Skip to content Skip to navigation
Skip to global navigation Menu

Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Banner image: Palmer (in white) and Maury at the 1918 meeting, at Harvard, of the American Astronomical Association.

Margaretta Palmer ’1887

Born in 1862, in Branford, Connecticut, Margaretta Palmer graduated from Vassar in 1887. She was a student in Maria Mitchell’s Astronomy III in the fall term of1885 and one of 10 students in the advanced class the following year. At her commencement, in 1887, she and fellow astronomer Antonia Maury were among the seven graduates who delivered addresses. Palmer spoke on “The Divine Nemesis in Greek Tragedy,” “ably” showing, according to The Vassar Miscellany, “the different ways in which Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides regarded the Divine Nemesis, and said that Sophocles came near the Christian faith in his belief in mercy tempering justice.” Palmer spent the year after her graduation as Mitchell’s assistant in the Vassar Observatory. In 1888-89 she was an instructor in Latin at Vassar.

Change had been slowly taking place in both the thinking about and the presence of women in scientific work. In 1875, in her presidential address at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Women, Maria Mitchell had succinctly laid out a societal conflict facing women scientists. While womanly ideals were exalted, individual women’s experiences diminished them: “With our ideas of women, we demand too much of a woman. We are generous toward the species but severe upon the specimen.” And the following year, at the association’s meeting in Philadelphia, she had described the true impediment to women who would succeed in scientific work:

The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, the are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss their capacity for original work.

In 1882, Mary Whitney, Maria Mitchell’s student—and, in 1889, her successor at Vassar—had published an influential essay, “Scientific Study and Work for Women,” in which she suggested that scientific training would lead women to “useful, and, I hope, in the future, remunerative labor.” About the same time, Edward Pickering, an advocate of women’s advanced study and the recently appointed director of the Harvard observatory, dissatisfied with computational work done by his male assistant, turned the task over to his Scottish housekeeper, Williamina P. Fleming. Fleming’s success led to his employing—under her supervision—twenty other women “computers” between 1885 and 1900. Among these women were graduates of Wellesley and Radcliffe and, from Vassar, Margaretta Palmer’s classmate, Antonia Maury. Several other observatories took up this practice, and Palmer was hired, in 1889, as an Assistant in the observatory at Yale. Palmer’s study of computational astronomy—or astrometry—under Maria Mitchell was clearly appreciated by mathematician Hubert A. Newton, at this time Astronomer in Charge of the Yale’s Repsold heliometer, which had been acquired a few years earlier.(1)

The Yale Heliometer

Palmer was in the first group of women admitted, in 1892, to the Yale Graduate School, and she was among the first seven—and the first woman astronomer—to earn the Yale Ph.D., in 1894.(2) Palmer’s doctoral thesis was a recalculation of the orbit of Comet 1847VI, the comet Maria Mitchell had discovered, on October 1, 1847. (3) Mitchell had published an approximate orbit for the comet in 1848, but the definitive previous determination had been in 1857 by Frau Rümker, the wife of Carl Ludwig Christian Rümker, the director of the Hamburg Observatory. Frau Rümker had observed Comet 1847VI on October 11, ten days after it was recorded by Mitchell. Palmer’s recalculation considered over 75 observations recorded at over a dozen sites in the United States and in Europe between October 7 and 18, 1847 and, on the comet’s return, between December 11 and 18, 1847. Drawing on modern star maps and correcting the data for perturbation—deviation caused by the gravitational influence of other nearby or distant bodies—Palmer’s conclusion confirmed and greatly refined Frau Rümker’s determination that the comet’s orbit was elliptical.

Palmer went on to compute the orbits of three of eight comets discovered by the German-born English astronomer, Caroline Herschel, those of 1786, 1788, and 1797. She also undertook, in cooperation with Hubert Newton’s daughter, Josephine, an analysis of the motions of Jupiter’s satellites. Heliometers at both Yale and the Cape Observatory in South Africa had extensively observed the planet “in opposition”—when, viewed from earth, the planet was directly opposite the sun and thus at its closest—in 1891 and 1892. Elkin’s annual report for 1892 to Yale’s president indicated the computational complexity of the task:

From July, 1891 to January, 1892 the satellites of Jupiter form the principal object of work and we secured on 114 nights during that period 570 complete measures of their relative positions besides the necessary work on stars to keep a continuous control on the instrumental adjustments. The computations for such a series of intermutual positions will be quite extensive, but considerable progress has been already made on them, mainly by Miss Margaretta Palmer. The places of the satellites from the tables have all been deduced, and also all the differential coefficients for the equations of condition.

By 1894 Palmer had compiled all the available observations, setting up 1128 equations of condition in 13 unknowns, according to the Elkin’s annual report, but the equations were not yet solved. In his report of June 1895, Elkin reported. “Owing to the long and serious illness of Dr. Palmer, considerable work yet remains to be done on the Jupiter satellite series.” While others would eventually interpret this data, Margaretta Palmer was unable to complete this colossal computing job.

Palmer (in white) and Maury at the 1918 meeting, at Harvard, of the American Astronomical Association.

Another massive undertaking, started in 1897 by Miss Newton under Elkin’s direction and continued by Margaretta Palmer, involved the legendary Bonner Durchmusterung (Bonn Survey, or BD), a massive star catalog showing the positions and apparent magnitudes of 324,188 northern stars, compiled at the Bonn Observatory between 1852 and 1859. BD was supplemented in 1886 for 133,659 stars in the southern sky by the Sudentliche Durchmusterung (Southern Survey, or SD). The Yale project was an interleaving index of all the positional catalogues in which any BD or SD star occurs. Two sets of the four BD volumes and one of the SD were interleaved and all of the references to positions determined from 1750 to 1900 were added with meticulous care.

Despite funding and staffing turmoil at Yale’s observatory, Palmer continued work on this project, in which some 175 indexes were included and some 900,000 star positions entered. In 1917 she published an article, “The Yale Index to Star Catalogues,” in Astronomical Journal. Noting that, for various reasons, it had “never seemed advisable to push this work to completion,” Palmer observed that most of the essential work on major BD star catalogues between 1750 and 1900 and on many minor catalogues was completed. Acknowledging “the stupendous task undertaken by the Königlich Preussische Akademie”—the comprehensive Geschichte des Fixsternhimmels (Fixed Star History), which would ultimately run to 48 volumes (1922–1952)—Palmer noted that at the present time astronomers were generally deprived of this resource, and she offered an alternative:

Owing to the present international situation, the unfinished results of the Geschichte which have been so generously placed at the disposal of those who needed them are not generally available. It, therefore seems advisable to call the attention of those who use star catalogues of various periods to the incomplete “Yale Index.”The Yale Observatory will furnish for any star contained in the Bonner Durchmusterung a list of catalogues in which that star is found and a statement as to the probability of finding it in other catalogues.

Although the Cape Photographic Durchmusterung, listing 454,877 stars, compiled at the Cape Observatory (1896–1900), had signaled the advent of photoastronomy, which would eventually reduce the importance of the older observations, the BD and SD, along with the annotations in The Yale Index, remained central to stellar astronomy for decades into the twentieth century. These volumes are still in the possession of the Yale Department of Astronomy.

Two publications from 1914 shed an interesting sidelight on Margaretta Palmer, who was throughout her life a devout Episcopalian—and obviously an able and engaging teacher. Published by the New York Sunday School Commission, Teachers’ Notes on Church Catechism and Teachers’ Notes on Our Book of Worship supply readers with carefully defined topics, with bibliographical data, along with sample dialogues for engaging young people in theological and biblical conversations. Her advice to teachers who would follow her example: “Expect of the child, at first, nothing but the eager desire for something new. Upon that desire, build up, week by week, an interest in what he can understand, and a desire for more knowledge.”

The appointment of Frank Schlesinger, the former director of the Allegheny Observatory, as director in 1920 signaled significant changes at the Yale Observatory. Schlesinger had introduced photoastronomy to the field in 1903 and was a specialist in stellar parallax—determination of stars’ distances from earth. Recognized, in the words of Dorrit Hoffleit, as “the father of modern astrometry,” at Yale he accelerated this work. The first General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes, containing parallaxes for 1,870 stars, appeared in 1924 under the authorship of Schlesinger, Margaretta Palmer, and Alice Pond. Palmer was at work on this innovative astrometric project at the time of her death in an automobile accident later that year.

Margaretta Palmer’s career in astronomy at Yale coincided with a tumultuous era for the science at Yale. Although astronomy had flourished there in the early 1800’s, intellectual tensions and intense competition for funding had arisen between the undergraduate Yale College and the Yale Scientific School, a three-year, non-residential scientific degree program, founded in 1847, which had become, in 1861, the Sheffield Scientific School. Motivated from the outset by the growing interest in America in applied science and also much more dependent on securing its own funding than the undergraduate college, the Scientific School was inconsistent in its accommodation of astronomy. For example, although Newton had managed to raise funds for the only heliometer ever based in the western hemisphere in 1882, he was unable to make it generally operative until more private funds were raised to bring William Lewis Elkin to Yale two years later. In that year, however, the aggressive efforts to gain control of the observatory by Leonard Waldo—officially in charge of the horological and thermometrical bureau at Yale and also responsible for commercial programs certifying the accuracy of metrical products—led to the resignations as directors of Newton and the noted professor of astronomy and natural philosophy, Elias Loomis. Although the Yale corporation quickly supported its faculty, dismissing Waldo, no additional funding was forthcoming, and, as John Lankford observes, in American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859–1940, “for a long time, the Yale Observatory was without leadership.” Elkin was not made director of the Observatory for another 14 years, and still, Lankford continues, “Yale astronomy did not flourish” under Elkin. When he retired, in 1910, “astronomy at Yale virtually ceased to exist.” With Schlesinger’s appointment, a decade later—nearly 30 years after Margaretta Palmer had come to New Haven and only four years before her death—the Yale Observatory was restored to its rightful place within the university.

In 1904, attempting to record the work of the Observatory since Hubert Newton’s departure, William Elkin inaugurated Transactions of the Yale Observatory—detailed papers on the observatory’s major projects. Palmer’s doctoral thesis, “Determination of the Orbit of the Comet 1847 VI,” appeared in the first volume, which covered work done at the observatory between 1887 and 1904. Her introduction touched on her “especial interest” in the project:

To most astronomers the Comet 1847 VI is of interest chiefly for the reason that, according to the determination of its orbit by G. Rümker in 1857, it seemed to belong to the comparatively small class whose orbits show a distinctly hyperbolic character. To the woman, however, who turns her attention to astronomy this comet is conspicuous as one of the few that have been discovered by a woman, and probably the only one that has ever been discovered independently by two women. But the student whose first knowledge of the heavens has been gained under the direction of Maria Mitchell has an added reason for regarding with especial interest the course through space of that body whose discovery brought before the astronomical world the young Nantucket comet-seeker, the first American woman to gain such notice.While Rümker’s investigation was nearly exhaustive, it yet appeared to be possibly capable of improvement by a discussion of the star-places, by the introduction of modern places of the sun, and by taking into consideration the perturbations. This fact, together with the personal incentives which I have mentioned, has led me to undertake the following determination of the orbit of this comet.


  1. A telescopic device originally employed to measure seasonal changes in the apparent diameter of the sun, the heliometer—occasionally called an “astrometer”—was generally used to measure angular distances between stars.
  2. The Yale astronomer and historian Dorrit Hoffleit has noted “that Yale conferred the PH.D. on a woman astronomer 31 years before either Harvard or Radcliffe awarded any Ph.D. in astronomy.”
  3. As the first discoverer of a “telescopic comet” (one too faint to be observed by the naked eye), Mitchell had been awarded a gold medal by King Frederick VII of Denmark and had achieved worldwide acclaim. At one time designated Comet Mitchell, the comet’s modern designation is C/1847 T1.


Dorrit Hoffleit, Maria Mitchell’s Famous Students’ and Comets over Nantucket, Cambridge, 1983

Dorrit Hoffleit, “The Quest for Stellar Parallax.” Popular Astronomy, LVII, 6. (June, 1949)

Dorrit Hoffleit, “Yale University Observatory at the Turn of the Century,” The Irish Astronomical Journal, 12, 3/4

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, “Maria Mitchell: The Advancement of Women in Science,” The New England Quarterly, 51, 1. (March, 1978)

John Lankford, American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859–1940, Chicago, 1997

Margaretta Palmer, “Determination of the Orbit of the Comet 1847 VI,” Transactions of the Astronomical Observatory of Yale University, vol. I , New Haven, 1904

Margaretta Palmer, “The Yale index to star catalogues,” Astronomical Journal, vol. 30, iss. 714, (1917)

Margaret W. Rossiter “‘Women’s Work’ in Science, 1880–1910,” Isis, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Sep., 1980)

Frank Schlesinger, “Biographical Memoir of William Lewis Elkin: 1855–1933,” National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Biographical Memoirs,” Volume XVIII, 1936

Frank Schlesinger, Margaretta Palmer, Alice Pond, General Catalogue of Stellar Parallaxes, New Haven, 1924

David Peck Todd and William Thynne Lynn, Stars and Telescopes, Boston, 1899

Mary W. Whitney, “Scientific Study and Work for Women,” Education, 3,1882

Related Articles

Antonia Maury

Maria Mitchell

Mary Watson Whitney

CJ 2008