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A master of the science of stargazing


The late Helen Hogg, a researcher and professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto from 1936 to 1976, was a pioneer in many ways throughout her 60-year career. "She's sort of a first lady of science," says Donald MacRae, former colleague and chairman of U of T's department of astronomy from 1966 to 1978. "When people think of women who have succeeded in their scientific careers, they naturally think of Helen Hogg."

A class trip to see a total eclipse of the sun in 1925 left a lasting impression on the young Hogg, a chemistry major in her junior year. "The almost incredible beauty and grandeur of a total eclipse," claimed Hogg in her autobiographical notes, "tied me to astronomy for life." In following this new career path, Hogg would leave her mark on the world of astronomy, the University of Toronto, women scientists and Canadians who would come to share her passion for stargazing.

Hogg became an international authority on "globular star clusters," which are the oldest objects in our galaxy, the Milky Way. She took more than 2,000 photographs and published over 200 papers on her research. Her work involved studying the light cycles of pulsating variable stars in the clusters, to try to determine the clusters' ages and location in the galaxy.

But this was no small task. The world of stars is billions of years old. Researchers are still struggling with the question of exactly how old our galaxy is and how it formed, and Hogg helped lay the groundwork for further studies today.

A dedicated observer, Hogg never missed an opportunity to study the night sky. Her Catalogues of Variable Stars in Globular Clusters the fourth edition of which she was working on at the time of her death in 1993 are the only such compilations in existence, and are frequently cited by astronomers around the world.

While her work garnered much international respect, her efforts to encourage women scientists made her equally important.

As a scientist working in the '20s and '30s, Hogg faced some tough challenges. Although she conducted her graduate research on star clusters at the Harvard Observatory, Hogg received both her Masters and Ph.D. from Radcliffe College because, at the time, Harvard did not give graduate degrees in science to women.

In 1931, her husband, Frank Hogg, accepted a position at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, B.C. Although Helen wasn't offered a paid position, she had access to the world's second largest telescope a privilege most women were denied because studying in the observatory with men at night was considered inappropriate. With Frank as her "chaperone," Hogg was able to conduct her research on a volunteer basis. Even when their first child, Sally, was born, the Hoggs took her with them to the Observatory at night in a cradle.

When Frank joined the University of Toronto in 1935, Helen continued her research at the University's David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ontario. She was offered her first paid position, as a research assistant, in 1936. Her salary was just enough to pay for childcare.

Hogg's research activities continued at a steady pace, even with two more children. Her work took her across the globe from a conference in Stockholm to observatories in Arizona and Texas. Combining roles as wife, mother and astronomer, Hogg was a superwoman ahead of her time.

World War II was a turning point for Hogg. Most of the astronomy department's researchers went off to war in 1941, opening the door for Hogg to fulfill teaching duties at U of T for the first time.

Rising through the university ranks, Hogg became a Full Professor in 1957. "Helen was an inspiration to the women students at the university", says Christine Clement, a former student of Hogg's who is now a professor of Astronomy at U of T and one of a handful of Canadian researchers continuing to study variable stars. "At a time when women were often ridiculed for studying science, Helen and [colleague] Ruth Northcott received a great deal of respect from their male colleagues in the department. "

Clement remembers fondly a dinner Hogg hosted at her home for the women of the David Observatory. "It was right around the time of my graduation from my bachelor's degree", recalls Clement, "a time when many of us thought that, despite our education, our lives would be shaped by the men we would marry.

"Helen showed us slides of her travels around the world. For example, she had been to the Soviet Union in 1958 for an astronomy conference, when it was almost impossible to get into the country." Clement claims that she, along with other women, got a strong message from Hogg that evening. "Helen widowed for some time by then seemed to be showing us that we, too, could have lives, dreams, careers, and wonderful experiences all our own."

In 1976, Hogg retired and was appointed Professor Emeritus. But her research continued long afterwards. Daughter Sally MacDonald remembers Hogg as enormously hardworking. "Even after she stopped getting paid by the university, at 70, she continued to go the Observatory regularly. "

Throughout her life, Hogg was active in several professional organizations, and received countless awards and dedications. In 1946, she was the first woman in the physical sciences to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1984, an asteroid was named Sawyer Hogg in her honour. In 1989, the National Museum of Science & Technology in Ottawa renamed its observatory after her. And in 1993, the Department of Astronomy named the 61cm telescope at U of T's Southern Observatory in Chile the Helen Sawyer Hogg Telescope. Hogg was also the first woman to be elected president of the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science, Canada's oldest surviving scientific society.

Hogg's memory also lives on at U of T through the Helen Sawyer Hogg Distinguished Visitorship, established by the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Department of Astronomy in honour of her work. This program brings distinguished female scientists to the university to educate students on astronomy and to encourage women to pursue studies in the sciences.

Hogg also had widespread public appeal, a result of her passion for teaching the public about the stars. For 30 years she wrote a weekly column, "With the Stars," in the Toronto Star, a role she inherited from husband Frank just two weeks after his death in 1951.

Hogg also hosted her own astronomy series on TV Ontario in 1970, and its popularity guaranteed a long history of reruns. Her book, The Stars Belong to Everyone, published in 1976, encouraged people to appreciate the beauty of the night sky.

"It's hard to measure Helen's contributions," says Clement. "She meant so many things to so many people. She was a great scientist who really increased our knowledge of the stars. She was also a great educator both to her students and to the public. But I think the main thing is that she was such an inspiration. I doubt I'd be here without her, and I'm not alone. She was one of a kind."

- Althea Blackburn-Evans

 
 
     
University of Toronto Office of the Vice-President, Research and Associate Provost