Rest in Power: E. Margaret Burbidge, Trailblazing Astronomer and Astrophysicist

The astronomer who taught us we are all made of stardust has passed away after celebrating her 100th birthday on August 12, 2019.(Sky and Telescope)

E. Margaret Burbidge, renowned astronomer, died at her home in San Francisco on April 5 at 100 years of age. A trailblazer for women, Burbidge was pushed boundaries and faced immense gender discrimination throughout her extraordinary career. 

Burbidge was born in Davenport, England in 1919. She earned her Ph.D. from London Observatory in 1943.

Burbidge conducted her PhD research during the World War II years. Between wartime duties, she observed Gamma Cassiopeiae at the University of London Observatory in Mill Hill Park. While observing on the night of August 3, Burbidge was twice interrupted by bombs exploding nearby—but neither incident rattled her, as is clear from her notes. (University College London Observatory)

In 1945, Burbidge applied for a Carnegie Fellowship, which involved work at Mount Wilson Observatory. Turned down, she was informed only men were allowed to use the telescope. 

Refusing to be stopped because her gender, Burbidge’s career was rife with shattering glass ceilings.

She was the first woman to serve as director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the first woman astronomer in the National Academy of Sciences. Burbidge was nominated for the Nobel Prize and won the Helen Warner Prize, the Bruce Medal and the National Medal of Science, which acknowledged the discrimination she repeatedly overcame.

In 1971, when Burbidge won the Annie Jump Cannon Award. However, she turned down the honor, explaining, “I believe that it is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women is in this category.”

She explained she would much rather see a list of prizes and positions women were unfairly passed over for.

Perhaps Burbidge’s paramount contribution to astronomy was “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars,” which theorized that elements originate from stars and she co-authored. This has become a widely accepted and referenced article and permanently changed the astronomy landscape.

Burbidge was also fundamental in creating an original Hubble Space Telescope instrument, the Faint Object Spectrograph. She then led the data analysis team for the instrument. The Hubble Space Telescope, of course, has rendered unparalleled information about our universe. 

Despite Burbidge’s immense impact on astronomy, Mount Wilson Observatory was far from the only gender-based slight she was subject to.

The director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, for example, has always also been appointed Astronomer Royal. But, when Burbidge became the first woman to hold the position, she was passed over—a man was given the Astronomer Royal. 

As the first woman president of the American Astronomical Society, Burbidge led an initiative to ban society meetings in states dissenting from the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed. In a testament to her grandeur, the American Astronomical Society posted memories people had of Burbidge to celebrate her 100th birthday. 

Burbidge was a long time UC San Diego professor; the university now offers the Margaret Burbidge Visiting Professorship. She remained a professor emeritus until her death and was UC San Diego’s first director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences.  

Burbidge was married to Geoffrey Burbidge. She is survived by her daughter, Sarah Burbidge, and her grandson. 

Not one to be stopped, Burbidge did gain entry to the Mount Wilson Observatory: She posed as her husband’s assistant. 

About

Audrey Andrews is an undergraduate studying archaeology and twentieth century United States political history at Columbia University. She plans to attend graduate school next year.