Adelaide Ames

Adelaide Ames (June 3, 1900-June 26, 1932) was an American astronomer who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from 1923 to 1932. She is best known for her work on detailed surveys of the brightest extra-galactic spiral nebulae.

Ames became the Harvard College Observatory’s first graduate student in astronomy in January 1923. Dr. Harlow Shapley, the then-director of the HCO, wanted to have graduate students, but the only funding available to him at that moment was the Edward C. Pickering Astronomical Fellowship for Women.1 Therefore, he looked to women to find his first graduate students, and he located Ames as a promising candidate through recommendations from her undergraduate astronomy professors at Vassar College, who included Professor Caroline Ellen Furness, a prominent female astronomer.2 Ames graduated with her master’s degree in astronomy from Radcliffe College, the Harvard women’s college, in 1924.

After earning her degree, Ames joined the observatory staff. She and Shapley collaborated on important work measuring spiral nebulae in the constellations Coma and Virgo, near the north pole of the Milky Way. These nebulae were the most distant objects yet measured in space at that time.3 In 1931, Ames and Shapley published a catalog of the nearly 2,800 external galaxies that they had discovered in Coma and Virgo, which was also the first publication to utilize a novel classification system that Shapley had recently devised.4 The following year, Ames and Shapley published an extensive catalog of “precise and uniform observations” of all of the galaxies in the sky brighter than the 13th magnitude.5

Ames’s and Shapley’s research led to the important discovery that intergalactic space is transparent and virtually empty, and therefore scientists are able to accurately view and measure objects in other galaxies without obstacles blocking or distorting the path of the light.6 This proved both the vastness of space and the concept that stars are not distributed evenly in space but instead grouped into clusters.7 Shapley presented these conclusions at several scientific conferences in 1928 and 1929.8

Ames was a member of the American Astronomical Society and was elected to the International Committee on Nebulae and Clusters in 1928. She was a delegate to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) congress in Leiden, the Netherlands in 1928, and she was the secretary of the organizing committee for the subsequent congress of the IAU, which was held at Harvard in 1932.9 In April 1929, she presented her work alongside Dr. Shapley at a conference of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia themed “Mankind Advancing”.10 After earning her own degree, she helped mentor other female HCO graduate students such as Harvia Hastings Wilson and Margaret Walton.11 Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin described Ames as “young, lovely, intensely vital” and as the closest friend she had ever made at the observatory.12

Ames was the daughter of Colonel Thales L. Ames, an army ordnance officer, and Margetta Nataline Kelton Ames, who were described by friends as devoted and adoring parents to their only child.13 While Ames was a child, she traveled to army bases throughout the world with her parents, including a period of time living in the Philippines.14 The family was later stationed in Washington D.C., where Adelaide attended the Cook School and West High School.15 She became an accomplished horsewoman and enjoyed playing sports.16 Colonel Ames served in France during World War I and returned to his family in July 1919, after which he became the commandant of the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts.17 Adelaide attended Vassar College from 1918-1922,18 and while in college, she aspired to become a journalist and reported for the Vassar Miscellany News, in addition to taking astronomy classes.19 When her search for a journalism job after graduation was unsuccessful, she agreed to be recruited to the HCO by Shapley and pursue a career in astronomy. She drowned on June 26, 1932 in a canoeing accident on Squam Lake in New Hampshire, and she was interred in the Ames family plot at Arlington National Cemetery.20

Selected Publications

Shapley, Harlow and Adelaide Ames. 1926. “A Study of a Cluster of Bright Spiral Nebulae.” Harvard College Observatory Circular, vol. 294 (April): 1-8.

Shapley, Harlow and Adelaide Ames. 1929. “On the transparency of inter-galactic space.” Popular Astronomy, vol. 37: 324.

Shapley, Harlow and Adelaide Ames. 1930. “Extension of the Coma-Virgo Supergalaxy.” Harvard College Observatory Bulletin, no. 880 (December): 1-2.

Shapley, Harlow and Adelaide Ames. 1931. “On the transparency of inter-galactic space.” Publications of the American Astronomical Society, vol. 6: 238.

Shapley, Harlow and Adelaide Ames. 1932. “A Survey of the External Galaxies Brighter than the Thirteenth Magnitude.” Annals of Harvard College Observatory, vol. 88: 41-76.

Shapley, Harlow and Adelaide Ames. 1932. “Photometric Survey of the Nearer Extragalactic Nebulae.” Harvard College Observatory Bulletin, no. 887 (May): 1-6.


1- Dava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took Measure of the Stars (New York: Viking, 2016), 197.
2- Ibid., 198;
3- “Astronomers Discover Vast Universes in Distances of Space.” New York Herald Tribune, August 1, 1926.
4- “Miss Ames Was Drowned Sunday In Squam Lake.” Montpelier Evening Argus, Jun. 27, 1932.
5- Ibid.; “Caroline Ellen Furness,” Vassar Encyclopedia, 2008,
6- “Censures Talk On God By Scientist.” Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 2, 1929; “Dr. Osborn Rebukes Barnes For Urging New Concept Of God.” New York Times, January 2, 1929.
7- “Island Universes Found by Scientists.” Evening Star, Apr. 10, 1929.
8- Ibid.; “Dr. Osborn Rebukes Barnes For Urging New Concept Of God.”
9- “Miss Adelaide Ames, Recently Drowned, Famed as Astronomer.” Washington Post, July 3, 1932.
10- “Philosophers Meet At Philadelphia.” Gazette (Montreal), April 18, 1929.
11- Sobel, The Glass Universe, 217.
12- Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections, ed. Katherine Haramundanis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 142.
13- Ibid, 190.
14- “New Armory Head Arrives.” Springfield Republican, April 8, 1920.
15- “Miss Adelaide Ames, Recently Drowned, Famed as Astronomer.”
16- “New Armory Head Arrives.”
17- Ibid.
18- “Died.” Vassar Alumnae Quarterly, July 1, 1932.
19- Sobel, The Glass Universe, 197.
20- “Rites For Adelaide Ames.” Washington Post, Jul. 07, 1932.