Deaf Astronomers Throughout History

This Bite is part of Astrobites’ ongoing efforts to celebrate all cultures and identities in astronomy—specifically, we’re highlighting disabled astronomers and those fighting for disability justice in the field this month for Disability Pride Month!

Disabled astronomers have been present throughout history, despite facing an incredible amount of challenges. Today, we’re sharing the stories of six d/Deaf astronomers who made incredible contributions to the field in the past two centuries.

Portrait of Barnard, man with long white hair and beard wearing small glasses
Caption: Frederick Barnard, Public Domain Image.

Frederick A.P. Barnard (1809-1889)

Frederick Barnard began his career teaching deaf students, inspired by his own experiences becoming Deaf during college. He later became a mathematics professor at the University of Alabama, building their astronomical observatory, and then the chair of both astronomy and mathematics at the University of Mississippi. Barnard, a vocal abolitionist, moved from the South during the Civil War, wrote a letter supporting the end of slavery, and became the first Deaf president of Columbia University. Columbia’s sister school, Barnard College, is named in his honor since he also supported opportunities for women to enter higher education.

His astronomical work was broad, generally focused around optics. He worked on stereoscopic (3D) photography, zodiacal light, solar eclipses, and more.

Portrait of Heaviside, man with square hair, mustache, and beard wearing a suit
Caption: Oliver Heaviside. Photograph from Smithsonian Collections.

Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925)

Oliver Heaviside was a self-educated electrical scientist and telegraph operator, who lost his hearing as an adult. He expanded on Maxwell’s theories for electromagnetism, rewriting them into the form that’s more familiar today. He also theorized that the Earth has a layer in its atmosphere that reflects radio waves, and allows for radio transmissions to travel further — which is true! That layer is known as the Kennelly-Heaviside layer, part of the ionosphere.

Black and white picture of Tsiolkovsky, man with black bowler hat, small round glasses, and scraggly beard
Caption: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Public Domain Image.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935)

Known as the “father of rocketry,” Tsiolkovsky is most famous for his eponymous rocket equation that describes how rockets move, relating their change in velocity to the mass expelled from the rocket. He became deaf as a child due to scarlet fever, and spent much of his life dreaming about exploring the stars. His work mostly focused on rocket dynamics, including some research done with a wind tunnel in Russia, and he also wrote science fiction imagining the future of spaceflight — even predicting crewed spacecraft missions and using radio telemetry to communicate beyond Earth. A lunar crater and asteroid are named after him.

Portrait (side profile) of Annie Jump Cannon. White woman with hair piled on tp of her head, wearing a square neck lace dress
Caption: Annie Jump Cannon, Public Domain Image.

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)

Astronomer Annie Jump Cannon studied science at Wellesley College and went on to become one of the Harvard Computers, a group of women who used the telescopes at Harvard College Observatory and studied the stars under the supervision of astronomer Edward Pickering. She lost her hearing in middle-age, and adapted to use lip reading and even early versions of hearing aids. Together, the Computers cataloged information on hundreds of thousands of stars, and Cannon created the canonical Harvard classification system for stars (OBAFGKM, ordering them by temperature). She was active in the women’s suffrage movement, and became the first woman to earn an astronomy doctorate from Groningen University. She earned many awards in her lifetime, including an honorary doctorate from Oxford, the Henry Draper Medal, and eventually a faculty appointment at Harvard. An asteroid and lunar crater are also named in her honor.

Black and white portrait of Robert Aitken; white man with square hairline wearing a suit staring into the camera
Caption: Robert Aitken, Photograph from Sonoma College Aitken biography page.

Robert G. Aitken (1864-1951) 

Robert G. Aitken graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1887 before teaching math at the College of the Pacific and eventually working at Lick Observatory in California. He became partly deaf as a child due to recurrent illness, and started school late as a result. Since no one at his school signed, he instead used a hearing aid and learned to read lips.

Aitken went on to become the director at Lick, while surveying the sky for binary stars and discovering over 3,000 of them. This work formed the New General Catalogue of Double Stars within 120 degrees of the North Pole, which enabled a lot of new science about binary stars, including determining their masses and orbits. He was also president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP), and won prizes for his work such as the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Gold Medal and the ASP Bruce Medal. A large crater on the Moon and a minor planet are named in his honor.

Black and white image of Henrietta Leavitt; white woman with thick eyebrows wearing a lace collared shirt
Caption: Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Public Domain Image.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)

Leavitt was educated at Oberlin College and Radcliffe College, and became ill after graduation, when she became deaf. After recovering, she decided to pursue astronomy and volunteered with the Harvard Computers at Harvard College Observatory. She used cutting edge photography techniques to study the brightnesses of stars, and ended up studying variable stars in great detail. She discovered the relationship between the pulsation period and the luminosity of Cepheid variable stars (the period-luminosity relation) — a key finding that added a new “standard candle” to astronomers’ toolkit for measuring distances, eventually enabling Hubble’s historic measurements of galaxy velocities that led to Hubble’s law. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize for this work, but was not awarded it since she had already died. She, too, has an asteroid and lunar crater named in her honor.

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Disabled people, specifically d/Deaf people, have a long and important history in science. These six historical examples highlight these astronomers’ contributions, but there are many others whose contributions have shaped the fields of astronomy and physics into what they are today.

Today, there are even more d/Deaf and disabled astronomers making positive changes to the field and research, and we must keep in mind how to make our field accessible to these disabled scientists. Initiatives such as AstroDance, SciAccess, and the AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability are already working on it, and you too can help make the field more inclusive by learning about accessibility!

Astrobite edited by: Katya Gozman, Graham Doskoch, Jessie Thwaites

Featured image credit: The Disability Pride Flag

Thanks to Dr. Alicia Aarnio for sharing her knowledge about disabled astronomers for this article!

About Briley Lewis

Briley Lewis is a PhD Candidate and NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her research interests are primarily in planetary systems – both exoplanets and objects in our own solar system, how they form, and how we can create instruments to learn more about them. She has previously pursued her research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and also at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. Outside of research, she is passionate about teaching and public outreach, and spends her free time bringing together her love of science with her loves of crafting and writing, and playing with her rescue dog Rocky.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice article. May I suggest one other person who maybe should have made the list? John Goodricke was the person who first proposed the idea of eclipsing binaries to explain Algol, and discovered the periodic variability of Beta Lyrae and Delta Cephei, both prototype objects. He did all this before dying at the age of 22.

    Reply
    • Yes, thank you for the addition! This is definitely a non-exhaustive list 🙂

      Reply

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