Dorrit Hoffleit: Harvard Astronomers in the Second World War

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Dorrit Hoffleit

Dorrit Hoffleit moved to Cambridge, MA as a young teenager. Her older brother, then only fourteen himself, was a new student at Harvard with an interest in Latin Languages and Classics, and Hoffleit’s mother placed his education at the forefront of the family’s activities. She sold their former home in Pennsylvania to cover his tuition, but the move was equally fortuitous for both siblings. If she’d stayed in Pennsylvania, Hoffleit later speculated, she likely never would have enrolled at Radcliffe College, the coordinating women’s school to Harvard’s all-male student body. Radcliffe was nearby and their mother didn’t want Hoffleit’s gifted brother, who’d already finished his PhD at 22, to be ashamed of his sister were she to be less educated.

Hoffleit pursued a degree in mathematics, though she began her studies equally interested in the fine arts, and later added a handful of physics courses to her schedule. At the time, Radcliffe only offered two undergraduate courses in astronomy. Hoffleit took both, all the while expecting she would find a teaching position at a local high school after graduation, but when she received her degree in 1928, jobs were scarce. Without a job, Hoffleit enrolled in a full semester of graduate courses that fall. Back at Radcliffe, she again focused her studies on mathematics, but added in another course with Harvard astronomer Harlan Stetson.

That winter, based on a recommendation from the Radcliffe Employment Office, Hoffleit accepted a position with the Harvard College Observatory identifying variable stars for 40 cents an hour. She was a quick study and within months developed a particular affection for the work. When Bryn Mawr offered her a position better aligned with her degree that promised a starting pay more than twice the amount of her salary at the H.C.O., Hoffleit turned them down. In her own words, “Here was something I could do, I liked doing, I wanted to do, and 40 cents an hour to me was fine compared with nothing at all. But the differential, of twice the salary, wasn’t as important. It was what I was going to do that was more important. I might have worked into something beautiful on the more highly paid job, but I never regretted that.” Looking back on her career, almost two decades after she left the H.C.O. for a position at Yale, Hoffleit declared, “The Harvard plate stacks are the only place in the wide world where I belong. It’s still true.”

As the Depression increased in severity and the global economy worsened, her decision to remain at Harvard proved unexpectedly advantageous. Contemporary labor standards meant the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley, could hire two women for the price of one man. Hoffleit kept her position while several men lost theirs. She completed her master’s degree with a thesis on the light curves of meteors in 1932. With Shapley’s encouragement, Hoffleit pursued and then completed her PhD in 1938, focusing this time on spectroscopic parallaxes. Commenting later on her relationship with Shapley, Hoffleit said this, “I can tell you the good things in the world about Shapley, because he has done more for me in my life than anybody else; but he’s done it to his own advantage.” With the new degree came a small promotion, from research assistant to research associate, but Hoffleit’s day-to-day responsibilities remained relatively unchanged.

Dorrit Hoffleit. c. 1938.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Within days, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, and as the dominoes again fell, the second multi-continental war of the century began. Hoffleit was born on a farm in rural Alabama, though she spent most of her early years in Pennsylvania before the big move to Cambridge, but her parents were German-speaking immigrants. During the First World War, Hoffleit, then still a child, and her brother were frequently bullied for their Prussian heritage and left out of neighborhood games. As an adult and an accomplished scientist, Hoffleit felt a personal responsibility in regards to the war effort, and accepted a new position in 1943 with the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG).

Women, of course, weren’t drafted into the U.S. Army, nor were there any legal requirements that might demand their service within a military context, which is not to say that hundreds of thousands of American women didn’t voluntarily enlist between 1941 and 1945. Their service was voluntary, and frequently at a professional disadvantage. Before relocating to the military base in Maryland, Hoffleit worked under Harvard astronomer Zdenêk Kopal to prepare firing tables for Naval cannons where she was paid at the equivalent level of a high school student. At the Ballistic Research Laboratory she was hired at a sub-professional rating despite the fact that she held a PhD, and worked in the computation department to calculate anti-aircraft missile trajectories. Her direct supervisor Leland Cunningham, was a fellow graduate student at Harvard, though he hadn’t yet finished his degree. Despite the professional slights, the job came with a level of excitement that had its own appeal. In Hoffleit’s own words:

“What they did to me is chain me like a mad dog to a post, because I had one of these field telephones that was mounted on a post, and I had to stay there in order to get my commands and give my observations back; watching the impact. We had a radio dish in the middle of the field, and what I was supposed to do was tell where the bombs fell relative to the impact dish. I’d stay right chained to my post. And the post was right on a former asphalt road that was rather pitted, but it was a good place to stand in all aspects of things. Oh, I’d say the impact would be about as far as from here to Whitney Avenue, which is rather a little bit on the dangerous side (200 yards). I was here watching, hoping for the impact at the dish, with a big wide open field between me and the dish, But once one landed “CRASH, in the middle of the woods behind me—!”

The other job she might’ve held would’ve had her measuring missile tracks on photographic plates, but this would’ve put her under the direct supervision of Edwin Hubble. Though her skills might’ve been better utilized in Hubble’s department, her Harvard connections, in particularly her connection with Harlow Shapley, meant that Hubble kept his distance.

Aberdeen Proving Ground, Company Administration Building, Flare Loop, Aberdeen, Harford County, MD.
T28 Tank – Aberdeen Proving Ground Demo. c. 1946.

While at the APG, Hoffleit continued to write news notes for Sky and Telescope without pay, despite working seventy hour weeks at the ballistics lab. She voluntarily stayed at Aberdeen for three more years after the end of the war, working on Doppler velocity and position data for captured V-2s, but Hoffleit eventually returned to Cambridge in 1948. Again, she rejected an offer for a better paying job with the APG in favor of the Harvard College Observatory. It wasn’t a seamless transition. During the war, Harlow Shapley supported James Baker’s optical shop, and he was complimentary in his personal correspondence when discussing the many Harvard astronomers who were doing war work. Still, in the post-war period, Hoffleit later suggested that Shapley was prone to “favoring the non-war-workers after the war.” Shapley couldn’t afford to rehire all of the people who left the H.C.O. to join the war effort, and tended to support those who’d paused their prior research to teach navigation, which allowed them to stay closer to home. There was tension between returning astronomers regarding the type of work different individuals performed. When Hoffleit returned to the H.C.O., she accepted a position beneath her education level and was again underpaid, but the plate stacks were calling.

Her return to Harvard was short-lived. In 1952, Donald Menzel began his tenure as Director of the Harvard College Observatory. As Director, Menzel had a mind to move the institution towards astrophysics, and saw little reason to maintain the extensive plate collection of earlier decades. Hoffleit left Cambridge in 1956 for a research position at Yale, working primarily on astrometric catalogues. A year after her departure, she simultaneously accepted the directorship of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket where Hoffleit began to teach astronomy for the first time in her career. In many ways, the transition was “a blessing in disguise.”

“I think it’s THE tragedy of my life that I felt I had to leave Harvard. It would have been more of a tragedy if I’d stayed there, because then I would have been in an institution before long. But it’s funny, when I first went to Harvard, I thought I was so lucky to get a research position instead of a teaching position. But once you get started with a program with these youngsters at Nantucket, your outlook changes.”

Many of her students went on to become professional astronomers themselves.

*For more information on the women who worked at the Harvard College Observatory during the early twentieth-century, please see: Sobel, Dava. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2017.


Hoffleit, Dorrit. Misfortunes as Blessings in Disguise : The Story of My Life. Cambridge, Mass.: American Association of Variable Star Observers, 2002.

Interview of Dorrit Hoffleit by David DeVorkin on 1979 August 4, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

Trimble, Virginia. “Obituary: E. Dorrit Hoffleit, 1907-2007.” Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, v.39, no. 4, Dec. 2007, p. 1067-1069.…39.1067T.