Who counts as a scientist?
Palmieri taught an undergraduate class in the winter of 2022-23, where students read about the history of women in science and examined the materials from Yerkes themselves. Based on their research, the students contributed exhibit items and captions to the library exhibit.
“The questions we’re asking include: Who ‘counts’ as a scientist? How is the labor of women recognized in the literature, and how is it valued in comparison to that of male scientists?” said Palmieri. “I wanted to have students deconstruct and reconstruct these terms we take for granted.”
As an astrophysicist, Kron said, his own perspective has been challenged. “When we were trying to find information on these women, I originally said, ‘OK, let’s catalog the papers these women published,’ which is how I would approach it today. But some of them don’t have published papers at all, which makes us have to rethink how we give credit to people and recognize people, because we know they were doing this work.”
The team traced the career of one female astronomer at Yerkes, Harriet McWilliams Parsons, who did her master’s and Ph.D. research at Yerkes. (She was awarded her Ph.D. from UChicago in 1921). They tracked down Parsons’ master’s thesis, which involved measuring the colors of the stars in the Pleiades.
“This was absolutely pioneering for the time,” Kron said. “And the funny thing is, that Edwin Hubble was at Yerkes doing research too and his Ph.D. thesis was published the same year. If I had to compare them I would say that Parsons’ is far superior work, and yet Hubble is the one that went on to become highly decorated.”
Parsons is one of the women discussed in the exhibit “Capturing the Stars,” which runs at the UChicago Library through the fall quarter. The displays include letters written by and to these women, as well as photos, archival footage, examples of the glass plates and the equipment they made and used every day. The Neubauer Collegium also funded a symposium coinciding with the exhibit opening, titled “Invisible Labor in Astronomy and Astrophysics.”
“This is such a rare opportunity to give these women back their voices,” Palmieri said.
The work of the research group has been made possible by the support of the Neubauer Collegium, the College Center for Research and Fellowships, the College Innovation Fund, the National Science Foundation, the Kathleen and Howard Zar Science Library Fund, the University of Chicago Women’s Board, the John Crerar Foundation, the University of Chicago Division of the Physical Sciences, and the University of Chicago Library. The research group gratefully acknowledges the Yerkes Future Foundation for their continued support of preservation work and educational outreach activities at Yerkes Observatory.