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
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 ö 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. "
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.
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
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
"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