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Interview of Helen Hogg by David DeVorkin on 1979 August 17, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4679
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Training at Mount Holyoke, 1926, and at Harvard College Observatory; work for Harlow Shapley on variable stars in globular clusters; move to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and then to David Dunlap Observatory in 1934 when husband changed positions; research activities at David Dunlap; continued contact with Shapley; David Dunlap Observatory during World War II; popular writing and organizational activities; program director for the Astronomy Program at National Science Foundation (NSF), 1955-1956; recollections of Harlow Shapley. Also prominently mentioned are: Annie Jump Cannon, John S. Plaskett, Jan Schildt, Robert Julius Trumpler; Harvard University, and Toronto Star.
Could you give me some brief overview of your life, the backgrounds of your parents, and how you came into science?
Well, I was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. My father was a banker. And my mother was a teacher, and it turned out that she enjoyed her astronomy in high school. I think that influenced me, though I wasn't aware of it at the time. And an aunt lived with us who also loved the skies. As a child I was taken out and shown the constellations. Then I went to Mount Holyoke College where I had a most wonderful teacher of astronomy, Professor Anne Sewell Young.
I was in chemistry, until into my junior year. I almost had completed a major in chemistry. But Miss Young's introductory astronomy, plus the total eclipse of January 24, 1925, locked me into astronomy for the rest of my life.
In my senior year, Miss Cannon came out from Harvard and interviewed me and said she thought there might be a Harvard scholarship available for me, which there was. So in June of 26, I got my bachelor's at Mount Holyoke and had even become fond of some globular clusters there. Globular clusters were my favorite objects at Mount Holyoke.
So you first encountered them at Mount Holyoke.
Did you do any work in them, any work on variable stars there?
No. Not on globular clusters
But you did some variable star work.
I did variable start work, yes. And the usual course problems: occultations of this and that. So in September, I went to Cambridge. I'm not sure whether I'd met Dr. Shapley before, but at any rate, from then on, I started working with him on globular clusters. I was working in the room next to Miss Cannon. It was an enormous treat to hear her call out to her assistants the classification, as she would work along one of the plates with thousands of spectra on it. And so I was there for four years.
Meanwhile, my husband came from the University of Toronto at the same time that I did, and he his PhD in 29. He was the first PhD in astronomy from Harvard. As you are aware, in recent years, Harvard and Radcliffe have been making degrees interchangeable, and there are a number of places where it's in print that Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin has the first PhD from Harvard. That is not correct. I mean, you can't make a thing retroactive back to those days.
I see. Is that what was done?
Well, that seems to be. There was an article in the American Museum of Natural History magazine on women in astronomy in which it was mentioned that Cecilia had the first PhD in astronomy at Harvard. She had the first from Radcliffe. And my husband had the first from Harvard.
I had a letter of Dr. Shapley's, at the time my husband died, about his being our number 1 PhD.
Well, glad to get that straight. Can you tell me what your impressions were of Harlow Shapley when you first met him?
He was absolutely dynamic, magnetic. He cast spells over people, really. He had such a flare for words, for one thing. He could say a thing twice as cleverly as anybody else around, you might say. A wonderful flare for words. Energy, well, in those days, we firmly expected that he would just collapse any time from overwork.
He was very energetic?
He worked until about 3 o'clock in the morning, and then he was back, and he expected other people to work in proportion too. He set a standard of long hours of work that I don't think I've ever encountered since in my life.
What were his first directives to you for studying globulars? Did he immediately say that should work on variable stars and globular clusters?
I didn't work on variables to start with. He suggested that I measure the integrated magnitudes and diameters of globular clusters on all available Harvard small scale plates. This was something he had done at Mt. Wilson, but there was more material at Harvard on more clusters. This was his idea of getting distances for these things, you see. And so that's what I did in my first and part of my second year there.
The American Astronomical Society met at Yale, I think in the winter of 1927, and I attended. I think I joined then too. Jan Schilt of Columbia made a pronouncement that I've never forgotten. He said people were talking (and he meant Shapley) so much about the period-luminosity relation in globular clusters and yet there was so little material. There were so few variables involved, that you shouldn't try to make predictions from it.
This came as a real shock to me. I went back to Harvard, and looked over the literature, and to my surprise found that Schilt was right. And I started a bibliography of all the material on globular clusters and I then started working from Harvard plates to try to get more Cepheids. This was work that I was doing in the latter part of 28 and 29 and all through 30 for my thesis. My thesis embraced papers with Shapley on the magnitudes, and the concentration class for globular clusters that we worked out. We also determined the integrated magnitudes and the angular diameters and then I had the variables and the clusters.
Was he interested or concerned during this time about searching for interstellar absorption? Did he discuss this with you at all?
I think he had a very strong notion that there wasn't any interstellar absorption, and as you probably are aware, the reason he gave was the existence of blue stars that he observed in globular clusters. "And now," said, "could there be blue stars if there's any absorption?" Of course, the catch was, he was way up in the high galactic latitudes, and when the Trumpler paper came out in the Lick Observatory Bulletin about 1930, Shapley was rather shaken by that, I think.
Were you with him?
I was there at the time, and I think that he almost had a blind spot about accepting it at first. Now, I left before the thing was universally accepted. It took a year or two before everybody would agree that what Trumpler was doing was real. So I don't know how long it took Shapley to adjust to that, really.
Well, were his first impressions that it wasn't correct? That Trumpler had done something incorrectly?
I think his first impressions were that Trumpler must have done something incorrectly and that it was not right — there just wasn't that kind of absorption. Now, how long it took to change is difficult to say, but eventually, I think, everybody did accept that paper. But how long it took, I don't know.
In working on variable stars in general, especially variable stars in globular clusters, did you know that you were going to be able to continue this kind of work after you left Harvard?
No. Not really. At Harvard all the plates were taken for me. I just sat in the office and measured them and then computed periods and so forth, with the little machines we had in those days. When I went to Mount Holyoke, my husband had a position at Amherst College, the first year we were married. Then Dr. Shapely, in the winters of 1930, invited my husband to return to go on the staff at Harvard. At the same time, my husband had an invitation from Dr. J.S. Plaskett, the director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, to go there. That was an exceedingly difficult decision. I sensed at the time that my whole life would be different, whichever way we went, and it was, no doubt of that. My husband was a Canadian, born in Ontario, and he finally took the DAO position.
How did you feel about that, concerning your own research?
At that point I was finishing my PhD and wasn't really thinking too much about what I was going to do in the future. I had not been married a year then, and my idea was just to go along with my husband. We'd be in an observatory and I'd probably find something to do.
When we got to Victoria, the director, Dr. J.S. Plaskett, was exceedingly wonderful to me. It turned out to be the Depression and the Canadian government rule was ironclad that both husband and wife could not be employed, and I understood that perfectly. Dr. Plaskett got money, $200 a year f rom the National Academy of Sciences, which he paid me for my full time work as an assistant.
$200 a year?
I used the $200 to pay a full time maid for a year. $200, full time, one year! That's what the dollar was in those days. To start with, I stayed home, when our first child was born in 32. Then I quickly discovered that the child slept much of the time, and while she was sleeping, I might as well be doing something else.
And what did you choose to do?
I went to the observatory every day. And I also went at night when my husband observed, for the first year. But after the baby came, I didn't go with him when he was doing his observing program, but I continued [my own]. Dr. Plaskett game me the use of the big telescope, the 72-inch, for as many nights as I wanted. I was the first woman to use it, you see, and that was a very wonderful thing to have him trust me with.
My husband helped me prepare the observational program. There was always a night assistant too at the telescope. Working at the Newtonian focus with the big telescope required three people so one wouldn't have to be going up and down stairs.
Yes, quite dangerous. (And time consuming, loss of telescope time).
I observed the first month. We got in the end of August, and I began with a program in September that year and continued in October, and then continued when the globular clusters came around again next year. They're summer objects.
So you continued largely a photographic program?
Yes, on variables, to determine their periods. And the interesting thing is that one of my biggest clusters was 6934, and next week, I go out to Victoria, to the Star Clusters Conference and report on the finish of it. It's taken all these years.
Wow! That's marvelous. You were actually in a situation where you had better observing facilities than were available at Harvard.
Yes, yes. I did.
Did you maintain contact with Shapley?
Very much so, yes. In fact, in my first year at Victoria, I hadn't acquired enough plates by the winter of 31 - 32, to do much on them. I had just had a few nights observing in September and October, because I could only work in the dark of the moon. And in my thesis, I had finished the cluster NGC 362, which is halfway between us and the Small Magellanic Cloud. But I had got some unusual period lengths there. Cepheids of only between one and two days period. So I though they belonged in the cloud rather than in the cluster. And so before I left Harvard, I measured the field of the Small Cloud, adjacent to NGC 362, and I determined those periods my first year at Harvard. They were published in a HARVARD CIRCULAR. So I was right in touch with Dr. Shapley all these years, back and forth.
As the thirties continued, as we mentioned before off tape, you didn't have any contact with the Summer School at Harvard in the thirties?
No. You see, I was way out in British Columbia, and those were not air travel days. We moved East in December of 34, and began work at the University of Toronto, the David Dunlap Observatory, in January of 35.
That big telescope was opened, dedicated, in May of 35, and my husband was appointed to the staff. And here again, I couldn't be on the staff to start. It wasn't as rigid as the government but there was some university feeling against [jobs for] members of the family. But by 1936, that had been overcome, to the stage where I was officially on the staff, and I think my salary, as I recall, was $300 for the year. Full time.
Did you make the move with the understanding that you would continue to have telescope time?
Oh yes. I'm not sure how much that was discussed. It was sort of taken for granted. I had a program going at Victoria, and I would continue it in Richmond Hill.
Was your research interrupted at all by World War II?
It was made harder. I wouldn't way it was interrupted. Life was very hard during those years. It was particularly hard on my husband.
Our staff was small. There were only eight or ten on the staff at that time, and three of the most robust and fairly senior people went to war.
Who were they?
They were Dr. Peter Millman, Dr. John F. Heard, and Gerry Longworth, who ever since 1935 had kept the big telescope running, you see. But they were all in the active war service; two of them in the Air Force and Gerry in the Navy. And that meant that Dr. Young and my husband alternated nights with the 74-inch, and then taught classes at the university in the daytime.
That's quite strenuous.
Oh, it was killing. It really was a very heavy time. I took on teaching then. But I wouldn't say my research was interrupted. There were a few years there when there were only about a half dozen people in the world that were doing variables and globular clusters, and I was one of them. But I got slowed down a bit, because of the house too — I had three children by then, and help was scarce for the house. It was a very difficult time, and my mind tends to forget about unpleasant things in life and not dwell on them. Every once in a while I think back — oh!
Did you ever consider priorities; that you would have to give up one of your activities?
Oh, from time to time, very much so. I made lists of what should be the first thing to go, and in fa ct, some years back, I decided to give up my newspaper column.
You wrote a newspaper column?
Oh, I still do, for 28-1/2 years, in Canada's largest newspaper, the TORONTO STAR. It has a circulation of about 750,000. I have a weekly column.
What do you put in this column?
Well, current astronomy and monthly notes about what's in the sky. My husband had it for ten years before me, and I helped him with it. Then at his death, my friends all had a campaign and wrote letters to the STAR saying that I should be the one to take it over. So two weeks after he died, I started it.
Around ten or fifteen years ago, I decided that I just had too much going, and that was one thing I should give up. So I wrote a farewell column, and I went in to the editor with it and said, "I've decided to quit and this is my last column," and he said, "Good heavens, what have we done?" So they printed the column, and I had a flood of really touching letters from people, you know.
This was the reading public of the newspaper?
Yes. So I said, "I certainly don't want to see the column die. And if you can't get anybody in a week or two, I'll fill in till you can." We missed one week, and they hadn't got anybody, so then I said I'd start filling in.
Under your own name.
And are you still doing it today?
Yes. 28-1/2 years. I've lived through several editors.
What day does it usually appear?
Saturday, on the Leisure page, they have various columns.
Are you compensated for this?
They pay me every week. Oh yes, it was a paying job. Not a very large remuneration, but it pays.
What else was on your priority list? Did you ever consider slowing down on your research? Or did you ever actually consider stopping, during the war?
No, I never wanted to stop my research, but at times it has slowed down. I've done a lot with various organizations. I have been president of quite a few of them, and that takes a lot of time.
These are mainly astronomical organizations?
Well, mainly scientific. The first was the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Then, there was the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. And I've been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada since 1946. And I was president of the Physical Science Section of that in 1960.
And then I was president of the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto. That's all science, not just astronomy. I was the first president of the Canadian Astronomical Society, which is like the American. It contains professional people.
A lot of work.
Yes. A great deal of time.
Did you seek these positions out, knowing that they'd be a lot of work?
Oh, I didn't seek them out. Heavens, they seek you out.
Who would usually approach you for taking on these tasks?
Oh, it would differ with the organization. I'd be on the council. I was a whole year in Washington. I was the second program director of astronomy for National Science Foundation. That's one year when my research ground right down to a virtual halt.
How did you become program director, because you were in Toronto at that time?
Yes, I was.
You must have retained your American citizenship through all this?
Yes. I have dual citizenship. I am Canadian by marriage, US by birth.
Not that there had to be any sort of a nationalistic allegiance, but it is an American organization.
Yes. That's right.
So do you feel that even though the majority of your professional career by far has been in Canadian observatories, that you're very much an American astronomer? Or would you like to clarify that?
Well, I think I've been a Canadian astronomer since 1931. And that's 48 years. I was an American astronomer from 26 to 31 plus two other years that I was in the States. So I think the Canadian feeling outweighs the American at this point. Furthermore, I have Canada's highest decoration.
What is that?
The Companion of the Order of Canada. There are only 150 in the country in all walks of life.
That's marvelous. It's like our Order of Merit.
Yes, it's patterned more on the British. Instead of titles, this is what they instituted in Canada's Centennial Year, 67. Tape 1, Side 2:
Well, somewhere around this time when you were at NSF, you were also at Harvard during the Summer School. Is this correct?
No. The Harvard Summer School was 1952. And NSF was 55 to 56, so there really wasn't a connection. My husband died very suddenly on New Year's Day of 1951.
Was it a stroke?
It was his heart. He was one of the people who had rheumatic fever as a child, and in those days, they didn't know how to treat it. Now, they do. I think that Dr. Shapley had it in mind, when he invited me to come to the Summer School in 52, you see, that I was now in a career by myself without my husband.
So what did he have in mind that you might do?
Well, this was an opportunity for me — now I no longer had the ties to my husband and would be more free — to pick up and come to Massachusetts for the summer.
I see. What were your duties in the Harvard Summer School?
Just to teach.
What did you teach?
The beginning course in astronomy. And I still correspond with one of my students. She was a teacher. She was just interested in it, and we write at Christmas time.
So there were introductory courses in astronomy that you taught?
Yes. There was one introductory course with a lab, and we were commenting two nights ago, my lab assistant is the vice president of the IAU for the United States, David Heechen.
Who is at NRAO now?
Yes. He retired as director of NRAO. He had been the director of it for many years.
What was the change in flavor at Harvard when you went back? Could you sense that there was a difference?
Yes, you could. In the 1920's, Harvard was really a remarkably happy family with the Shapley parties. I really was the one who did a lot of the production of that "Pinafore."
That was a famous one.
Dr. Shapley gave it to me to read. Somebody had unearthed it, and he gave it to me to read. I had had training in high school plays. I had taken part in plays in high school. So I read it through. He said, "What do you think?" I said, "Oh, I think we could do this." He said, "Well, will you start?" So we did, and it was a real hit. We all had a wonderful time with it. You've seen the pictures of it?
Oh yes, marvelous.
We all had a wonderful time at rehearsals, and Peter Millman had a fine singing voice, as did Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and the chorus wasn't too bad, so it was just lots of fun.
Did that continue on? Did they do the "Pinafore" in later years?
I think it was just the once, but I'm not sure, because of course, once I went out West I didn't have the close connection with Harvard.
Sure. So in 52, then, things were not as close?
No. It was a different atmosphere somehow. I taught down in Harvard Yard, and that meant that I wasn't at the Observatory so much of the day. I'd go there some, but I was really down at Harvard Yard. That summer of 52 broke records for heat. We had it over 100, as I recall, for several days in a row. It was one of the very hot years, and it was a trial.
Were there any advanced courses or seminars, conferences, during the Harvard Summer School in Astronomy that summer that you recall? Other visiting astronomers?
I am tempted to say yes. There were the usual "Friday Afternoon" or whatever it was. But I can't remember what there were, and I can't remember how often. But I recall those "countdowns" or whatever they were called, "Hollow Squares."
The Hollow Squares were still active at that time, the Shapley seminars?
I'd better pass, because I'm not sure on that one, but I don't think of that summer as being a dearth of speakers.
OK. Let's talk for a moment about the years you were in NSF. What were your primary responsibilities, what did you do?
They were very big. The program was starting in those days, so the budget wasn't in the millions, just hundreds of thousands. But they were also starting the research and planning for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and for Kitt Peak. And I went on site selection tours for both of those, as well as administering the regular grants programs, sitting on the panels.
Did you apply for this position?
No. They phoned me up one day from NSF, in the spring.
Who phoned you?
Did you know why he called you in particular?
I never have [known]. Peter van de Kamp was in it too. He was the first program director.
How did you feel about being asked to do something like this?
I was overwhelmed. I've had quite a number of things in my life that hit me suddenly and were so big they didn't seem real. That was one of them.
And did David Dunlap Observatory say anything about your taking this leave of absence?
No. I had not had a leave of absence since 1940, from my teaching there. And so I was really overdue for a leave of absence from the David Dunlap [Observatory]. You see, when my husband died so suddenly, it made it a very difficult time, because he was the director of the observatory. And when the director is taken out suddenly, with all the class records to locate and everything, I had plunged in and worked exceedingly hard. But by 55, the new director was going strong, and things were calming down.
Were there any major decisions during your NSF year?
Well, decisions about Kitt Peak and the Radio Telescope, both of them.
How did you come to these decisions? Did you seek out the advice of others?
There were panels set up, you see.
So it was not an individual decision on my part, though I did have some power of argument for swaying opinion, I might say.
You were in control of determining who was on the panels and when they would meet?
No. The panels were chosen separately from me, and their meeting times were chosen by the people running the Foundation. I didn't have any connection with that. But I met with them.
I see. So your specific responsibility was to do what?
To process the proposals that came in, and to go along with the panels for the Radio and the Optical Observatory, and write up minutes, and gather data of one sort or another.
And keeping all the proposals straight. Communicating with the people who did submit proposals.
I see. Then you went back to the observatory, in Toronto?
And you continued on your many, many activities, research and teaching.
Yes, and the various organizations.
That gives me a very nice encapsulated view of that part of your career. It tells me something about the Harvard Summer School, at least, that it didn't continue in the way that it began in the thirties. Shapley saw them more as conferences for astronomers who were already in-service as astronomers, to come in for specialist conferences. Was there anything like this going on during the summers, when you got to Harvard in the summer year of your teaching?
I don't think I know. I took my children with me to Cambridge, and a couple of them worked in the offices there helping the AAVSO and various other jobs. I had my own teaching, and my family, and I just don't know about what might have been going on with the students. I don't recall.
OK, fine. Well, we've gone about an hour now, it's 11 o'clock.
Oh, that's wonderful.
I thank you very much for your time. Is there anything you'd like to add to this interview?
Well, just that I had, as you may have gathered, an enormous amount of admiration for Dr. Shapley as an individual. I have always regarded him as outstanding, because he had a wide variety of skills, as I've indicated, with his flair for words and speaking and enthusiasm and driving force, and brilliant mind.
Did you have a lot of contact with him in that summer year when you were back at Harvard?
Not a great deal. But I had a great deal of contact with him in the 1920's, to the extent that when I would prepare to do some of these measures, he'd come into the office to see how things were progressing, and schedule conferences about the work and so forth.
Did he have any characteristic mannerisms that you particularly remember?
No, I don't recall that.
In terms of his discussing the various research problems with you, were there any pet stars that he always referred to by nicknames or anything like that.
He enjoyed it when I gave things nicknames. There was one open cluster that I worked on, that was NGC 2477. It was such a symmetrical open cluster that I told him I was going to name it Dorothy, because Dorothy was on of my favorite names. I had had a friend who was a very beautiful girl, and the name Dorothy meant beauty to me. He just enjoyed that. When he'd ask about the cluster, he'd always refer to it as Dorothy. He enjoyed it when other people sort of entered into his spirit of words for things.
Can you contrast Shapley, as you knew him in the twenties, to the few times you might have seen him in the 2950's, especially when he was going through all the trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee?
I really can't, because he never discussed it, or practically never discussed this type of problem with me. I was at his80th birthday party, and sat beside him on that occasion, and he was in fine form that night, despite the blackout. You were away that his 80th birthday party was on the night of the colossal Atlantic Coast blackout?
On no, I didn't know that.
Oh yes. It was weird. I was in the Commander Hotel, the one that's on the south side of Concord Avenue. And somebody from the observatory was to pick me up. This was a formal dress occasion, and I had come in from Toronto. It was about a quarter to 5, November 9, 1965. Was just starting to get my long formal dress and jewelry out of the suitcase, and bang, the lights went.
And of course, for a while we thought they'd be going back on. But they didn't. It was a mess, dressing in the dark. Then of course, the traffic lights were out, so this drive over to Brookline to the American Academy of Arts and Science with no traffic lights was horrendous. When we got there, we found the dinner was all right because they had gas heated trucks and they had also planned to have candlelight tables, so the dinner proceeded. Then at the end, bang, the lights came on.
Did Shapley have anything memorable to say about that?
I can't remember. It was the sort of thing that those who were there never forgot. Some people were very disappointed that they didn't go. They thought the thing would be cancelled, you see.
Oh yes, I understand.
And they felt very sorry afterwards, those students and friends.
Well, I can understand that.
It was quite an occasion, I assure you.
Yes. Well, I thank you again for your time and I think it might be good to end it here.
All right. Fine.
 "Countdowns" are the David Dunlap versions of Harvard's "Hollow Squares."