Oral History Transcript — Margaret Mayall
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Margaret Mayall; September 12, 1986
ABSTRACT: In this interview, Mayall discusses her childhood and early interest in astronomy; undergraduate years at Swarthmore College; work at Harvard College Observatory in the 1920s; the role of women at Harvard College Observatory, and in astronomy in general; memories of Edward Pickering; and the relationship between the American Association of Variable Star Observers and Harvard College Observatory. Mayall details her work with Annie Jump Cannon, including Cannons's personality and work habits, her skills in socializing, her work with variable start and her relationship with Cecilia Payne. Other contacts discussed include Antonia Maury, Cecilia Payne, Harlow Shapley, Donald Menzel, Adelaide Ames, Solon Bailey, and McGeorge Bundy.
Session I | Session II
Gingerich:The famous rotating desk that Pickering and then Shapley used is now out in Boulder with Alan Shapley. Heís promised to send it back eventually.
Mayall:Oh, thatís great.
Gingerich:And we aim to make a sort of period room someplace, and Iíve just discovered that Ray White out in Tucson got estate, two of the Pickering chairs. Now, I assume by that it means two chairs that had come out of the residence. And heís promised to send those back. So I just thought I would ask you if you would have any leads as to where we should look that we might find other kinds of things like this that should go into such a room.
Mayall:I donít know. Thereís one thing that I felt very badly about, that I didnít get hold of, and that was the, one of the pendulum century clocks that Miss Cannon had — Pickering had it before he died, then Miss Cannon had it in her office, and I think itís probably one of the Bondsí. It was a very beautiful one, and I know I worked on it quite a bit and got it regulated — we used to regulate it with pennies on the weights, the weights that turned, and we used to put pennies on it and finally got it well regulated, and when we broke up the Cannon room, Virginia Nail said she would take it, and take it to a jewelers, and get it fixed. Well, I protested, but she insisted, oh no, sheíd take it, and I said, You bring it back. Oh yes, sheíd bring it back, sheíd take it and get it fixed. Well, I never got it back.
Gingerich:Aha, now, sheís still living out in Vancouver. When Helen Hogg came to visit you, did she mention it?
Gingerich:Well, I suppose we could ask her if sheís still got the clock.
Mayall:If she still has it, that would be a nice thing to have in the room. It was one that had a glass dome over the old — they call it, century clocks.
Gingerich:Iím not sure I understand what kind that is. It had a rotating pendulum?
Mayall:Yes, a rotating disk for a pendulum. And quite an interesting thing. I never really looked it up to see anything about the history of it. I just always thought it was such a nice one, and liked it so much, and thought we should keep it there and keep it at least with the Cannon things. But Virginia grabbed it and that was the last of it. It would be interesting to see if she does still have it.
Gingerich:Iíll inquire and see if she still has it. Because I worked for her as an assistant, the first summer I came. So she will remember me, I think. It will be a surprise for her to get a letter from me. But Helen Hogg has exchanged correspondence with her. Another thing that came up during the Globular Cluster Symposium, when a couple of us gave historical papers, — do you remember which one of the women it was who first found the Sculptor Cluster on a plate?
Mayall:No, I donít think I would have had much reason to really remember too much about that, because I wasnít working with Shapley, on any of the nebulae and galaxies.
Gingerich:I think it might have been Sylvia —
Gingerich:Iím sure itís recorded somewhere.
Mayall:How about the old Harvard Bulletin?
Gingerich:I have to go back and look through there. SML was written on the plate envelope, and I assumed that was Sylvia Mussells Lindsay. So that was my guess, but I simply wanted to check that with you.
Mayall:Muriel might know. Of course, Murielís down in Connecticut, isnít she, or is that Sylvia there? Which one is it? One of the girls is living in Connecticut. And went to the Henry Draper meeting, symposium.
Gingerich:The one that was held in Canada.
Gingerich:Howard Plotkin will know.
Mayall:Yes, or Dorrit [Hoffleit] knows her, knows where she is. I think it was Dorrit who got her — told Plotkin that she was living down in Connecticut. He tried to get her to come and she did go out to a meeting. And she might remember.
Gingerich:She would have gone out to the meeting, why? Because she had been also involved with Annie Cannon or ?
Mayall:I donít know just why she did go. Just that she was an old Harvard employee, Harvard research girl. Because Iím quite sure she never had much to do with Annie Cannon or with the Draper Catalogue. She worked with Shapley.
Gingerich:I gather you were the principal person working with Miss Cannon.
Mayall:Yes, I was. Of course, she had a lot of the others doing all sorts of odd jobs, the routine work of identifying stars.
Gingerich:Why donít you identify some of those people for me, and tell me a little bit about each one and what sorts of things they did?
Mayall:Well, Louisa Wells, you probably heard quite a bit about her. She was quite a character, a little short woman, full of pep and very decided ideas, and very good at her work. I know Miss Cannon always depended on her to identify faint objects, and she would estimate the position of the object from the BD charts, and if it was something not on the BD chart, why, Louisa would really make an estimate of the position, and she was quite good, quite dependable. And sheíd do an awful lot of that, — well, that was the main thing I knew about her, but she did do other work in the plate stacks. Iím not sure just who she worked for or what else she did do.
Gingerich:What was her background?
Mayall:Just one of the women employed by Pickering did she do computing at one time? She may have. I think she might have been one of the computers. And then the two Gill sisters, Edith and Mabel.
Gingerich:They would also have been working for Pickering?
Mayall:Yes, as computers, and when that work was finished, they did general work around the observatory, just assisting in all sorts of, I imagine mostly plate work, getting plates out and handling the plates when they came in and helping put them away and fixing the covers, writing out — I remember them writing out covers and making new covers for the plates when they were wearing out.
Gingerich:And somebody must have been in charge of keeping up the card file of the plates.
Mayall:Yes. I guess Miss Cannon was really in charge of that, although she didnít actually do anything a — as I remember. Of course, then Lillian Hodgdon came [in 1889]. She was there when I came. But she took care of that during my day, keeping the catalogue.
Gingerich:I asked something about who kept track of the library, and I mentioned the name of Margaret Olmstead, and that was my mistake. I should have said Catherine Hanley.
Mayall:I should have caught that. Catherine Hanley must have come about the time I did, in the late twenties. Letís see, when was Miss Wickson? There was a Gladys Wickson, who was a librarian. I guess that was after Catherine. Why did Catherine leave? I donít know whether she went to other work.
Gingerich:Because she was the librarian when I came around 1950.
Mayall:Oh, she came then after Miss Wickson left. So it was Gladys Wickson, I would say, I donít know whether she was in the twenties or not but certainly during the thirties.
Gingerich:Now, who else did you think of who was around helping with things of this sort, either Miss Cannon or the other people?
Mayall:Florence Cushman was there. And she was one of the computers.
Gingerich:Now, what was the general background of these people?
Mayall:I think, very little training.
Gingerich:What sort of social background? Were they people who had to get a job, or were they working there for something to do.
Mayall:Louisa Wells, I think, really had to, and she lived in a little house just across from where we lived on Madison St. She and her sister lived there, and her sister was a school teacher, and it was a very small house and pretty well run down. I donít think either of them had too much money, but very interesting people. The sister was really lovely. We used to see quite a bit of her after Louisa died. We saw the sister quite a bit. So I donít know whether they had any college. They certainly had high school education, but whether they had any college or not, I really donít know.
Gingerich:What about the others, such as the Gills or the Mussells?
Mayall:The Mussells were, I think they were both college girls. But where they were, I really donít know where they were, what college they went to, but I have a feeling they were both college girls. And they lived in Reading. And I think from a fairly good middle class family, not terribly wealthy, but lived well. And Miss Cushman, I think her family did have quite a bit of money. I doubt very much if she had much of a salary at the observatory. I think her work was pretty nearly volunteer. Iím sure she got some salary, but I think it was pretty nearly volunteer. And I know she used to do quite a bit of work for Mr. Campbell, and she did a lot of the ledgering of the variable stars, when the observersí reports came in, Miss Cushman did a lot of ledgering of them, and worked with Campbell quite a bit. And then, Iím not sure what else. I have a feeling, in the early days, I may not be right on this, but I think she had something to do with the Time Service, when that was on in Pickeringís day.
Gingerich:That was something that wasnít continued into the Shapley period.
Mayall:No, I think it was stopped in Pickeringís time. It wasnít as active anyway as it was back in Bondís and the first early days of Pickeringís regime.
Gingerich:When you came, of course, Pickeringís memory must have still been very much alive.
Mayall:Yes, it was.
Gingerich:What general picture did you get of Pickering as a director and as a person?
Mayall:Well, most of the people there I think were very frightened of him, although Miss Cannon adored him and thought he was very wonderful and very kind and a great friend. But I think others were somewhat in awe of him. He was a grand gentleman, you might say.
Gingerich:Certainly by that time he was getting on in years.
Gingerich:So there must have been an enormous difference when Shapley came, both in temperament and because Shapley was much younger.
Mayall:Yes. Yes, there certainly was. Of course, Solon Bailey came in between the two.
Gingerich:And Bailey was still there when you came.
Mayall:Yes. Yes, we saw quite a bit of Bailey and used to know him quite well.
Gingerich:He was, of course, a potential candidate for director after Pickering.
Gingerich:I just went down and read the letters to A. Lawrence Lowell, and certainly some of the people were recommending that he should be continued for the job. How did he get along with Shapley?
Mayall:That I really donít know. Of course, he was in Peru. I guess when Shapley came in, Bailey must have gone to Peru, because I know he was there in the early twenties.
Gingerich:I had gathered that both Miss Cannon and Bailey had gone to Peru about the same time.
Mayall:Yes, I think they did.
Gingerich:I suppose partly as a tactical maneuver to get out from under foot while the new person tried to make his own way there.
Mayall:It could be. Yes.
Gingerich:But Bailey had come back.
Mayall:Yes, Bailey had come back, and he was doing star counts, wasnít he?
Gingerich:I would have assumed he was still working on globular clusters and on variable stars.
Mayall:Yes, and it seems to me he was also starting star counts. I know certainly in globular clusters. I have such a bad memory.
Gingerich:Well, itís a terribly long time ago. I gather that there was a fair amount of social life at the observatory, that is to say that the Shapleys put on parties for the staff.
Mayall:Oh yes, there was a great deal of socializing, and Miss Cannon did a lot of entertaining in her little cottage.
Gingerich:Where was that?
Mayall:On Bond Street. The cottage is still there. Try Bond Street, itís just — there is a new building on the corner of Concord Avenue and Bond, and a little cottage sits back quite a ways, and thereís a fairly good sized house on the street, not quite in front of it but just a little beyond it. She had the first floor.
Gingerich:Most of the people working at the observatory then didnít live very far away.
Mayall:No, I think most of them were fairly close.
Gingerich:Well, I guess one could afford to live in Cambridge in those days.
Mayall:Yes. I know I had a room in a big yellow house on the corner of Parker St., Parker and Concord Avenue, for a while.
Gingerich:You must have been in the Pinafore.
Mayall:No, I wasnít, because I never have been able to sing. I love music, but Iíve never had any talent at all. Iím sorry now that I didnít try to do something in it, but I didnít. But I remember it so well. It was really a wonderful time. The Shapley parties were always great fun. He always had some special thing to do, and would invite everybody, and then some kind of a game heíd cook up to do, or some sort of a musical or dance or, all kinds of things. He was always full of ideas for things.
Gingerich:I know in the 1950s it was fairly common to do square dancing or the Virginia reel. Now, is that the sort of thing that went way back?
Mayall:Yes. Shapley started that.
Gingerich:I see. Ballroom dancing?
Mayall:Some, yes. Yes, he did.
Gingerich:And this would be with phonograph music or ?
Mayall:Yes, it must have been. I donít really remember, but I think it must have been phonograph.
Gingerich:I know Shapley was always a great Red Sox fan. Did he carry on a lot of people from the observatory in that interest, or ?
Mayall:No, I donít think he did. In fact, I donít know that too many knew that he was a Red Sox fan. I donít think he talked about it much. But I did happen to know that he was. He was very enthusiastic about them.
Gingerich:He went to these ball games, I gather.
Gingerich:I donít have any idea how often.
Mayall:No, I donít know either, but I know he did go. Miss Cannon loved the square dancing and the Virginia reel. She was always very full of fun and just loved it, loved to do it.
Gingerich:Her deafness didnít prevent her from, taking part in it.
Mayall:Oh no. No, she loved music.
Gingerich:Thatís right, I remember seeing that she had a lot of opera programs, some that were put up in the exhibit.
Mayall:Yes, I have a whole bunch of her opera programs, collected back around 1900 or so. Quite a nice bunch of them. Theyíre very interesting. Some are very famous old singers.
Gingerich:She did a fair amount of traveling. You were around then, of course, when she got her honorary degree from Oxford. That must have created quite a stir.
Mayall:It sure did. And Harvard had hardly recognized her, and then Oxford gives her an honorary degree!
Gingerich:Well, can you think of any specific reactions to this? I mean, was there any consternation at Harvard? Presumably not to change their minds about anything but —
Mayall:No, I wouldnít have gotten involved in anything of that sort. I wouldnít have known anything about it. But of course, she didnít get her Harvard appointment until in the thirties. She finally got a Harvard appointment.
Gingerich:Iíll have to check up on the date of that, as to whether it was before or after that.
Mayall:Oh, it was after the degree — I think it probably did help in changing the Harvard Corporation on that.
Gingerich:I want to talk about something sad, and that was about this tragic death of Adelaide Ames.
Mayall:Yes. And again, I donít remember too much about it, except that she was on vacation in New Hampshire, and canoeing, and she was a very good swimmer, very athletic and a very good swimmer, and the canoe tipped over out in the lake, and the friend who was with her made it to shore, and Adelaide never made it. And no one ever knew why, whether she got a cramp or what happened, and the girl, Iíve forgotten her name, the friend who was with her, I knew at the time, I donít remember now, but she was of course horribly upset about it, and thought Adelaide was right with her swimming back, and when she got ashore, she found Adelaide was nowhere to be seen.
Gingerich:This happened just right before the time the IAU came, 1932? Iíve been told that that affected Shapley just enormously.
Mayall:Oh, it did. Yes. It was a really dreadful tragedy. Adelaide was so good, and everyone liked her. And in addition to her work that she was doing, I know Shapley was very fond of her, and depended so much on her and her work. But that was really a great tragedy. I remember her mother and father coming, they were just, oh the saddest couple youíd ever want to see. Of course, they would be, a daughter lost that way. It was really sad. I donít really know, I donít think anyone ever knew any of the details. There was just no way of finding out what did happen. And I donít know, I suppose her body must have been washed ashore. They did have a funeral. So it must have been washed ashore eventually. That was very sad.
Gingerich:How much were the people at the observatory aware during the 1930s of what was developing in Europe? I mean, in terms of the political situation? Did that begin to impinge on the observatory, in terms that it became obvious that there were refugees coming in?
Mayall:I think probably, not much until the late thirties. And then when Jacchia came over and Prager, Ď38 was the meeting in Stockholm, and those of us who went there were very much concerned. We knew there was trouble coming. Just everyone there was concerned about it and talking about it, astronomers from all over Europe especially were so worried about the situation, and then Prager came. Jacchia came over right after the IAU meeting, I guess, and then Prager. He was a little later. Was he later or earlier? Iím not sure when he did come. And then of course others, Opik coming, a number of others.
Gingerich:Did Opik stay at the observatory for any length of time?
Mayall:I would guess, a couple of years. I think so.
Gingerich:I know he had a considerable influence on Fred Whipple, in the sense that a lot of the things that Fred devoted himself to were disproving things that Opik published. Nevertheless it had that connection. So Opik came straight from Estonia?
Gingerich:Estonia to Harvard, and then he went back to Ireland(?) after that, I guess.
Mayall:Letís see, when did he go to Maryland?
Gingerich:After he had been in Ireland a while. He had sort of a joint appointment with Maryland. He was never there permanently. Not full time, I mean to say. Was it obvious to people at the observatory that Shapley was helping a lot to facilitate the refugee astronomers to come over?
Mayall:I think so. As far as I know, people were very sympathetic about it and were backing him in what he was doing. Of course there was a lot of criticism of him outside. And I suppose there was some at the observatory, although I didnít hear it.
Gingerich:I was just told that apparently itís on record that James Conant took a fairly dim view of it, saying something to the effect that for every European we bring over, itís one less job for an American.
Mayall:No, I hadnít heard that.
Gingerich:Well, thereís been something in Harvard magazine. And the editor told me they had a letter from somebody to this effect, and he was considering what he was going to do with that. So Shapleyís position was considerably more open on this than many people. He was being somewhat criticized for it.
Mayall:I think so, yes. Of course, he was investigated by the —
Gingerich:The Un-American Activities Committee. But this was not until sometime in the forties. I mean, he became quite famous for it by that time. But what Iím trying to understand is, did people think of him as being noticeably left wing during the thirties?
Mayall:Not as far as I know. Of course, I think Miss Cannon supported him, and I was always pretty isolated. I didnít have too much contact with others. See, I got married.
Gingerich:When was that?
Mayall:In Ď27. Weíd always been very close, and so I spent a lot of time with Newton, rather than with the observatory people.
Gingerich:I think at some point I need to get on tape some of the more recent things about what happened when the directorship changed between Shapley and Menzel, because I think it is documented from Dr. Menzelís point of view, a lot of the things he did and his justification for it, but I would think it would be a bad thing not to have perhaps some counterbalancing viewpoints on what happened, particularly with respect to the AAVSO.
Mayall:Well, of course, I was certainly very much involved in that, and I think he was very unfair to the AAVSO, and a thing that always has rankled with me was that I was in Europe attending one of the variable star conferences in Bamberg, and he called Helen Stephansky, who was my secretary, to tell her that we were going to have to move out in January, and I think that was certainly unforgiveable, to tell the secretary and not tell me. And poor Helen was just completely floored with it all, and she was just about a nervous wreck. She got in touch with me as quickly as she could, and was terribly upset about it.
Gingerich:That does seem to be a rather disgraceful tactic.
Mayall:I think so. And of course, at the same time, Cecilia backed him up, and said that variable stars were no longer of any great interest, we knew enough about them, we knew what made them tick, we knew enough about the variable stars that what the AAVSO did was useless. She was very firm about that. And of course she and Sergei had made the Milton Survey of Variables and she thought that was it, and that the visual observations should be no good at all, Of course, today theyíre finding out they really need the visual observations. I think so much of the research today does call on the visual observations to support the other observations, and to sort of correlate with them. So that was certainly a not very far-seeing attitude. And Shapley was very sympathetic, of course. Heíd always loved the AAVSO, and Bok was pretty sympathetic. Whipple, I never heard him say much about it, but I donít think he had much use for the AAVSO. But Bok and Shapley were both very fine, and appreciated the work we were doing. I know when we were having trouble leaving Harvard, — did you go into the new office and see the material that they had on it?
Gingerich:Iím told that thereís a whole basement museum, more or less, which I havenít seen. Iím planning to go out and look at it.
Mayall:I havenít seen what theyíve done either, but I know that theyíve got a lot of the old archives that Iíd saved. Some of it Iíd marked: ďConfidential, do not use,Ē and so Janet Mattei asked me about it, and I told her I thought enough time had gone by that it was all right to go ahead and let the public know what did go on when we fought the Harvard Corporation, or I did anyway.
Gingerich:But I gather it was pretty much a losing battle.
Mayall:Yes. Oh, it certainly was a losing battle.
Gingerich:It had to do with the endowment from one of the foundations?
Mayall:Yes, the Rockefeller Foundation. See, in the 1920s, the AAVSO had started to get a Pickering Memorial Fund together, and they had raised somewhere a little less than $7000. Shapley got this very large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and he said that he was dividing it up among various programs, and he said the variable stars, the work the AAVSO was doing on variables, was important enough to set aside $100,000, enough to make the endowment for the Pickering Memorial Fund $100,000, for the visual work on variables, and under the AAVSO. And it was very definite that thatís what it was set aside for. But then when we had the big fight with the Corporation, they said, oh no, that was Harvard money, that wasnít AAVSOís, so they let us have the $7000 we had towards it. Weíd raised that. I dug up the records, and we really had proof that that was ours, so we still get the income from that, from Harvard.
Gingerich:I see. Usually they put back a certain proportion from the interest into the capital, so I would have thought you should have had more than $7000.
Mayall:We should have. They give us more interest, but they donít consider the capital any more, itís still listed as $6800, something like that. But we do get a much greater interest on it, which is a very amusing way to do it. I donít quite see how they continue it. I suppose they take the income from all their funds, and the percentage that we should have is much greater than the income from just the $6800.
Gingerich:I see. Then thatís how theyíve done it. I know they have a fairly conservative financial policy about how much goes back into the funds, so that theyíre not diminished by inflation.
Mayall:Well, ours was just, in giving us more income each year, but not increasing the capital funds.
Gingerich:I am sure that Menzel felt he had his hands tied, in terms of not having enough money to operate the observatory properly.
Mayall:Yes, oh, I know that.
Gingerich:And he was taking a new broom through and destroying, in a sense, things that should have been saved, and so on. As Joe Ashbrook wrote, he was very impatient with things old. Some words to that effect. Iím a little bit surprised that Cecilia took such a hard line.
Mayall:Yes, I was surprised too, because later on she used the AAVSO observations so much.
Gingerich:And she certainly continued doing a lot of variable star work including gathering observations.
Mayall:Yes, and in all of her publications on variables, she used a lot of AAVSO light curves.
Gingerich:Well, did she back off of that opinion?
Mayall:Not officially, as far as I know. No. Oh no. But in October of that year, we had our annual meeting. Senor Don Domingo Taboada from Mexico came up. He was a member of the council, fortunately, the AAVSO Council, and he came up for the meeting, and he was a very distinguished Mexican gentleman, Don Domingo they called him down there, and he was very very wealthy, I guess, even as Mexicans go. And he came to the council meeting, and thatís when he asked Harvard to send a representative, and they sent Dean McGeorge Bundy to represent Harvard, and explain why we were being put out. Well, Don Domingo dominated that meeting, and poor Bundy was really taken aback. I donít think heís ever been quite so speechless as he was at that meeting.
Gingerich:Heís generally never speechless.
Mayall:I almost felt sorry for him, we gave him such a bad time. But it didnít do any good, except satisfaction as far as we were concerned. We still had to leave.
Gingerich:Well, I suppose that there are certain of the strains that linger on, although the ties will never be the same as they were back in the 1930s, at least in more recent times there are good relationships between the Center and the AAVSO.
Mayall:Oh yes, very good. And youíve helped so much too, with the computer. Youíve done an awful lot for us in helping on that.
Gingerich:Well, a little bit. As a life member I feel I should do something occasionally.
Mayall:You certainly did a lot in getting us started and getting computer funds for us, and permission to use the equipment up there. You really did a lot.
Gingerich:Well, Iím glad to hear from you that there is at least an archive at the AAVSO. That would document this part of it, because I would hope that some place, there are other records that would show what had gone on.
Mayall:I donít know what they have on it. I just wasnít physically able to go down and look at it when I was up there for the dedication. And I would like to go and see what they did put out. I know I kept all the copies of the letters I wrote. I wrote letters to all the members of the Corporation. Some rather nasty things, I guess, I wrote to them, and got answers back from them. Some were sympathetic and others were not. Charles Smiley was quite a big help at that time too. Letís see, was he president or vice president? He was a vice president, I guess.
Gingerich:Of the Astronomical Society?
Mayall:No, of the AAVSO. And he said he loved a good fight, and to fight the Harvard Corporation was just up his alley, that he really loved it and had a wonderful time. So he really helped us out quite a bit.
Gingerich:They had the big SS Cygni curve up for the AAVSO dedication meeting. And the 20-year light curve is the first one thatís been done in this new series of light curves that they get from the computer.
Mayall:Yes, that was certainly a big job — plotting by hand. Of course Campbell started it and I kept doing it.
Gingerich:Do I remember that every maximum was eventually observed, one of them during the war with a single observation?
Mayall:Yes. It was really quite a record, all right.
They tell me that U Geminorum is next. So those are interesting stars to pair together, and of course all great favorites with the members. Even I have observed SS Cygni. When I joined the society, of course, it was my ambition to be one of those people who could send in 5000 observations a year. But my life has turned in other directions.
Session I | Session II