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Leading Women of Scotland


Williamina Fleming 1857

Williamina Fleming 1857 - 1911 Astronomer Analysed over 200,000 fragile plates of star light. Williamina was born in Dundee, the daughter of a carver and gilder with premises in the Nethergate. She left school when she was 14 and became a pupil-teacher. She then got married and emigrated with her husband to the USA in 1878. Her husband left her when she was pregnant, and she was forced to support herself and her child. She found work as a maid at the home of Edward Pickering, Director of the Harvard College Observatory. In 1881, Pickering employed her at the Observatory as a full time copyist and computer (which was the term used then for someone who analysed information). Williamina’s job involved examining spectra: the breakdown of light from stars on photographic plates. Each star had its own distinctive spectrum. Williamina inspected these and noted anything unusual about them. Astronomers now use a spectrograph to break up the light coming from a star. In this way, astronomers collate information on the properties of any star including its temperature. At the time of Williamina’s death she had handled over 200,000 fragile plates of star light. 8

Muriel Robertson 1883 - 1973 Protozoologist Recognised for her research on parasites (trypanosomes). Muriel was born in Glasgow and studied at university there. She showed an early aptitude for scientific research and began to study protozoa - a type of single celled organism. In 1909, she started work at the Lister Institute in London where she remained for most of her career. From 1911-1914, she was appointed by the Colonial Office to a post in Uganda to study trypanosomes carried by tsetse flies. During both World Wars, she made significant progress on identification of the types of ‘Clostridium’ found in soil which cause gas gangrene, a frequent cause of death among soldiers. Muriel continued as a well respected and active scientist into her 80s and was chiefly recognised for her research on parasites (trypanosomes) which cause illnesses such as sleeping sickness. She was one of the first women to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947 and was a founder of the Society of General Microbiology and served on its council from 1945 to 1948. 9

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