, she was offered the Directorship of Nantucket’s Maria Mitchell Observatory. Due to the financial situation of the observatory, she held a split 6 month/6 month appointment between Yale and Nantucket.

Dorrit’s two decades on Nantucket allowed her to encourage a new generation of astronomers through her summer variable star research program for undergraduates. Over the years 102 young women (and 3 young men) conducted research on approximately 650 variable stars, presented their findings at the AAVSO Fall conference, and often published their results in the Journal of the AAVSO. As Dorrit reflected, at least thirty five of her former students became professional astronomers “and their achievements are a joy to behold.” To this day, being called “one of Dorrit’s girls” is considered a supreme honor.

One of Dorrit’s most beloved “girls” was Janet Mattei, who unexpectedly assumed the responsibility of hosting the October 1969 meeting of the AAVSO on Nantucket at the last minute when Dorrit was unable to travel back to the island due to extreme fog. As Dorrit has often recounted, “my girl Janet had done such a marvelous thing running the meeting for me that when Margaret Mayall [Director of the AAVSO] was looking for an assistant… I got the two of them together again and Margaret of course grabbed Janet… and then when Margaret was ready to retire there were a half a dozen people who wanted her job and [Janet] was unanimously elected to that job, all because of the Nantucket fog.” It should be noted that Janet also made an equally deep impression on a young AAVSO member at that meeting, Michael Mattei, who became her husband.

Dorrit remained an untenured research associate and astronomer at Yale (supported entirely through grants – a feat she was especially proud of) even after her “official” retirement in 1975. Her main contributions at Yale include the first paper on the light variability of quasars, catalogues containing the proper motions of 30,000 stars, and the 3rd and 4th editions of the Bright Star Catalogue and its Supplement.

Dorrit received numerous awards over her life, some of which are shown on this slide, including an asteroid named in her honor, the George van Biesbroeck award from the University of Arizona for outstanding service to astronomy, the Annenberg Foundation Award from the American Astronomical Society for “service to the community in education,” and the AAVSO’s William Tyler Olcott Distinguished Service Award.

Dorrit’s service to astronomy is impressive and wide-reaching, but her service to variable star astronomy was perhaps nearest and dearest to her heart. Of her approximately 450 professional publications, 41% were related to variable stars, and over 50 were published by the AAVSO. She served the AAVSO in many capacities (as shown on this slide), including two years as President, and several terms on the Council. She was undoubtedly the organization’s greatest cheerleader.

But the AAVSO was not Dorrit’s only avenue for interacting with amateur astronomers and the general public. For example, she was active with the Bond Astronomical Club at Harvard (serving as President in 1952) as well as the Astronomical Society of New Haven, which is where I met her while a teenager. An honorary member of the Society, Dorrit spoke at nine meetings between 1957-1987, including keynote speeches at the 1973-5 annual banquets. At the Maria Mitchell Observatory she held public observing nights, exposing her research students to the joys of public outreach. And she also penned many popular level articles on astronomy over her career, in such journals as Sky and Telescope, Mercury, Popular Astronomy, and The Scientific Monthly.

In everything she did, Dorrit’s work ethic was simple, and straightforward: “Work for the work’s sake and it will become a part of you.” Not only was her work a part of her, but through her work she became an integral part of the astronomical community. In honor of her lifetime of accomplishments, Yale University hosted special symposia for her 90th birthday in 1997, and in honor of her Centenary year in 2006. She continued to be active in research on topics of her choice until shortly before her death on April 9, 2007, at the age of 100, and often remarked of her later years “I have become as happy and independent as I had been in my youth at Harvard.”

Those who were blessed to have known Dorrit treasured her for her intelligence, work ethic, loyalty, sense of humor, and her hearty full-body laugh. I once asked her what she liked to do outside of astronomy – she replied without hesitation “eat and sleep,” and then laughed with gusto. She was a mentor to many, and a role model to countless more. She will not be matched, and she is dearly missed.

I had the honor of introducing Dorrit when she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, and nominated her for the Honorary Doctorate she received from my home institution, Central Connecticut State University. Dorrit liked my introduction of her at both events so much she included it in her autobiography, Misfortunes as Blessings in Disguise, and I am honored to think that she felt it did a reasonable job of summing up her career:

It is a basic tenet of stellar astronomy that those stars which burn hottest and brightest and draw the most attention to themselves also burn out the quickest, rapidly becoming nothing more than fading memories. Meanwhile, those unassuming stars which steadily shine in the background, content to diligently produce energy at a more modest pace, continue to influence the universe with their light and heat for many generations to come. Such is the record of your long and amazingly productive career.

But I think that Janet Mattei did a far better job of summarizing Dorrit’s impact on the universe, when she said “It is rare that a human being can touch many lives and make the world a better place – as Dorrit Hoffleit has.”


Note: This summary was heavily based on two prior publications, and I invite the interested reader to consult those for relevant citations and references:

“Whistling Meteors, Vibrating Cameras, and the Moon-Struck Iris: Popular-level Writings of Dorrit Hoffleit.” In The Hoffleit Centennial, eds. A. G. Davis Philip, William F. van Altena and Rebecca A. Koopmann. L. Davis Press, 21-6, 2008.

“Variable Stars and Constant Commitments: The Stellar Career of Dorrit Hoffleit.” Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers 40(1): 44-50, 2012.



One thought on “Celebrating International Women’s Day through the Life of Astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit

  1. Barbei & Spencer Aine

    My 12 year old daughter and I read this together. She was stunned after learning about being paid half because she was a woman. After we read it I told her “I wore red today for you and your future”. Thank you for sharing her story with us.


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