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In Memoriam: Margaret Burbidge, Pioneering Astronomer and Advocate for Women in Science

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Burbidge, pictured with her husband and research partner, Geoffrey, was appointed to numerous leadership positions previously held only by men. | W.W. Girdner/Caltech Archives

Margaret Burbidge, a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who overcame gender discrimination on the way to becoming one of the most influential astrophysicists of her time, died on April 5 at her home in San Francisco. She was 100.

In 1957, Burbidge was the lead author of a study detailing the chemical processes by which elements heavier than lithium, including the carbon and oxygen that drive life on Earth, are created inside stars. The origins of such elements were previously unknown, and the research paper is the foundation of current understanding of what astronomers now call stellar nucleosynthesis.

Later in her career, Burbidge was appointed to numerous leadership positions previously held only by men and helped develop the Faint Object Spectrograph, one of the original scientific instruments aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The FOS team provided the first strong, observational evidence for the existence of a supermassive black hole in the core of another galaxy.

“She was one of the names that we all knew of as pioneers in the field of modern astronomy,” said Jennifer Wiseman, senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. “An inspirational person as a brilliant scientist and in particular as a courageous woman scientist who opened up the field for many of us coming later on.”

Eleanor Margaret Peachey was born in Davenport, England, on August 12, 1919. Her father was a chemistry lecturer in nearby Manchester, and her mother had been one of his students.

When Peachey was two, the family moved to London, where cloudy skies often prevented starlight from reaching the city.

“The first time I consciously remember really noticing the stars was the summer that I was four, and we were going on a night crossing to France for summer vacation,” Burbidge said in a 1978 interview with the American Institute of Physics. “These twinkling lights became another fascination to me.”

Aware of her interest in the stars, Peachey’s grandfather gave her books by English astronomer James Jeans for her 12th and 13th birthdays. By the age of 19, she had graduated with honors from University College London, where she studied astronomy, physics and mathematics. In 1943, she earned her Ph.D. from UCL.

Burbidge teaches her University of California, San Diego, physics students using a Musser Copernican Planetarium in 1967. | Robert Glasheen/UCSD Special Collections & Archives

After receiving her doctorate in the midst of World War II, Peachey continued to use the telescope at the UCL Observatory, sometimes with bombs exploding in the city around her. Hoping to work with better equipment and clearer skies, she applied for a fellowship that would have placed her at the Mount Wilson Observatory outside of Los Angeles.

“The turn-down letter simply pointed out that Carnegie Fellowships were available only for men,” Burbidge wrote in a 1994 memoir. “A guiding operational principle in my life was activated: If frustrated in one’s endeavor by a stone wall or any kind of blockage, one must find a way around — another route towards one’s goal. This is advice I have given to many women facing similar situations.”

In 1948, Peachey married Geoffrey Burbidge, a UCL graduate student in physics who soon switched fields to collaborate with his wife on her astronomy research. When Geoff applied for the same Carnegie Fellowship, he was accepted, and Margaret took a position at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. When they needed to use the Mount Wilson telescope, the couple would arrive with Margaret posing as her husband’s assistant.

The Burbidges later joined American physicist William Fowler and English astronomer Fred Hoyle at Caltech’s Kellogg Radiation Laboratory. The team’s 1957 paper, published in Reviews of Modern Physics with the title “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars,” was so impactful that astronomers now refer to it as B2FH, citing the names of its authors. Fowler received the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe.”

Before her term as president of AAAS in 1983, Burbidge held many prominent positions in the field of astronomy. She joined the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1960s, eventually serving as the first director of the school’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences.

Burbidge welcomes University of California President David Gardner to UCSD in the mid-1980s. | Robert Glasheen/UCSD Special Collections & Archives

In 1972, she became the first woman to direct the United Kingdom’s Royal Observatory, founded by King Charles II in 1675. She was also the first woman to serve as president of the American Astronomical Society, a position she held from 1976 to 1978.

In 1985, Burbidge received the National Medal of Science from President Ronald Reagan.

At NASA, Burbidge led the Faint Object Spectrograph’s data analysis team. She and her colleagues designed the instrument to detect the physical and chemical properties of faint objects in galaxies beyond our own while aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Hubble mission this year.

Geoff Burbidge passed away in 2010. Margaret is survived by a daughter, Sarah, and a grandson.

“She simply wanted to be very good at her work as an observational astronomer,” Sarah said in a 2019 interview with Sky & Telescope. “And I would say she was probably the best of her generation.”