Photo of E. Margaret Burbidge

E. Margaret Burbidge

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For leadership in observational astronomy. Her spectroscopic investigations have provided crucial information about the chemical composition of stars and the nature of quasistellar objects.

She might be recognized as one of the most prominent female astronomers of the 20th century, but she could also easily be called a relentless pioneer for women’s equality in science.

Eleanor Margaret Burbidge faced several early obstacles in her career. She was denied positions due to her gender, banned from access to observatories, and generally overlooked and ignored.

Burbidge did not let this deter her pursuit of astronomy. She would go on to make major discoveries and be considered an equal by her male colleagues. Her team was able to better communicate how lighter elements go through nuclear reactions and become heavier within a star. Instrumentation onboard the Hubble Space Telescope was directly influenced by Burbidge, and her work studying quasars has also been fundamental to astronomy.

Her persistence would eventually begin to break down barriers for women at higher levels as well. She would become the first woman to be director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the first female winner of the Bruce Medal, and the first female president of the American Astronomical Society.

By Melissa Ayala