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Lowell Stories: Women's History

Helen Sawyer (1905-1993)

Image: Helen Sawyer Hogg, University of Toronto


Helen Sawyer (1905-1993) born in Lowell, the second daughter of banker Edward Everett Sawyer and former teacher Carrie Douglass. Academically gifted, Hogg graduated from Lowell High School at the age of 15, but chose to stay for another year before leaving to attend Mount Holyoke College in 1922.

At Mount Holyoke College, despite having nearly completed a chemistry degree, she changed her major from chemistry to astronomy. After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Sawyer received a fellowship for graduate study at Harvard Observatory in the fall of 1926. She received her master's degree in 1928 and her doctoral degree in 1931, both from Radcliffe College, as Harvard refused to award graduate degrees in science to women at the time. While completing her doctoral degree, Hogg taught astronomy at Mount Holyoke and at Smith College.

In 1930, she married Frank Scott Hogg, an astronomy student at Harvard, and the two moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 1931. She gave birth to the couple's daughter, Sally, in June 1932. Hogg was able to continue her observation work by bringing her sleeping daughter with her to the observatory at night in a basket.

In 1935, the couple moved to Ontario to work at the University of Toronto's David Dunlap Observatory, where the couple's second child, David, was born in January 1936, followed shortly by their third child, James, in September 1937. Her husband Frank Sawyer died in 1951 of a heart attack, and Helen picked up many of his professional responsibilities in addition to raising their three children. In 1985, Helen married F.E.L. Priestley, a colleague and professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, who died in 1988.

As an astronomer, Hogg began her work on variable stars in globular clusters at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia, and subsequently continued her research at the David Dunlop Observatory in Toronto. Former program director for the National Science Foundation, she was the first woman president of the physical sciences section of the Royal Society of Canada, the first woman president of the Royal Canadian Institute, and founding president of the Canadian Astronomical Society. The recipient of six honorary degrees at Canadian and United States universities, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada—one of the highest honors in the nation. In tribute two Canadian observatories were named for her including the National Museum of Science and Technology, Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory.

Helen Sawyer Hogg wanted everyone to find the same joy in the stars that she did and continued her work until late in her life. Her brilliance, enthusiasm, and warmth were widely recognized. She died of a heart attack on January 28, 1993, in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada.

2010 Helen Sawyer Hogg inducted as a Lowell High School Distinguished Alumni.