Astronomy Bio...Eleanor M. P. Burbidge

Jay Bitterman

Eleanor Margaret Peachey Burbidge, was born in Davenport, England on August 12, 1919. Her parents were Marjorie and Stanley Peachey. Her father was a chemist and teacher. Although her mother studied chemistry at the Manchester School of Technology, she did not follow a career in the field. At the age of four Margaret first became aware of the evening stars while crossing the English Channel. Because she was feeling seasick, her mother distracted her by letting her look at the stars through a porthole. By the age of twelve she enjoyed both astronomy and working with large numbers. It was then that she decided to become an astronomer and to measure the distances of stars. Margaret graduated from the Francis Holland School, a private primary and secondary school for girls. In 1939 she received her B.S. in astronomy from the University College, London (part of the University of London). She graduated with first-class honors and was the only woman in a class of four astronomy students. She then entered the graduate program of the University of London Observatory. During the London blackouts of World War II she had a sky that was dark enough for good observing using the only serviceable telescope. In 1943 she received her Ph.D. In 1945 while taking a course in physics at University College, she met Geoffrey Burbidge who was studying for his Ph.D. degree in physics. In 1946 she obtained work as an assistant to the director of the University of London Observatory. In 1948 she graduated and also married Geoffrey Burbidge. In 1951 she left the observatory as it's acting director. From 1951 to 1953 she did research at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, a research branch of the University of Chicago's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. In 1953 she and her husband went back to England to work at the Department of Physics at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory where Margaret was a volunteer research associate. There they collaborated with Fred Hoyle and William A Fowler to investigate the creation of chemical elements within stars.

In 1955 Margaret won a research fellowship from Caltech in Pasadena and Geoffrey Burbidge was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship to work at Mount Wilson Observatory. Although women were not allowed the use any of the telescopes, Margaret actually had more observing time than her husband at the telescope. Geoffrey told administrators that she was his "assistant". Although Margaret was then pregnant, she photographed the stars for spectral analysis. Along with Geoffrey, Hoyle, and Fowler, they determined the elemental composition of the stars. In 1957 their results were published and Margaret received an academic appointment to the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory as associate professor of astronomy. In 1967 she published the first extensive work on quasi-stellar objects.

In 1962 she began teaching at the University of California at San Diego. In 1964, she became professor of astronomy at the University of California, San Diego, and served as director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. From 1972 to 1973, Margaret returned briefly to England to assume the prestigious position of Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory to improve its 2.5-meter Isaac Newton telescope.

In 1974 Burbidge then returned to the University of California at San Diego. From 1979 to 1988 she served as the director of the university's Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. From 1976 to 1978 she was the first female president of the American Astronomical Society and convinced the organization to decline to have meetings in states that hadn't ratified the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. She was the first female astronomer elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1978. In 1982 she was elected to be president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1983 as chairwoman of its board of directors.

In February of 1985, for acknowledgement of her many scientific accomplishments, President Reagan awarded Margaret Burbidge the National Medal of Science. She aided in the design of the Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS), an instruments installed on the Hubble Space Telescope. Some of her other awards: 1959 American Astronomical Society's Helen Warner Prize, 1982 Bruce Medal, 1983 National Science Board's National Medal of Science, 1977 National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Karl G. Jansky Lectureship and the Minor planet # 5490 Burbidge.

Since 1990 she has been university professor emeritus at UCSD including a professor of research. Burbidge and her husband live in La Jolla, California. Their only child, Sarah, studied law.

Published in the August 2003 issue of the NightTimes