Undergraduate Fellowship Honors Longtime Yale Astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit

Partially eclipsed moon showing curvature of the earth’s shadow. The photo was made with an 8” Celestron telescope at Leitner Family Observatory by the observatory’s director Michael Faison and his Astronomy 155 students.

Senior research astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit worked at Yale for more than five decades and inspired generations of women scientists at the Maria Mitchell Observatory at Nantucket, Rhode Island, where she served as director. In December 2009, her niece Margaret Doleman honored her memory by establishing an undergraduate research fellowship fund in the Department of Astronomy at Yale.

“Throughout her life, Dorrit Hoffleit sought to expand our knowledge of the universe and encourage young scientists, especially young women, to enter the field of astronomy,” said Jeffrey Kenney, professor and chair of the Department of Astronomy. “It is only fitting for an undergraduate fellowship fund that supports both to be named in her honor.”

The Dorrit Hoffleit Undergraduate Research Fellowship at Yale provides resources for Yale College students and students outside of the Yale community to spend the summer in New Haven learning from expert scientists in the Department of Astronomy. The family has asked that women be well represented among the recipients.

Dorrit Hoffleit, seated, with family members Danielle Doleman, Geoffrey Doleman, and Margaret Doleman.“Dorrit always planned to establish this fellowship, and it is my pleasure to honor her wishes knowing of her relationship with the Department of Astronomy to the very end of her life,” said Doleman. “I am delighted that it will be used to carry on an important aspect of her life’s work.”

Hoffleit’s career began at a time when there were few women in science and the numbers in her chosen field of astronomy were even smaller. She earned her Ph.D. from Radcliffe in 1938, and before coming to Yale in 1956, she held positions at Harvard and computed missile trajectories during World War II at Ballistic Research Laboratories. Throughout her career, her research spanned a range of interests including meteors, spectroscopic parallaxes, and variable stars. Best known for her work to create the Bright Star Catalogue, a compilation of data on the 9,110 brightest stars in the sky, she also co-authored The General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes, which contains distance measurements to 8,112 stars, information critical to understanding the kinematics of the Milky Way galaxy and the evolution of the solar neighborhood.

Hoffleit was a devoted teacher at Yale, and during the summer she ran a research program for undergraduates, primarily young women, at the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Eleven of these women went on to earn Ph.D.s in astronomy and collectively they discovered over 1,000 new stars and published more than ninety research papers.

The demographics of women in science have changed substantially over the past few decades, thanks largely to the inspiration of groundbreakers like Hoffleit. In 2009, nearly 50 percent of the undergraduates who earned a degree in science at Yale were women.

Hoffleit passed away in April 2007 shortly after her 100th birthday, which was celebrated at Yale with a symposium and gathering of her friends and colleagues.

(April 9, 2010)

April 9, 2010