Halley’s Comet & Northern Lights Stimulate Interest in Astronomy for a Young Lady From Iron Hill

AAVSO Director Margaret Mayall (left) talks with Administrative Assistant, Helen Stephanski (left) in 1953.  Photo Credit:   The blog Simostronomy  http://simostronomy.blogspot.com/2010/11/100-years-of-citizen-science.html

AAVSO Director Margaret Mayall (left) talks with Administrative Assistant, Helen Stephanski (left) in 1953. Photo Credit: The blog Simostronomy http://simostronomy.blogspot.com/2010/11/100-years-of-citizen-science.html

The previous post on the little hamlet of Iron Hill caused me to think about another research project I worked on a few years ago, gathering data about a young lady born in Iron Hill.  She became an acclaimed astronomer, with an international following, this taking place in an era when women weren’t expected to become professional researchers.  But the girl who grew up in the community rose through the ranks of the discipline, leading the American Association of Variable Star Observers and doing significant, published research at Harvard, which brought international acclaim for her work.

Margaret Walton was born in Iron Hill on January 27, 1902.  Of the place where her father operated the general store she said once in an oral history:  It “is not even a town, just a country place half way between North (???) and (???). . . . I was from just south of the Mason Dixon Line, almost on it in fact.”

When the interviewer asked when she became interested in the stars she recalled:  “Well, a slight interest of course from Halley’s Comet, that was around 1910.  My father got me up in the early morning and we went out and watched it.  He was always interested in nature.  I don’t think, in fact I’m sure he didn’t know too much about astronomy although he recognized constellations and knew something of the stars and the weather and was always very much interested.  But I didn’t have any definite interest until I got to college, and I was taking math as a junior  math and chemistry at the University of Delaware.  First I did go to high school in (???) Maryland, in a very large class of 13 graduating, when I graduated.”

After attending the University of Delaware, she moved to Swarthmore College as her interest in astronomy grew.  She started working at Harvard Observatory with Annie J. Cannon of Delaware and other women doing research in the discipline.  The scientist married Newton Mayall, becoming Margaret Walton Mayall.  The internationally acclaimed astronomer died in 1995, at the age of 93, according to the American Astronomical Society.

Here’s an interesting article from the Smithsonian Magazine, “The Women Who Mapped the Universe and Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect.”

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