Administrative Work

Curator of Astronomical Photographs

She longed to do science rather than publication management

Appointed at Curator of Astronomical Photographs in 1899, Williamina Fleming became one of the first women granted a formal position at Harvard College. She served with this title for 12 years, but had attended to the administration, supervision, and leadership of the other women hired for computing since 1888 (Fig. 13). While Edward Pickering, HCO Director, greatly appreciated her, he also noted how much she focused on administration and secretarial work (Fig. 12). This is because Pickering did not have an official secretary, and relied on Fleming, as his close friend and pupil, to attend to business like writing letters, editing publications, and keeping staff passions in check. She enjoyed helping the observatory function, but would have much rather kept focus on her science (Fig. 15).

WPF as manager

Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College

Fulfilling both her administrative and scientific roles at the observatory, Fleming served as the observatory’s production manager—writing, editing, and proofreading research papers, annual reports, and data tables. This was a huge effort, involving careful reading and recalculations. In all, Fleming oversaw the publication of 60 volumes of the observatory's Annals (Fig. 14). Much of this work was demanding -- both mentally and physically stressful (she saw a physiotherapist weekly for a hand injury). But as her workload increased, so did her pay. As one of the observatory's most important members, it was important to show she was valued as much as the male assistants. 

The 60 Annals of the HCO that Fleming guided to publication.


While Fleming's labors now seem Herculean, our contemporary tools make it a breeze. Where her publishing and reference work required hours of labor to compile bibliographies, check calculations, and add notations, modern astronomers can use the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, searching 13,664,638 records of data and publications since the beginning of astrophysics, to pull up relevant results in a matter of seconds (Fig. 16). And better yet, instead of flipping to many tables in many books, an ADS search for a star gives one list of all mentions in the database (Fig. 17). Standing on the shoulders of the giant Williamina Fleming, these magical tasks would seem too abstract for modern astronomers contemplate, let alone compute.

Astronomical Data System contains over 13 million records

Simple search gives all references to star Spica

Image Sources

12. (1891). Observatory computer room and staff. Retrieved from

13. Pickering, E. (1912). Sixty-sixth annual report of the director of the Astronomical Observatory at Harvard College for the year ending in September 30, 1911. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

14. Wargelin, M. (2018). Photograph of Annals of the HCO [Image]. Cambridge, MA: John J. Wolbach Library.

15. Fleming, W. P. (1900). Journal of Williamina Patton Fleming, p. 9, Harvard University Archives, Harvard College Library, Cambridge, MA.

16. Wargelin, M. (2019). ADS search results of year:1850-2019 [Image]. The SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, Cambridge, MA.

17. Wargelin, M. (2019). ADS search results of object:"HD 116658" OR full:"HD 116658" [Image]. SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, Cambridge, MA.