Biography Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin Astronomer and Astrophysicist

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was an eminent British-born astronomer and astrophysicist. She wrote many books, papers and monographs on astronomy and astrophysics, and she received many accolades for her scientific work and research into the composition, evolution, magnitude and distance of stars.

Cecilia Helena Payne was born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, Buckinghamshire. Her father, Edward John Payne, was a London barrister. Her mother, Emma Leonora Helena Payne, was of Prussian descent. Sadly Cecilia’s father died when she was four years old.

Early life

According to her biography in the Harvard Square Library, it was at the age of five that Cecilia first decided she wanted to be an astronomer. She had just witnessed a meteor in the night sky. By the time she was twelve Cecilia already knew Latin, German and French. Her interest in science became more developed when she attended St. Paul’s Girls School in London. 


Having obtained a scholarship from Newnham College, in 1919 Cecilia Payne went to Cambridge to study botany, physics and chemistry. After attending a lecture on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, presented by astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, she became even more interested in astronomy. As a woman she was not permitted to obtain a university degree, but having completed her studies at Cambridge, in 1923 Cecilia was awarded a Pickering Fellowship from Harvard.

Harvard Observatory

At Harvard Cecilia Payne wrote a doctoral thesis on “Stellar Atmospheres” and gained her Ph.D. This pioneering thesis was published by Harvard Observatory as Monograph No. 1. From her research she had concluded that the chemical composition of the stars was mainly hydrogen and helium, not as previously thought.   

In 1925 Cecilia Payne obtained a position as a technical assistant at the Harvard Observatory, and in 1926 was named in a list of American “Men of Science.” Not only was this a remarkable achievement for a woman, but she was the youngest person at that time to have been listed.

Cecilia became an American citizen in 1931, and in 1934 she married a Russian-born astronomer, Sergei I. Gaposchkin.

In 1938 Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was officially named as a Harvard astronomer, although by then she had been lecturing in astronomy, and doing her own research, for some time. During her time as Phillips Astronomer at Harvard she became involved in the controversy around the publication of Velikovsky’s theories in his forthcoming book Worlds in Collision (1950), because she found his ideas incredible.

When Donald Menzel was appointed director of the Harvard Observatory in 1959, he nominated Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin as the first female professor at Harvard, and made her “chairman” of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University.

She finally retired from her post at Harvard in 1966, and the following year she was elected as Emeritus Professor of Harvard University.


In addition to her groundbreaking monograph “Stellar Atmospheres,” Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the author of many works, including “The Stars of High Luminosity” (1930), based on her own observations, and “Variable Stars” (1938), co-written with her husband.

“Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections” was published in 1984, five years after her death. It is a collection of writings compiled by her daughter, Katherine Gaposchkin Haramundanis.


In her lifetime, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin received many awards, including the Annie J. Cannon Prize from the American Astronomical Society in 1934. She was also elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in 1936, received an Award of Merit from Radcliffe College in 1952, and was awarded a medal by the Franklin Institute in 1961.

She was the first female to be awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize by the American Astronomical Society in 1976. In 1977 a minor planet was named after her.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin died on December 7, 1979. Her contribution to astrophysics and astromomy made her one of the most important women of the twentieth century. She was one of the greatest astronomers of her time.