“My Maid Could Do a Better Job!”… and She Did

May 15 celebrates the birthday of Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming.  Born in Scotland in 1857, she was deserted by her husband at the age of 23 after immigrating to Boston, Mass.  Luckily, the single mother found work as a housekeeper for Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory.

Pickering, frustrated with his male assistants, exclaimed that “My maid could do a better job!”  True to his word, he brought his housekeeper to the observatory to keep records and perform calculations.  This began an extraordinary career for Fleming, a woman with no scientific training.

  • She devised and implemented a method for categorizing stars based on the amount of hydrogen in their spectra.  This became known as the “Pickering-Fleming System.”
  • She catalogued more than 10,000 stars and discovered the Horsehead Nebula.
  • She was named Curator of Astronomical Photographs at the observatory (the first female to hold that position), and hired dozens of other women to help with stellar classifications.
  • She was the first American woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society of London.
  • At the age of 53, one year before her death, she discovered the existence of white dwarf stars.

Fleming was a pioneer in bringing women to science.  Today, Agilent is proud of its longstanding involvement with organizations that support women in technology.  The company has an active program with the Society of Women Engineers that includes education, recruitment and after-school curriculum.

“A few weeks ago, I spoke at the X-STEM symposium for the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.,” says Darlene Solomon, Ph.D., chief technology officer for Agilent’s Life Sciences and Diagnostics Group.  “The incredible participation of young women and men was an absolute inspiration for our future!”


For more information go to:

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (Harvard University Library)

Agilent Diversity & Work/Life

Darlene Solomon

Society of Women Engineers

USA Science & Engineering Festival