Margaret Burbidge, astrophysicist and champion of women in science, 1919–2020

April 12, 2020

Margaret Burbidge
Margaret Burbidge was an observational astronomer at Yerkes Observatory. She died at age 100. Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago

Astrophysicist and former University of Chicago scientist, Margaret Burbidge, died in San Francisco in April. Burbidge was a giant in the field of astronomy and physics and an expert practitioner of astronomical spectroscopy—the study of the spectra of stars, galaxies, and quasi-stellar objects.

Born Eleanor Margaret Peachey in England, in 1919, she became a famous astrophysicist who used her international spotlight to champion the representation and inclusion of women in the sciences. Beginning her career in an era that overlooked or ignored women scholars, she was denied positions, access to observatories, and the Fulbright. She did not let it deter her pursuit of astronomy and the cause of equality. She became the first female to serve as the director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory; first female member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; first female president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS); first female to receive the Bruce Medal; and the first director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS) at UC San Diego, where she was a founding faculty member.

Margaret Burbidge joined Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago, Williams Bay, Wisconsin, in 1951, her first job in the United States. In 1957 she became Shirley Farr fellow and, later, a scientist at Yerkes Observatory. Her research during this period
focused on the abundances of chemical elements in stars as well as classical stellar spectroscopy, a specialty of Yerkes. She made pioneering efforts to measure galaxy rotation curves to large distances, using spectrographs at McDonald. Her work at Yerkes was a precursor to the results Vera Rubin published as technology progressed.

In the 1950s, her collaborations about the chemical composition of stars collected together many separate threads and summarized a general picture that was highly influential: how stars work and where the heavy elements come from. Burbidge was first author, in 1957, of “The Synthesis of the Elements in Stars,” published in Reviews of Modern Physics, written with her husband, the late theoretical astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge, and late physicists Willy Fowler and Fred Hoyle. Known as B2FH, after their last names, this magnum opus demonstrated a deep relationship between observational astronomy and nuclear physics. B2FH hypothesized that stars produced all of the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen that are present in the universe. It is considered one of the most influential scientific papers of its era. The theory they developed remains the fundamental basis for stellar nucleosynthesis.

Instrumentation onboard the Hubble Space Telescope was directly influenced by Burbidge. Her work studying quasars has also been fundamental to astronomy. She applied her expertise in spectroscopy to elucidate the properties of quasars from shortly after their discovery in the early 1960s through the end of her career. 

In 1983, Burbidge was awarded the National Medal of Sciences. At UC San Diego, where she was from 1962–1988, the Margaret Burbidge Visiting Professorship was established, which brings eminent female physicists to the university for collaborative research and mentorship within the Department of Physics. She will be remembered as one of the great observational astronomers and for advancing women in the field of astronomy. She is survived by her daughter, Sarah.

A recent compilation of commentary put together by the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), features a number of anecdotes about her.

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