Oral History Interviews

Interviews that offer unique insights into the lives, works, and personalities of modern scientists

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discusses arriving at Harvard and what it was like for a woman physicist.

Oral history audio excerpt

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discusses arriving at Harvard and what it was like for a woman physicist.

Gingerich:

Did you feel when you came to Harvard that the exclusion of women was as severe?

Gaposchkin:

No, coming to Harvard was intoxicating. It was partly the climate. I had never been in a climate like that before. The New England climate in the fall, well, I found it physically intoxicating. I had never felt like that before. Cambridge has an awful climate. When you go to Cambridge, you — at least I — used to resign myself to feeling like a vegetable and aching from head to foot all the time I was there because it is so damp and so cold.

Gingerich:

And places are not centrally heated.

Gaposchkin:

Well, not then but maybe now. I was always in a wretchedly rheumatic and creaky condition. And feeling really rather stupid and somehow the climate of New England and the intellectual climate of the Observatory, I suppose, with Shapley and Luyten who had just come and who was great fun to talk to, though of course he wasn’t interested in astrophysics; he was interested in statistics. The whole thing was pretty intoxicating. Also being free, for the first time, to do astronomy just as much as I wanted when I never had been before was intoxicating because even though I had done these little bits of research at Cambridge and there had always been lectures to go to and things to study and one had to keep up with one’s studies, and lights had to go out at 11 in the college; no lights on after that, you were permitted a candle, but who can work by a candle? For a bit, I almost worked night and day without stopping, it was marvelous. And the Radcliffe building where I lived didn’t even mind if I was out all night working. They didn’t seem to care. I probably explained where I was and what I was doing, and that was that.