File B1976-0012 - Hogg, Helen Battles Sawyer (oral history)

Helen Battles Sawyer Hogg (oral history) [audio]

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UTA 5001-B1976-0012


Hogg, Helen Battles Sawyer (oral history)


  • 13 May 1976 (Creation)

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2 sound tape reels (82 mins.)

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One of Canada's most prominent astronomers and a world authority on globular clusters, Helen Sawyer Hogg is also credited with helping to popularize the science of astronomy and for providing an important role model for women in the Physical Sciences.

Born Helen Battles Sawyer on August 1, 1905 in Lowell, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of a banker and schoolteacher from Dunstable, Massachusetts. She attended public school in Lowell and in 1922 she entered Mount Holyoke College, earning an A.B. (Magna cum Laude) in 1926. It was here that she was influenced by the inspirational teachings of Anne Sewell Young, who in no small measure helped to forge her interest in astronomy. It was also at Mount Holyoke she met another major figure in women's astronomy, Annie J. Cannon who was visiting from the Harvard College Observatory. Helen was later offered a Harvard College fellowship to pursue graduate work on globular star clusters where she worked under the leading expert in the field, Harlow Shapley. She obtained her A.M. from Radcliffe in 1928, earned her Ph.D. from the same institution in 1931 and continued to specialize in globular clusters throughout her professional life.

She met her first husband, Frank Scott Hogg, a Canadian graduate student, at the Harvard Observatory and was married in 1930. In 1929 Frank Hogg received the first doctorate in astronomy awarded by Harvard College and Helen Hogg's own Ph.D. was only the third accorded by Radcliffe College, its women's college affiliate. In 1931, Frank Hogg accepted an appointment at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria B.C., then under the directorship of J.S. Plaskett. She followed her husband, continuing her research at the observatory, first as an unpaid volunteer and later with the help of foundation grants.

In 1935, Frank Hogg accepted a position at the University of Toronto with the David Dunlap Observatory, which was to have its formal opening that year. Initially Helen Hogg once again worked as an unpaid volunteer until receiving an appointment as a research assistant with the University in 1936. She continued to teach at the University and work at the observatory for the following four decades. Frank Hogg became director of the observatory in 1946, a position he held until his death at age 46 in 1951. Career advancement came more rapidly following the death of her husband and Helen Hogg attained the standing of professor with the university in 1957, became research professor in 1974 and professor emeritus in 1976.

She interrupted her work at the University twice throughout her career. The first was as Acting Chairman of the Astronomy Department at Mount Holyoke College in 1940-41. The second time was in 1955-1956 when she spent an academic year in Washington as Program Director for Astronomy at the National Science Foundation.

Apart from her responsibilities at the University, Dr. Hogg was very active in numerous academic and astronomy associations. Among the many important positions she held were: president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (1957-1959); first woman president of the Physical Sciences section of the Royal Society of Canada (1960-1961); president of the Royal Canadian Institute (1964-1965); founding president of the Canadian Astronomical Society (1971-1972). Outside her academic milieu, her leadership was recognized when she was appointed one of the first two women directors of Bell Telephone Company of Canada (1968-1978). She also served on the Advisory Committee of Science and Medicine for EXPO 1967.

When her husband Frank Hogg died suddenly in 1951, Dr. Hogg took over the writing of a weekly column "With the Stars" which he had been producing for the Toronto Star. For the next thirty years, she faithfully churned out the column which would provide her with the basis for her popular science work "The Stars Belong to Everyone" (1976). Together, the book and the column, along with a TV Ontario series on astronomy in 1970, established her as one of Canada's best-known popular astronomers. In 1983, Dr. Hogg was the first Canadian to receive the Klumpke-Roberts Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for her work in public education, whose past recipients include Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan.

In addition to her work in popular astronomy, Dr. Hogg was also a recognized expert in the study of globular clusters, an area of research on which she published over a hundred articles, including several editions of "A Catalogue of Variable Stars in Globular Clusters". In 1972, an International Astronomical Union Colloquium was held in honour of her life work in this field. Another area, which drew her interest, was the history of astronomy on which she was also widely published.

Throughout her lengthy career, she received numerous honours, awards and medals including the Annie J. Cannon Prize (American Astronomical Society 1950); the Rittenhouse Medal (< biblio >); the Sandford Fleming Medal (Royal Canadian Institute 1985). In 1967 she was invested into the Order of Canada and in 1976 she attained the Order's highest level when she was made a Companion of the Order, an honour accorded to only 150 Canadians at any one time. She received honorary degrees from Mount Holyoke (1958), University of Waterloo (1962), McMaster University (1976), University of Toronto (1977), Saint Mary's University (1981) and University of Lethbridge (1985). She has had two telescopes dedicated to her: one at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa (1987), the other at the University of Toronto Southern Observatory in Chile (1992). Asteroid 2917 was named Sawyer Hogg in 1984. In 1985 the Canadian Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada established the annual Helen Sawyer Hogg lectureship in her honour.

Intertwined with her career was Dr. Hogg's devotion to her family and friends, an aspect well documented within her personal papers. When she died at the age of 88 on January 28 1993, she was survived by three children, seven grand children and four great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her first husband Frank Hogg and her second husband Dr. F.E.L. Priestly, whom she had married in 1985.

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Oral history interview by Valerie Schatzker. Covers family background and early education through post-retirement appointments, 1935-1976. Discusses the David Dunlap Observatory, its faculty and astronomical observations, the faculty, students and curricula of the Dept. of Astronomy. Other subjects covered include women in science and her own research on variable stars in globular clusters.

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