Verlie Lee passed away on 15th June 2019 in Nambucca Heads and Eungai Creek on the North Coast of NSW at the age of 88. Verlie worked at Sydney Observatory from 1948 to 1954 and she was one of the many ‘hidden figures’ who worked on the Astrographic Catalogue, tides and other charts in observatories during that period. Recently the work many women did behind the scenes in science is being brought to the fore and it is timely to remember Verlie June Maurice’s contribution. I interviewed Verlie Lee on 3 April 2013 and she had many stories of the work and social life at Sydney Observatory which she was keen to share.
The Astrographic Catalogue was arguably the most significant astronomy project undertaken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Australia. Sydney, Melbourne and Perth Observatories were part of an international consortium of observatories working together to catalogue the stars using photography. Whilst predominantly men took the photographs of the stars using special ‘astrographic telescopes’, women measured the stars on glass plate negatives, calculated their positions, identified double stars and other irregularities. Verlie was one of 22* women who measured the positions of stars for the Astrographic Catalogue at Sydney Observatory between 1916 and 1963.
The women at Sydney Observatory were mainly working on the Sydney zone (-52 to -64 degrees) but some of the Melbourne zone (-65 to -90 degrees) plates were remeasured when Melbourne Observatory closed and the NSW Government astronomer, Harley Wood, agreed to take on the completion of the Melbourne catalogues. They were measuring and recording the brightness of stars down to 11th magnitude. The Sydney zone had the highest concentration of stars because the star-rich Milky Way ran right through that zone. There were 740,000 stars from 1400 photographic plates, and each plate was measured twice by turning it 180°. The data was entered into the logbook and then the mean of the two measurements was calculated. Sometimes the plate was measured a third time if there were errors.
Dr Luke Barnes, an astronomer with Western Sydney University, knew Verlie and wrote “Verlie was a charming and very witty retired lady from the small town I grew up in. A few years ago, I ran into her in Macksville and, on hearing what I do now, she mentioned that she used to work for Harley Wood at the Sydney Observatory”. This prompted him to contact Sydney Observatory.
Verlie was, as she described, a ‘numbers person’ throughout her life. She had a good general education and left school at 15 years old and was accepted for a position in the public service with many other young women who also had a public school education. Whilst Verlie did not remember doing an examination, all prospective employees were tested and only kept on at the Observatory if they had excellent observing and data recording skills and the ability to learn the mathematics required.
Measuring the stars was tedious and required concentration. The women worked in pairs and every 30 minutes they would swap positions with one looking through the eyepiece and calling out measurements, whilst the other noted the positions and magnitude (brightness) of the star in the log book. According to Verlie:
“We assessed the size of the dots (stars); there must have been a scale we lined these up with. On the reverse side we compared position and size. The astronomers checked these and anything out of (error) range was done again. On a bad day there would be five out of the range, and on a good day none. We only worked on the glass plates in the mornings. There were four measurers (women) in the room and the windows faced south. In the afternoon we did the tide times and moon and sunrise, and perhaps even the time of planets rising.”
There was reprieve from the detailed work and Verlie noted that the staff at the observatory were all encouraged by Harley Wood to look through the telescopes:
“…he was a very busy man, often away looking for radio and other astronomy sites in Coonabarabran and Parkes. When he was here and saw something interesting in the telescope he would say come up and have a look at this! We always went up to the telescope in the dome above (in the main observatory).”
The staff were also encouraged to play games such as shuttlecock and table tennis in their breaks. Verlie told Luke that “Harley Wood was a very good table tennis player”. Verlie made good friends with the other women at Sydney Observatory including Margaret Colville, Patricia Lawler and Winsome Bellamy. Many photographs were taken by Winsome of the good times they had on Observatory Hill at lunch and at some special social occasions such as engagements and weddings. When the women married they had to leave employment in the public service, and Verlie Maurice left work at Sydney Observatory to marry Jack Lee.
The Astrographic Catalogue heralded a new era using imaging technology for astrometry (the position and motion of stars). The data was digitised by the US Naval Observatory and used for a number of projects including the European Space Agency’s high precision Hipparcos catalogue of 118,218 stars produced with data from the Hipparcos satellite telescope launched in 1989 and operational until 1993 and the Tycho-2 Star Catalogue of 1,058,332 stars.
Research for my thesis revealed that gender-specific work in astronomy, such as computing and measuring star catalogues, as well a numerous social factors including the ban on married women in the workforce, and limited access to higher-level education, meant that many women who had potential to establish and progress a career in astronomy never had the opportunity to do so. Thankfully, over many decades, this is changing and women in Australia are in senior positions and undertaking significant research in this science.
*28 women were employed on the Astrographic Catalogue at Sydney Observatory but only 22 have been identified as measuring the stars in the catalogue.
Stevenson, T. (2015). Measuring the Stars and observing the less visible: Australia’s participation in the Astrographic Catalogue and Carte du Ciel, PhD thesis.
Stevenson, T. (2014). Making Visible the First Women in Astronomy in Australia: The Measurers and Computers Employed for the Astrographic Catalogue. Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, 31, E018.