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dorritgrad.gifToday I presented a video on perhaps the oldest living Ph.D. level female astromer in the world: Dr. E. Dorrit Hoffleit. At age 99, she was still brillent in mind and voice in this interview.

Download the video (109.8 Mb)

Dr. Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit, was born in Florence, Alabama, on March 12, 1907. She was the youngest of two children born to German immigrants, and her father often struggled to make ends meet for his family. When she was still small, her family moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania, following the opportunity for her father as a bookkeeper for the railroads and for her and her older brother Herbert to attain an education. It was in New Castle that her love of astronomy was born.

In 1920, Dorrit moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her mother and brother, when Herbert was admitted to Harvard University. She would follow his lead, and enter Radcliffe College a few years later, receiving a B.A. in mathematics in 1928. She originally planned to teach high school mathematics, but was unable to find work. This was a lucky thing, as it left her available to take a job at Harvard College Observatory as a research assistant. She went on to become the 5th woman to receive a PhD from Radcliffe and was awarded the Carolyn Wilbt Prize for best original dissertation for her work on the spectroscopic determination of absolute magnitudes for southern stars.

Dr. Hoffleit left Harvard College Observatory in 1943, when she joined the war effort at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where she calculated trajectories of missiles. After the war she continued there for 3 additional years, consulted for them until 1961. When she returned to Harvard, she returned home to her research and to new southern hemisphere plates collected in her absence specifically for her project. Unfortunately, after Menzel assumed the HCO directorship in 1954, her research program was cancelled. As a result, in 1956, she moved South to the Yale Astronomy Department, where she still continues to put in hours today.

In 1957, she was appointed director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island. During the summer, she was able to live and observe from her island oasis, and in the winter she worked on the Bright Star Catalogue at Yale. She and her Maria Mitchel summer research interns are responsible the discovery of over 1000 variable stars and the publication of over 90 papers.

Dr. Hoffleit’s life time contributions to astronomy span the fields of meteors, spectroscopic classification of stars, variable stars, missile trajectories, astrometry and more. She has over 320 papers listed in the Astrophysics Data System. She has countless honors and awards, including the 1988 Geoge van Beiesboreck Award and the 1993 AAS-Annenberg Price.

Over and over in interviews and books, Dorrit has explained her life’s dedication to astronomy the same way. “Most people work for a living,” she says. :I live in order to work. It is what I love to do.”

You can purchase her autobiography from the AAVSO here