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[Nonfiction Wednesday] From A Housemaid In Boston To Curator Of Astronomical Photographs

Meet Williamina Stevens Fleming.

Myra here.

We are delighted to dedicate our Wednesdays to featuring nonfiction titles, as per usual. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year, when we can.

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Our reading theme for July-September is Binge-Read: Book Series Marathon. We are expanding the range of this theme to include books that fit the following deliberately-nebulous criteria:

  1. Books that are part of an ongoing series
  2. Themed stories: books that are technically not part of a series, but fit a specific theme – e.g. intergenerational stories, nature-themed stories
  3. Short story collections
  4. Narratives of a similar genre
  5. Stories written by same author

Over the past several weeks, I have been sharing stories of women mathematicians and scientists who were enamoured with the stars. Still in keeping with this ‘theme,’ I am sharing the true story of a Scottish housemaid in Boston turned curator of astronomical photographs in Harvard.


She Caught The Light – Williamina Stevens Fleming: Astronomer (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written by Kathryn Lasky Illustrated by Julianna Swaney
Published by Harper Collins (2021)
ISBN: 9780062849304 (ISBN10: 0062849301) Borrowed via Overdrive. Book photos taken by me.

Williamina Paton Stevens was born in Scotland in 1857 to a simple family with four brothers, a homemaker mother, and a father who was a carver and a gilder and a part-time photographer. Similar to most stories of women in STEM fields, Mina’s father was kind, encouraging, and supportive – but died way too soon when Mina was only seven years old.

Despite Mina’s brilliance and inquisitive nature, she had no choice but to start working at the young age of fourteen as a teacher to help her family, and got married when she was only 20 years old. Her husband, James Fleming, brought her to Boston, only to have disappeared on her while they were in a foreign country, leaving the young wife heavily pregnant with his child.

Mina knew she had to find a job fast and became a maid in the household of Elizabeth and Edward Pickering. Professor Edward Pickering happened to be the Director of the Harvard College Observatory and Mina soaked up most everything and asked a lot of curious questions while also dutifully doing the household chores. It became pretty evident that Mina was no ordinary maid and that she had a brilliant mind – even better than most of the professor’s male assistants.

How this Scottish maid eventually became a human computer (very reminiscent of Hidden Figures which I featured a few weeks back) and later on became a curator of astronomical photographs and a veritable astronomer, I shall leave for you to discover. There are quite a number of scientific facts here that may go over the heads of some young readers, but with a skilful and passionate educator/parent, I am certain the stars would come alive for young readers with this inspiring story of Williamina Stevens Fleming.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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