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culture

Historicist: Hoggtown

Renowned astronomer Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg shared her love of the stars.

Helen Sawyer Hogg in her office at the David Dunlap Observatory. Courtesy of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto.

On April 30, 1935, the Toronto Star featured a profile of Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg, a researcher at the new David Dunlap Observatory. Sawyer Hogg, the article explained, would be continuing her study of globular clusters, relatively dense collections of stars which she could now study using the Dunlap’s 74-inch telescope, the largest in the British Empire. Although only an unpaid researcher in 1935, Helen Sawyer Hogg would emerge as an internationally renowned astronomer, known for her detailed work on globular clusters and for promoting astronomy to the Canadian public.

Helen Sawyer was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1905. After initially pursing a degree in Chemistry at Mounty Holyoke College, she became interested in astronomy following a junior-year class with Dr. Anne Sewell Young when Young took her class on a winter field trip to observe a solar eclipse. “It was magnificent,” she told the Star‘s Trish Crawford in 1985. “We stood in very deep snow in a golf links. Miss Young’s teaching switched me from Chemistry to Astronomy.” After completing her degree, Sawyer pursued graduate work at the Harvard Observatory, earning her PhD in Astronomy from Radcliffe College in 1931.

While at Harvard she met and married a fellow astronomy graduate student, a Canadian named Frank Hogg who earned the first-ever Astronomy PhD awarded by Harvard. Once they had completed their degrees, the Hoggs moved to British Columbia, where Frank took a position at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Although not formally employed by the Observatory, Sawyer Hogg began volunteering, building on her graduate work by photographing and describing globular clusters. Shortly before the completion of the David Dunlap Observatory in 1935, the couple relocated to Toronto, where Frank took a lecturing position at the University of Toronto’s Department of Astronomy, eventually rising to become the Observatory’s director in 1946.

The David Dunlap Observatory, 1935. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Sawyer Hogg initially continued her research at the Dunlap on a volunteer basis, evidently not receiving a paid position as a research assistant at the University until 1936. Reflecting on her career to the Globe and Mail nearly 50 years later, Sawyer Hogg explained that “they didn’t want me on staff [so] I worked as a volunteer. My husband was well employed. I had the use of the telescope and was happy to do my work. So why should I kick?”

While being a woman may have initially limited some of Sawyer Hogg’s professional opportunities, she later claimed that she deliberately kept her early workload light, so she could attend to her three infant children. In the 1930s, Sawyer Hogg focussed primarily on research at the observatory, not assuming additional lecturing responsibilities until her children were older. Numerous sources report that Sawyer Hogg sometimes brought her daughter, Sally, to the observatory, and worked at the telescope while Sally slept in a basket.

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“I am accumulating a mass of detail,” she told the Toronto Star in her 1935 profile, “hoping someday it will all weave together into a harmonious pattern.” This mass of detail built on her established work on globular clusters, taking particular interest in “variable stars,” stars with fluctuating degrees of brightness. The Star outlined her process: she would take sequential photographs of the same clusters, and then superimpose the negatives to see which stars had varied in brightness. Sawyer Hogg explained: “When I discover which of these stars vary in light, it is possible to work out their distance from the earth.”

(Right: Introducing Helen Sawyer Hogg. The Toronto Star, April 30, 1935.)

Sawyer Hogg photographed and catalogued these globular clusters over the next few decades, the Globe and Mail noting that she sometimes spent eight to 10 hours a night at the telescope, and that the work “calls for patience and hardihood, as the room is not heated.” Over her career, Sawyer Hogg published over 200 research papers, and frequently published catalogues of her globular cluster findings, credited with discovering hundreds of variable stars. As her work continued, her role with the University of Toronto grew; she became a lecturer in 1941 and eventually worked her way up to full professor in 1957.

The opening of the David Dunlap Observatory sparked a growing interest in astronomy in and around Toronto, and numerous Observatory staff made time for public education in addition to their academic research. In the late 1930s, the Toronto Star ran several astronomy-themed articles of a speculative nature, including a 1938 Gordon Sinclair piece, “Moon to Oust Muskoka As City’s Holiday Mecca?” In these years, the Star‘s regular astronomy consultant was Dr. Peter M. Millman, a Dunlap astronomer who eventually began writing regular astronomy articles for the Star in 1940. After Millman’s career was halted by the Second World War, the Star‘s astronomy column, now called “With the Stars,” was taken up by Frank Hogg, who wrote on a variety of astronomy topics until his death on January 1, 1951.

Less than two weeks after Frank’s death, the Star announced that Sawyer Hogg would continue “With the Stars,” the editors proclaiming that “with an unimpeachable scientific background, she combines a sense of adventure and enthusiasm about her field.” Helen Sawyer Hogg’s first weekly column appeared in the Star on January 13, beginning with a piece highlighting the career of her late husband, whose work had been primarily concerned with measuring the radial velocity, or speed, of stars.

The Toronto Star‘s announcement that Helen Sawyer Hogg will take over the weekly astronomy column. The Toronto Star, January 12, 1951.

Although not the original creator of the column, Sawyer Hogg soon made it her own, drawing on her experience as a popular, accessible lecturer. She also brought some experience as a less formal astronomy writer; since 1946 she had been writing an astronomy history column called “Out of Old Books” for the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, covering subjects such as Leonardo da Vinci, the magnetic research of Edward Sabine, and the 1769 Transit of Venus.

One key to Sawyer Hogg’s success as both a science writer and educator was her ability to mesh her scientific expertise with her sense of imagination and romance. A tribute to her career in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific describes her as a “warm, genuine scientist who explained astronomy at the appropriate level to all who would listen… She interacted in her homespun way with students not only in the classroom, but also at seminars and other gatherings, many held in her home.” In a 1984 profile of Sawyer Hogg, the Globe and Mail‘s Joanne Philpott noted that, “when you get into it, astronomy becomes extremely mathematical, yet Dr. Hogg has never lost her romantic attachment to the subject.”

Some of her columns took the time to explain celestial phenomena, while others focussed on less scientific ideas such as constellations. Sawyer Hogg often made her columns relevant to current events. She was particularly moved by the first moon landing in 1969, writing that “astronomy has always been a science of great international co-operation. Thus we may hope that the impact of what we saw this week will be towards uniting the people of the earth… After the close-up that bleak and airless mood desert, who could fail to appreciate the munificence of our earth as an abode for life?”

Helen Sawyer Hogg. The Globe and Mail, April 20, 1964. Photo by Janine, CP.

At every opportunity, Sawyer Hogg encouraged amateurs to take up astronomy as a hobby. In 1968, she heralded the opening of the McLaughlin Planetarium: “In a planetarium the stars shine day or night, with no interference from clouds, fog, city lights, or even twilight and aurorae… it has been obvious that Toronto was lacking this key astronomical tool – a large planetarium. Nothing exceeds a planetarium for teaching people in a beautiful and efficient manner about the magnificent universe around us.”

In addition to maintaining her position at the university and filing columns for the Star, Sawyer Hogg also accepted several other responsibilities. One summer was spent as a lecturer at Harvard. In 1955, she took a year’s leave to serve as the program director at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. She served terms as president of numerous scientific organizations; when, in 1964, she became the first female president of the Royal Canadian Institute, the country’s premier scientific society, Sawyer Hogg promised to dedicate at least two days a week there. Later that same year, the Star reported that she was spending time working on the science and medicine exhibition at the upcoming Expo 67.

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Sawyer Hogg formally retired from the University of Toronto in 1976, but by no means became inactive. That same year, she published The Stars Belong to Everyone: How to Enjoy Astronomy, a book intended for a general audience. In addition to covering a variety of celestial subjects, Sawyer Hogg used it to promote amateur astronomy. In her foreword, she observed that her 40-ton telescope was not necessary to enjoy looking at the night sky, as “the beautiful phenomena attending moonrise and moonset and sunrise and sunset, the annual showers of shooting stars, Venus as evening star… all these and many more [are] just as enjoyable and just as attainable for me as they would be if a giant telescope were standing by my side.”

(Left: Promotion for her new book. The Toronto Star, August 2, 1976. Photo by Steve Behal.)

In January 1981, Sawyer Hogg wrote her final “With the Stars,” having filed an estimated 1,500 columns over 30 years. But she had no intention of giving up astronomy anytime soon. “Freedom from the weekly deadline will be a boon to me,” she wrote in her final column. “I will have more time for my lifelong field of research on globular clusters.”

Sawyer Hogg continued working until shortly before her death in 1993. Over her lifetime she had accumulated numerous accolades and honorary degrees, including being made a Companion of the Order of Canada and having an asteroid, 2917 Sawyer Hogg, named after her. Her obituary in the Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers notes that, even at age 87, she had been working on a fourth edition of her Catalogues on Variable Stars in Globular Clusters, the collection of her professional findings that retained a certain romantic fascination for her. In a 1964 Globe and Mail interview, Sawyer Hogg said, “They are so beautiful, these [globular] clusters, that sometimes I still catch my breath when I’m gazing at them through my telescope. It’s fascinating to watch, over the whole summer night, how the whole star pulsates and changes its light. I just love working on it.”


Additional material from: C.A. Chant, “Frank Scott Hogg, 1904-1951″ in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 45, p.1-3; Christine Clement, “Helen Sawyer Hogg, 1905-1993″ in The Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, Vol. 22, No. 1 p.83-86; The Globe (November 11, 1946; January 2, 1950; January 2, 1951; October 4, 1952; April 20, 1964; May 20, 1976; November 1, 1984; January 30, 1993); Helen Sawyer Hogg, The Stars Belong to Everyone: How to Enjoy Astronomy (Doubleday, 1976: Toronto); Judith L. Pipher, “Helen Sawyer Hogg (1905-1993)” in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 105, No. 694 p.1369-1372; Benjamin F. Shearer & Barbara S. Shearer, ed., Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary (Greenwood Press, 1997: Westport, Connecticut); The Toronto Star (April 30, 1935; July 30, November 4, November 7, 1938; June 1, June 14, 1940; February 1, August 1, 1941; January 30, 1946; December 31, 1949; January 2, January 12, January 13, 1951; June 25, October 2, November 12, 1952; August 18, November 15, 1955; April 26, 1958; June 11 1960; April 20, 1964; July 2, 1966; May 23, 1967; October 26, 1968; July 26, 1969; August 2, 1976; January 10, 1981; June 4, 1984; November 24, 1985; January 29, February 7 1993); The Evening Telegram (January 2, 1951; April 20, 1964).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


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