Hogg, Helen Sawyer

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Astronomy (1936-1976)

Helen Sawyer Hogg was a faculty member in astronomy from 1936 until her death in 1993. She was Canada's best-known and most beloved astronomer, as a result of her excellence in teaching, research, professional service, and especially in communication of astronomy to the public.

Helen Battles Sawyer was born in Lowell MA, and educated at Mount Holyoke College (AB 1926) and at Radcliffe College (AM 1928 and PhD 1931). She did her doctoral research at the Harvard College Observatory under the supervision of the eminent astronomer Harlow Shapley, but Harvard did not give graduate degrees to women at that time. While at Harvard, she married fellow student Frank Hogg, a Canadian. When he took a staff position at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria BC in 1931, she continued her research there, with her husband as chaperone (it was not considered proper for women to work at the telescope at night, with the male telescope technicians). In 1935, Frank moved to the University of Toronto, where the David Dunlap Observatory had opened that year. Helen began as a volunteer in 1935, then became a Research Assistant in 1936, joined the teaching staff in 1941, was promoted to Full Professor in 1957, and to Professor Emeritus in 1976. In 1985, she married Professor Emeritus F.E.L. Priestly, Department of English. She remained active until the week of her death.

Helen's research was on variable stars in globular clusters. There are about 150 of these beautiful star clusters in our galaxy, with up to a million stars each. “Variable stars” tell much about the nature and evolution of stars, and are especially important in globular clusters, since these are the oldest star systems in our galaxy. She took over 2,000 photographs of these clusters for measurement and analysis, which was no mean feat, considering the process by which they were taken: she had to climb, on a ladder or an elevator, to the top of the telescope tube where the camera was located. Helen discovered hundreds of variable stars herself, and is especially known for three editions of her Catalogue of Variable Stars in Globular Clusters.

She rendered exceptional service to many organizations. She held many offices in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, including President (1957-59), Honorary President (1977-81), and Honorary President of the Toronto branch (1972-77). She was President (1939-41) of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the leading organization through which skilled amateur astronomers can contribute to research. She was the first woman President (1964) of the Royal Canadian Institute, founded in 1849. She was founding president of the Canadian Astronomical Society in 1971. At this time when there had been rifts within the Canadian astronomical community, her leadership and diplomacy were of great value.

Thousands of alumni remember her as an effective and caring teacher of introductory astronomy to non-science students, and she was included in a University of Toronto Great Teachers of the Past website. But she is best known for her communication of astronomy to the public. Her husband Frank wrote a weekly astronomy column for the Toronto Daily Star and, after his untimely death in 1951, Helen was persuaded to continue it. She did so for 30 years. It was the basis for her book The Stars Belong to Everyone (Doubleday, 1976). In 1970, she hosted an astronomy series on TV Ontario, in which she interviewed luminaries such as Carl Sagan. She published many articles on historical astronomy in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and these were reprinted as Out of Old Books.

Helen's honours were many and varied. She was a Companion of the Order of Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the first woman to be elected in the physical sciences. She held honorary degrees from six universities including the University of Toronto. Her name is on an observatory (at the National Museum of Science and Technology), a telescope (at the University of Toronto Southern Observatory), a national lectureship, a triennial visitorship at the University of Toronto, and an asteroid sawyerhogg. She received the Sandford Fleming Medal from the Royal Canadian Institute, and the Klumpke-Roberts Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, both for her excellence in communicating science to the public. She was inducted into the Canadian Science and Technology Hall of Fame in 2004.

Helen's achievements are remarkable, in their quantity, quality, and variety, but she was most admired and remembered for her thoughtfulness, kindness, and devotion to her colleagues, friends, and family.


Clement, C.M. And Broughton, R.P. (1993), Helen Sawyer Hogg (1905-1993), Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 87, 351-6.

The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics maintains a webpage with links to this and other articles about HSH: http://www.astro.utoronto.ca/about/hsh

John Percy