AAVSO: American Association of Variable Star Observers

The Maria Mitchell Observatory--For Astronomical Research and Public Enlightenment

Volume 30 number 1 (2002)

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Dorrit Hoffleit


When the Maria Mitchell Observatory was erected in 1908 to house the 5-inch telescope that had been given Maria Mitchell in 1859, Mrs. Lydia Hinchman, niece of Maria and the principal co-founder of the Maria Mitchell Association, wanted the Observatory to specialize in research while not neglecting public relations entirely. She contacted Professor E. C. Pickering, Director of Harvard College Observatory, for advice. He recommended installing a photographic telescope and having the astronomer specialize in observations of variable asteroids, Eros in particular. Margaret Harwood, one of his assistants at Harvard, was chosen to head the Maria Mitchell Observatory, a post she held for 45 years. Besides lesser contributions, she published a catalogue of 74 asteroids known to have variable brightness. She discovered DF Cygni, an unusual type of variable star with multiple periods, and analyzed its variation on Harvard and Nantucket plates spanning over 50 years. Her final masterpiece was an analysis of 419 variable stars in the Scutum region of the Milky Way, the majority of the variables having been discovered by her High School assistant John Heath. The second Director, Dorrit Hoffleit, instituted a new project, Summer Research Participation on Variable Stars by College Undergraduates, especially women. This project was continued by her successor, Emilia Belserene. Nearly 200 college undergraduates participated in these programs. The fourth Director, Eileen Friel concentrated on both observational and theoretical researches on star clusters, her student contributing few papers on variable stars. The current Direcor, Vladimir Strelnitski, again enthusiasticlly specializes on modern problems of variable stars.