Celebrating notable Canadian women astronomers
February 11 marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). This lends an opportunity to share how others were inspired by past mentors, including Canadian women who have made incredible contributions to astronomy.
Many may recall Helen Sawyer Hogg as Canada’s prized early woman astronomer. However, Miriam Burland and Mary Grey are two notable women who also enriched the world of astronomy. They once held careers at Canada’s first national observatory — the Dominion Observatory — and influenced the astronomy and physics collection at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
The late John Hodgson, past Chief of Earth Physics at Natural Resources Canada, once said, “those who have worked at the Dominion Observatory, situated within the national historic site of the Central Experimental Farm…often after their careers have been completed, they and their descendants become part of the observatory family and its legacy.” In this statement, he refers to past staff continuing to educate others, in order to advocate for the observatory’s historic features for generations to enjoy and learn from. They often recall Canada’s national astronomy program that took place there between 1904 and 1973, that many still celebrate as a national accomplishment.
Hodgson’s statement also sheds light on why I am continuing my research in this area, as part of the observatory family. My father, who worked at the Dominion Observatory for nearly 30 years, invited me inside this historic architecture over the decades. I was raised on the history of astronomers Burland and Grey, and this has led my study into their lives.
The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, Canada's first national Observatory.
'She Hitched Her Dream to a Star'. A 1967 newspaper article from the Ottawa Journal which featured Miriam Burland.
Miriam Burland: first-class Canadian astronomer
The late Burland became the first woman and first-class astronomer to work at the Dominion Observatory when she began her career in 1927, after graduating from McGill University in Physics. For four decades until her retirement in 1967 she continued to educate the public in Canadian astronomy and the contributing achievements discovered in the observatory, such as the finding of Planet X (Pluto) in 1930.
Mary Grey: first woman curator of astronomy at the Canada Science and Technology Museum
Mary Grey with the Dominion Telescope in Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory, Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa.
As Burland’s successor, Mary Grey was also inspired to educate others on Canadian astronomy, partly through Burland’s mentorship. She gave instruction due to a growing public interest for what was occurring within this stately observatory. Often, her audiences had a chance to look through the Dominion Telescope during Saturday Astronomy Nights. Visitors were enticed to attend these events, to see with their own eyes what earlier astronomers had witnessed through the Dominion Telescope’s historic lens.
When the official astronomy program at the Dominion Observatory closed in 1970, Grey began a subsequent career as Curator of Astronomy and Physics at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, with the same pursuit of educating others. By 1974, she succeeded in transferring to the museum collection important monumental equipment, historic technology, and documents from the observatory. This accomplishment enhanced her career as a senior curator, and ensured that these valuable pieces of history on Canada’s astronomy program would be preserved in longevity.
The most poignant piece that was moved to the museum was the main 15-inch refractor Dominion Telescope itself. Rather than placing the telescope on static display, Grey ensured it would increase public education by maintaining it as an active learning tool. She achieved this by curating this artifact within a new observatory on the museum grounds, which opened in January 1975. She also launched an Astronomy Programme Family Night, for public evening stargazing through the Dominion Telescope. This new building was dedicated The Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory in 1989, furthering a recognition milestone for women in Canadian astronomical science.
Today, Ingenium staff members still fondly remember Grey’s passion for sharing her knowledge of Canadian astronomy. Sharon Babaian, Curator, Marine and Land Transportation, recalls that Grey educated the public not only through curating exhibitions, but through her creative literature. The Canada Science and Technology Museum published Sky monthly, and also produced Stargazing newsletters.
Ingenium Graphic Designer Gail Lacombe also recalls working on many of these publications with Grey through the 1980s and early 1990s. Both publications enjoyed a popular following of readers, until Grey’s passing in 1996.
Through my research so far, the findings conclude that if it was not for Grey’s foresight to preserve the history of the Dominion Observatory and the instruments that it once held, we may not have had such a rich collection of related astronomical objects and information today within our Canadian national science museum. Most importantly, Grey was also a mentor to other women and girls, as Miriam Burland had been to her at the Dominion Observatory. For Grey maintained not just a passionate career in science for herself, but also shared this enthusiasm to as many others as she could. Both of these past women astronomers proved that anyone could achieve a career in Canadian astronomy, no matter which gender or obstacles before them.
Mary Grey (1927-96), Curator Emeritus, Canada Science and Technology Museum held the position of President, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada from 1986 to 1988. This photo was taken at the time of the appearance of comet Halley in 1986.
In 2018, Donna Strickland became the first Canadian woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Who may be our notable Canadian women astronomers today? Who continues this mentorship?
New women scientists in Canadian astronomy are not only making strides, but are also being awarded for their significant discoveries.
Victoria Kaspi, a McGill University astrophysicist uses the CHIME radio telescope at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia to study the physics of neutron stars. Kaspi received a companion of the Order of Canada in 2016.
Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, an astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, became the first Indigenous woman in Quebec to obtain a PhD in Astrophysics from Université Laval in 2017.
Sara Seager, a planetary scientist and astrophysicist originally from Toronto, is known for her work on extrasolar planets. Seager, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was appointed officer to the Order of Canada in 2020.
Donna Strickland, a physicist and professor at the University of Waterloo, received the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018; this prize had not been received in physics by a woman scientist since Marie Curie in 1903!
Throughout Canada’s history, the great efforts of these notable women scientists help bring understanding to astronomy and physics. We should continue to celebrate them, as an encouragement to all women and girls to pursue the same for future generations.