Skip Navigation

Mount Wilson and Palomar

Mount Wilson and Palomar telescopes are extreme examples of how the need for large telescopes worked against women astronomers in the 50s and 60s. In 1902, the Carnegie Institution of Washington was founded by Andrew Carnegie to promote scientific research.1 This institution was the beginning in a new trend in funding for scientific exploration. Projects for the necessary equipment in astronomy and many other fields were growing too expensive to be easily afforded. Large foundations and eventually the government were becoming the primary means to support scientific undertaking for the twentieth century. They were the people to turn to, to get the money to build an observatory or to fund fellowships. They were also the people who decided who was recognized and who was not. As the century progressed, large projects at established institutions came to be favored by the Carnegie Institution and many foundations that were to come afterward.

In the early 1900s, George Ellery Hale, one of the premier astronomers of the first half of the twentieth century, quickly began to use this funding system to advance his own projects. He was responsible for the efforts to fund and build two of the huge observatories of the west. He helped build the 40 inch Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin opened in 1897 and later the 60 and 100 inch observatories at Mount Wilson and the 200 inch telescope at Palomar. By 1910, the Carnegie Institution began to focus its money on fewer projects. One of the projects that was receiving much of the institution's money was the Solar Observatory on Mount Wilson.2 Hale and his observatory were well funded. In 1904, they had two grants equaling $15,000, and by 1905, they had another $150,000 for building and maintaining the observatory. 3 Mount Wilson was, and still is, a place where astrophysicists and astronomers of either gender would want to do research.

Did women have access to this telescope? Unfortunately, Mount Wilson and Palomar seem to have been a primarily male dominated observatory until the 1970s. Vera Rubin recounts that Hale and other astronomers at Mount Wilson and later Palomar called the living quarters the "Monastery" and banned women from using the telescopes until the mid-1960s. 4 In an interview after she was working for the Carnegie Institution, Rubin explained a few details she had discovered. Apparently, Andrew Carnegie asked for a facility where the male astronomers would not be bothered by their families, and so the "Monastery" was built to exclude families on Mount Wilson.5 The importance of this "Monastery" can be seen as early as 1905 in Hale's report in the fourth Yearbook of the Carnegie Institution on the progress of the Solar Observatory on Mount Wilson.

"The "Monastery." -The offices and living quarters provided for the members of the staff in this building have proved very satisfactory. The library and current journals are also kept here. All the members of the staff, with the members of the visiting expeditions, meet regularly at meals in the common dining-room. The opportunity thus afforded for the informal discussion of scientific questions is one of the most attractive features of life at the observatory."6

This key facility, built to foster scientific exploration in astronomy, barred women. The name itself, and the importance given to the facility, show that women were not expected observe at the telescope. Initially, women astronomers were probably simply overlooked because few women did active observing when Mount Wilson was built. The monastery was built to exclude wives, not necessarily women astronomers. However, these facilities quickly grew into a justification for women's exclusion by 1960.

An examination of Annual Report of the Director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, from the 40s show that women are only listed as computers and editorial or secretarial staff. Similarly, at the back of each report is a bibliography of articles that resulted from work at the observatory. Women are almost solely co-authors of articles since they were often working with men who did the observing. Similarly, when they authored their own articles, it is often a study of photographic plates or a piece about astronomical history.7 Women at Mount Wilson were still the computers of the earlier period. However, the world at large was changing.

Despite women's positions as computers and what would become, by the 60s, the systematic exclusion of women, there were a few minor exceptions to the policy. While visiting California in the 30s, Payne-Gaposchkin gained access to, and was able to make observation with, the telescopes at the observatory for a few hours. She did not stay at the observatory or carry out lengthy observations, but was simply extended the professional courtesy of a few hours observing time by the staff."That visit to Mount Wilson Observatory is something to remember. I was received with the utmost kindness and hospitality. I met the legendary figures of Western Astronomy: kindly old Dr. St. John, the gay, ebullient Adriaan van Maanend, Frederick Pease, Edison Pettit, and the distant, forbidding Directory, Walter Sydney Adams. I received a flattering and exceptional offer of observing time. They had expected that I should want to use the spectrographs. But some masochistic impulse reminded me that I was now dedicated to photometry, so I spent the precious hours on the mountain on color indices for the twin clusters in Perseus."8 Payne-Gaposchkin was an exception probably because of her reputation and that fact that she was only staying for a few hours. However, this clearly illustrates that conditions at Mount Wilson and Palomar actually worsened over time as more women began to apply to observe at the telescopes. In general, women were not allowed to use the Mount Wilson telescope, and even in Payne-Gaposchkin's time women were not receiving Carnegie Fellowships or other funds for their research at Palomar and Mount Wilson.

By the 50s and 60s, what had probably been an oversight caused by the lack of women observational astronomers, had become a standardized form of exclusion and discrimination. In the 1950s, women began to apply for Carnegie Fellowships and for telescope time, and they were denied. Housing and facilities were listed as the reason for this exclusion. Margaret Burbridge applied for a Carnegie Fellowship in the late forties. The reply she received was not supportive. "He thought I had committed a terrible faux pas by applying. He thought I should have known women were not allowed."9 Eventually, in 1955, she was able to observe at Mount Wilson because her husband took the Carnegie Fellowship and brought her with him when he had telescope time. Subsequently, Burbridge was able to carry out her research despite restrictions. Unlike Payne-Gaposchkin, Burbridge wanted to observe full time and on an equal level with the men at the observatory, which in 1955 was clearly not allowed. Only great dedication, a helpful husband, and a lot of ingenuity allowed her to continue.

Vera Rubin was the first woman to use the Palomar telescope legally. In 1963-64, she was invited to apply for telescope time by Alan Sandage at either Mount Wilson or Palomar. The proposal form she was given stated at the top, "Due to limited Facilities, it is not possible to accept application from women." In pencil someone had added "usually." 10 As with Payne-Gaposchkin, her earlier research had shown her a capable astronomer, helping to open the doors to these large telescopes. The limited facilities to which the form referred was the presence of only one toilet at the observatory. So on the first night she was there, Olin Eggen, who was observing at the 200 inch while she worked at the 48 inch, proceeded to give her a tour of the larger telescope and point out the famous toilet. 11

Ann Merchant Boesgaard also related her experiences at Mount Wilson approximately ten years later. After she completed her Ph.D. in 1966 she applied for the Carnegie Fellowship, which was by this time was a bit more open about accepting women fellows. However, when they found out she was married, they assumed she was no longer interested and disregarded her application. Instead, she got a post-doctoral fellowship at Caltech which gave her access to the Mount Wilson telescope."Like Margaret Burbridge, ... I too stayed in an unheated cottage with no hot water. The men stayed in a heated "monastery" with warm showers. But unlike Margaret, I was allowed to take my meals in the monastery - times had changed. I did not find it a heady experience to be the first woman to follow the tradition of sitting at the head of the table because I was observing at the largest telescope, the 100 inch (with the 60 inch observer to my right and the solar observer to my left), and ring the dinner bell for the "maids" to bring the next course. And I was not the least thrilled to have to make a fire in the potbellied stove in the cottage after observing those long, cold winter nights. "12 So while Boesgaard was allowed to use the telescopes to observe, she still had many barriers to face. Because she was married, she was denied the fellowship she desired. While allowed access, she was in an entirely male environment designed to exclude women. Housing was substandard for women with a wood stove as the only heating. The eating environment, which had been praised as environment where scientific ideas could be discussed and shared, was based upon a patriarchal set up with women serving as maids and men eating and discussing scientific issues. The fact that Boesgaard was a woman and at the head of the table did not alter the patriarchal set up, she simply was an exception to the rule. Under these conditions, where a woman as scientist was an anomaly, only someone very dedicated to her profession could achieve success.

The Carnegie Fellowships were not the only funding available for study at Mount Wilson and Palomar. The NSF grants were another possible source of funding for research. The director reports illustrate that between 1959 to 1970 there were no NSF grants to work at these telescopes given to women. Caltech which was associated with these telescopes admitted very few women. The avenues for funding and access to this telescope, as well as the facilities themselves made it difficult for women to use these telescopes. As Rubin's case made clear, the large telescopes and cutting edge facilities were needed for women to make a name for themselves and carry out important research, but at some large institutions the system was designed to excluded women. Technological developments were no longer helping women to become prominent within the field in the second half of the twentieth century.


1. Daniel Kevles, The Physicist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978),p.69.

2.Kevles, p.83

3. George E. Hale, "Solar Observatory, Mount Wilson, California," in Carnegie Institustion of Washington Yearbook 3 (Washington D.C., 1904), p.94; George E. Hale, "Report of Director of the Solar Observatory, Mount Wilson Califonria," in Carnegie Institution of Washington Yearbook 4 (Washington D.C., 1905), p.56.

4.Vera Rubin, Dark Matter, (Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics, 1997) p.167.

5. Rubin p.156

6.Hale, Yearbook4, p.74

7.Annual Report of the Director of the Mount Wilson Observatory (Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1946) pp.48,51

8.Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).p.183

9. Margaret Burbridge quoted my Flam, Faye, "Still a Chilly Climate for Women?" Science 252 (21 June 1991): 1604.

10.Rubin, p.156

11.Rubin p.156

12. Ann Merchant Boesgaard, "One Woman's Journey." Mercury (Jan./Feb. 1992): 19-22,37.


Return to the main history page, or return home.


This page was created by Michele Nichols on June 10, 1998.