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This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
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Interview of Margaret Mayall by Owen Gingerich on 1986 August 11, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/28323-1
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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.
The rule about the tape recording is that we will have a transcript made of it, and we will send it to you, and at that time you can specify any kind of restrictions you want to put on it, or if there are any portions of it that you decide you want to have sealed up for a while or something, or if you want to give permission for somebody else to be able to use it for research purposes or whatever. When we send it back, I expect you’ll find certain proper names rather badly garbled by the transcriber, and so I’ll try to write some of them down as you say them, to help whoever does it. It will be done at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, where they have kind of an ongoing program, so they have somebody who knows how to handle the tapes.
Not knowing names, it must be quite difficult for them.
That’s right. So I’ll look it over, but probably most of the marking up of the transcript, you would do, and then we’d get a fresh one made after that. Well, I’ll just start at the beginning to fill in some biographical details about you, and then eventually the trend of questioning will be to fill in some of the kind of details about the history of the observatory, and the general scene there, that you can’t find so easily from printed material. Just sort of to get a feeling as to what it was like, because I know it was so much different.
I have a very bad memory.
Well, that’s another thing. When you see the transcript, if you want to look up any data or fill in anything that you’re a little vague about now, you have a way of being more precise.
Yes. Well, I’ll try that.
Let’s start out with where and when you were born, and then how you got interested in astronomy.
I was born at Iron Hill, Maryland, which is not even a town, just a country place half way between North (???) and (???), Maryland, January 27, 1902. I was from just south of the Mason Dixon Line, almost on it, in fact.
When did you become interested in astronomy?
Well, a slight interest of course from Halley’s Comet, that was around in 1910. My father got me up in the early morning and we went out and watched it. He was always interested in nature. I don’t think, in fact I’m sure he didn’t know too much about astronomy, although he recognized constellations and knew something of the stars and the weather and was always very much interested. But I didn’t have any definite interest until I got to college, and I was taking math as a major, math and chemistry at the University of Delaware. First I did go to high school in (???)? Maryland, in a very large class of 13 graduating, when I graduated.
Did you have any teachers who were interested in astronomy?
Well, the principal of the high school — no, he was more interested in mathematics, and was a great help in all the math classes. But then I went to the University of Delaware for two years, and there my math professor, Dr. Harter, was always giving examples in astronomy, and that intrigued me so that I decided I wanted to go somewhere where I could get some good astronomy courses, and I decided to leave Delaware and go to Swarthmore, so at Swarthmore, I couldn’t get in the first of the year. It was too full, and they had no extra room for a junior to come in, but they did let me enter in January, 1923. I guess that’s when it was. As a junior.
Who was teaching astronomy at Swarthmore then?
Dr. Miller. John Miller. His assistants were Marriott and Pitman. They were all very enthusiastic. And then my second year at Swarthmore, Dr. Leslie J. Comrie, from England, or New Zealand actually, came to assist in the department, and he was a great enthusiast for astronomy, and really got me very much excited about it, and when I finished at Swarthmore, he was instrumental in getting me a job here at Harvard Observatory under Dr. Shapley. He decided to take me on as a summer student my last summer at Swarthmore. I came up here as a summer student, and then went back and finished, then came back in January, ‘25, as an assistant to Miss Cannon at the observatory.
Now, Comrie was very instrumental in introducing computer methods at the Nautical Almanac Office in England. Of course, computers were different then than now.
Very different. But he was very interested in computers at Swarthmore. In fact, I think I had one of the first, took one of the first courses, credit courses in computers that was given in the United States. He set up a computer course, and I think it was the first time any college had given college credit for computing.
You were using desk calculators.
Do you remember what kind?
Well, he brought in all kinds of old instruments first to see. He brought in a Vega. But then I think we did mostly with a Monroe. The old hand Monroe. We started out with a hand one. I think eventually we got electric.
What did you compute? Did you go as far as computing an orbit?
Yes, orbits and occultations. I worked on occultations with him. And we published some papers in the British, the journal of the British Astronomical Society, on occultations, predicting occultations, and then I worked on some orbits, and did some telescopic work with the small six inch. Dr. Miller had an observatory attached to his house on the campus, and I did some observing there, some variable star observing. I don’t think anything was ever done with my observations, but in order to get the experience.
Comrie didn’t stay at Swarthmore too long, did he?
No. He was there a little over two years, I think. He went back to the Nautical Almanac Office.
So he must have been rather influential for your own career. So it was just kind of a lucky chance that you came there at the same time he did.
It really was, yes. Of course, we remained very good friends all his life.
When you came up to work in the summer for Harlow Shapley, did you — were you assigned to him?
No, really to Miss Cannon, to assist her. And I did all sorts of introductory work, for the plate stacks, getting out plates, working some on them, the photographic plates, and working with Miss Cannon on her catalogue, bibliography of variable stars, looking up the references for her, and I think even that first summer, I did look up some plates on variable stars. Dr. Shapley would send a note over, “Margaret, please look up such and such a star and see what you can find.”
At that time the plate stacks were in Building C. How much space did they occupy in that building?
I would say, two floors.
Shapley himself was upstairs with the revolving desk.
And what is now I guess the ladies’ room or a sort of a lounge.
And the plates were in the east end of the building?
Yes, where Dr. Sergei Gaposchkin had his room. Some of the plate stacks were there. I think they were mostly down there. Miss Cannon always kept her plates of spectra for the Draper Catalogue upstairs in a room just between — well, she had the large room in Building C, and I was given a desk in the room just back of it.
So you were farther east. Does that mean you had to go through her room to get to yours?
Yes. And in the early days, Miss Maury had the small room on the back of the building.
She must have come in from time to time.
But she wasn’t a member of the staff per se anymore?
Never was a paid member, I guess. But she was there most of the time, in the early days, the first few years I was there. She was very regular working on Beta Lyrae.
I see. So this was around 1925?
‘25 to ‘27 or ‘28, something like that.
Where did Cecilia Payne have her office?
I don’t remember, before Building D. What year was Building D built? I’ve forgotten that date.
That must have been in 1930 or ‘31.
I’m not sure just where she was before that.
So the summer when you came, did you get reasonably well acquainted with the other staff members?
Reasonably so, but not too much, because I was so involved with Miss Cannon’s work. In fact, I had a room in a house near her. In fact, I guess I did have a room in the house where she lived for a while. So I was very close to her, which didn’t give me too much time with the others, although of course I knew everybody. At that time, the two Gill sisters were there, Miss Cushman, and —
They were working as computers?
Yes. And Miss Wells. Miss Wells did quite a lot for Miss Cannon on the Draper Extension and Draper Catalogue, about identifying the stars, getting the numbers of the stars that Miss Cannon would classify. And I worked with her some, getting her plates and helping her find stars to classify.
Adelaide Ames was there?
Adelaide Ames was there.
She worked pretty directly with Shapley.
Yes.  would usually have charge of getting out the plates, and then I also had charge for the Extension of getting magnitudes of the stars, rough magnitudes of the stars that she classified, and doing that, we had a number of Harvard graduate students, or not graduates, Harvard students working part time, and I’d get the sequences ready for them, and they’d estimate the magnitudes, by Dr. Shapley’s flyspanker method.
Did Miss Cannon make any special effort to teach you how to classify the spectra?
Yes, she did. And whenever she’d come to something peculiar, she’d always call, me to come look at it, and tell me what was peculiar about it. She really gave me a lot of wonderful training.
She was known for having an incredible memory. Can you give any examples of that?
Well, no, I don’t think that I can. But I don’t think she ever did forget anything. She could always remember.
This meant that if she had once classified a star, she would remember the plate if she would be shown it again?
Quite often, yes. But I think she tried not to remember the classification that she assigned to a star, because when she’d go back over the plates, I think she tried to do it very independently
But she was enormously consistent.
Almost always exactly the same. And doing the theta stars, she’d usually do the bright stars at the same time, even though they were already in the Draper Catalogue, and we compared so many of those, and almost always it was the same, within a very few tenths of a spectral division. But I don’t think that was memory. I think that was just consistency in classification.
She did have an interest more broadly in other astronomical things, or — because from what has been reported of her work, it’s very exclusively on the spectra.
Well, she always loved variable stars. When she was at Wellesley I think she got interested in variables and did some variable star work there, and of course, when she first came to Harvard, she did a lot of variable star observing. Several of the early volumes of the Harvard Annals have hundreds of her observations of variables. She was always interested in those, and usually, in fact always quite excited when she found a spectrum belonging to a variable on the plates.
Which she then tended to recognize as a long period. variable.
Yes. And that would be one of my jobs, to go look up plates, or identify it and see if it was a known one, and if not, why, I’d look up plates and get the light curve if possible.
So even though you came in via spectra, you were also getting involved with variable stars simultaneously.
Yes. And then I did quite a bit of work on bibliography too. I’d get things ready. Florence Campbell made out a lot of the cards for the bibliography, but I would often get out the publications for her, and mark which ones we wanted cards made out for and just how to make them out and so on.
This was the big card catalogue that was maintained by Miss Cannon?
And I guess it was eventually sent down to Yale to Joe Ashbrook, but I’m not positive. At some time when the observatory was trying to modernize itself, the catalogue disappeared.
I don’t think it went to Yale. Did it? Dorrit would certainly know, and I don’t think Dorrit has ever mentioned having it there.
I have a feeling that I overheard Cecilia at one time say, “We should send it to Joe Ashbrook, he’s the person interested in this.” Maybe this was just a passing idea, not something that actually happened.
I would doubt very much if it did go there, but what happened to it? I know it was out in the rotunda for a long time, when things were being moved around. There was some talk of it going to Nantucket. Margaret Harwood was quite interested.
It might very well be down there. I’ll ask around and see if it’s maybe gone there. I gather that Shapley in those days was fairly much in evidence around the observatory.
Yes. He certainly was, and always having meetings. Of course his Hollow Squares were always very interesting.
How often did he have a Hollow Square?
Uncertain times. I think whenever he had enough ideas of things, and visitors were there who were quite important and had some interesting work to talk about. He’d call a Hollow Square and invite everybody down.
This was sort of in lieu of a colloquium in those days?
There weren’t announced colloquia other than these?
I think we had colloquia too, and they would be more formal talks by the visitor or speaker. But the Hollow Square was much more informal. We’d sit around, and if they did have guests there, they would talk about the work they had been doing, but in a very informal way, and then Shapley would always send little notes around to other members of the staff, asking us to report on certain things that we might have been working on, but we’d give very short reports on it, and lots of discussion. But they were really very interesting, and a great benefit, I think, to everybody.
How many people typically came to one of these?
I don’t know. I would guess maybe 20 or so.
So they were really fairly small, but this was about the side of the observatory family in the late 1920s.
Yes. Yes, it was. And of course, the graduate students were always invited, and most of the other staff members who were doing any kind of research work that sounded interesting.
I remember being told about a famous Hollow Square, when Shapley announced that Cecilia and Sergei had eloped, and Annie Cannon fainted dead away. Is that something you can —
Oh, I doubt very much! (laughter) I don’t remember that, and I don’t think she would have fainted away.
I see. Well, it’s perhaps an embroidery.
I think it is, yes.
I was wondering if you could confirm that.
No. I think that’s a nice little story that’s developed. It doesn’t sound like Miss Cannon at all.
I see. She came to those and could hear, with her hearing aid.
Yes. There’s another of my jobs there — I say jobs, one of my pleasures. She would entertain any visitors at a little tea in the little back room, top floor of Building C, and I usually, she’d ask me to get tea ready for them, bring the tea in and stay there with them. So that was great fun. I remember the day Einstein was there, and he came back to this, socks all down around his ankles, darling old man, everybody fell in love with him, and he sat there, and I was privileged to stay there in the room with him while they chatted away. Just three or four people. Dr. Shapley would always come in and have a few — talk about things generally. But that was really a wonderful experience.
Did Hertzsprung ever come by?
Oh yes. Hertzsprung used to be there a great deal. And Eddington, and Father Rhodes and of course, the other Jesuit Father Hayden used to be there a lot.
How do you spell Rhodes?
Rhodes, I think. He was this Spanish priest who spoke with a beautiful Irish accent. He learned English in Ireland.
Russell often came up to see Shapley, and I gather he was famous as a big talker.
Yes. Oh yes, we’d always have meetings where he would talk when he was there. He’d often come back and have tea with Miss Cannon.
Now, I guess Cecilia Payne was already there when you had come.
Yes, she’d been there I think a year before, I guess two years before I came. She came in ‘22, I think, and my first time was the summer of ‘24.
I gather she was quite temperamental.
Yes, very much so.
Can you give any example of that?
Well, I don’t know that I should give too many examples of that sort of thing. She did — I know, for quite a while, I’m not sure whether it was when I first came or not, she had the room just on the other side of the Building C from Miss Cannon’s on the top floor, and we’d hear things crashing on the floor. When she got angry, she’d throw things around.
Well, Helen Hogg had mentioned to me that part of the reason why Cecilia had never been promoted as much as her talents might have warranted was not solely the fact that she was a woman, but in part because she had a very strong temper, and it was difficult for her sometimes to get along with people.
I think that’s probably true. Because she was very difficult. She could be very very nice. She was always, we always got along well together. She never got angry with me that I know of. But she was very difficult to get along with. And I don’t think that she could have done much more work with other people than what she did.
She did of course collaborate from time to time with a number of young people there.
To what degree was Shapley fairly decisive or dictatorial in assigning what people were supposed to be doing?
Not too much, although if he would send a note and ask you to do something, he expected to have it done. And I don’t know just what he would have done if you hadn’t completed it or hadn’t reported on it anyway. But I think his personality was such that people would do things that he’d ask them to do. I think in general they would certainly do it, except Cecilia, and Cecilia was —
I think she felt retrospectively that she had been forced into doing the photometry, because of Shapley’s scheme to bring in Plaskett to be the astrophysicist, and that she had been forced to do things that were not her first love, as a consequence of this. I think she rather resented that.
Yes, I can see where she might have.
I got that impression a little bit when I talked to her, and it’s certainly in her published memoirs to that effect.
Yes, I think that’s really very understandable, and I don’t think her book on the — that later became so famous, and such a standard — I don’t think it was recognized too well in the beginning at Harvard.
This is the book on her thesis?
And then she did another one on the high luminosity stars.
Yes. And I don’t think that they were acknowledged as much as she thought they should have been, and probably they should have been.
What was Miss Cannon’s reaction to those publications?
I don’t know that Miss Cannon was really too dreadfully interested in that. I don’t think she was in astrophysics. She was more the observational astronomer. And didn’t go into the astrophysical side of it. So I never really heard her express any views on Cecilia’s books, or any astrophysical things.
Because obviously Cecilia had got her start by having Miss Cannon show her about spectra.
But I gather that Cecilia soon went off onto her own thing, with respect to the —
Yes. Miss Cannon was always very fond of Cecilia, but I think was quite impatient with Cecilia when she had her temper tantrums. Miss Cannon just couldn’t understand anyone acting that way.
Now, you were there then when Bok and Whipple and Menzel came. You were there before any of them, is that right?
Do you want to say anything about your memories of their coming on the scene, and how this changed or augmented things?
Well, Bok was always a very good teacher, and his personality was such that I think everyone liked him and liked working with him. Menzel was much stiffer, and much more reserved, I guess, than Bok, and Bok would just overflow with enthusiasm over things, but Menzel never did. They were very different temperaments.
I know that when I first came, that was exactly how the graduate students sensed it, so I suppose in a certain sense it meant that it was the more self confident graduate students, and perhaps in some ways the stronger ones, who were able to cope with Menzel, and Bok certainly had more graduate students but perhaps not always the most brilliant ones.
Yes, I suppose that could be.
… Now, when did the Henry Draper Extension work actually begin? This was already in progress when you came?
Of course George Dimitroff was there too. He was always very popular with everybody.
Excepting with Bok, apparently. I was told that at one point Bolt had told Shapley, either he leaves or I leave. There were some problems of jurisdiction at Oak Ridge Observatory, I think. So I gather that that was in fact the time when Dimitroff then went up to Dartmouth.
It probably was. They were both pretty strong-willed people.
Well, the tape’s just about to run out on this side. I think I will stop for the moment and let you reflect about some of these things, and come back some days from now and. do the other side of the tape with you on some of the things more in the 1930s and some aspects of the social life of the observatory, and some of those kinds of things that I’m very keen to have documented, which aren’t so easy to get at, because I asked you, for example, where people were sitting, because that’s something that as far as I know isn’t recorded any place.
2 pages missing from the transcript.