Wednesday, July 18, 2012


                               Image from an 1895 San Francisco Call  newspaper engraving
                            Courtesy of the Library of Congress' Chronicling America website,


                                    Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi

Rose O’Halloran (about 1866-about 1930) was determined to
be an astronomer.  She informed reporters that she was
fascinatedby the stars ever since she could remember and she read
about them as a youth. She taught herself the constellations,
surveyed them with an opera glass, and followed astronomy’s latest
discoveries in the press and books.

O’Halloran said she was born in Ireland and her father, Edmond, was a man of means, a Tipperary County land-owner and merchant.  Indeed, the website confirms that an “Edmond Halloran” was a landowner. But all the rest of O’Halloran’s earliest history is based on her account, for example, her birth date is not confirmed in either a civil or church document on the website.  Her date of birth in this biography is a matter of conjecture and is estimated from two passenger manifests.  O’Halloran said her father educated his daughters and son at private schools and had them tutored at home as well.  When Edmond died, his survivors were in crisis because his estate was too small to provide a livelihood for them all. Rose needed a means of support and rejecting the dependent role 19th century society ordained for women, she decided to earn a living by teaching astronomy and history.

Intent on independence, wanting to be an astronomer, and planning to teach, O’Halloran immigrated to the United States, a country where self-determination was reputed to be part of the national character.  Not only did she take the risk of residence in the U. S. but she decided to live in California, a state less than 40 years old when she arrived in San Francisco, sometime before 1888.  Still resembling a frontier town, the city was hardly respectable even decades after the gold rush of 1848-1849.  Beginning in the 1890s citizens joined a progressive movement bent on reform and reclaiming control of local governance.  Women formed clubs dedicated to mutual support and advancement by encouraging their intellectual and literary development.  However, as late as 1900, San Francisco’s population of 340,000 struggled with an incompetent and corrupt government which was said to rival the wholesale malfeasance of New York City’s Tammany Hall.  Politicians were bribed to be compliant with utility companies and railroads’ schemes and to ignore rampant prostitution in the Barbary Coast region.  Despite these scandals San Francisco offered refined attractions if a citizen could afford them. Many were wealthy enough to enjoy fine dining, new hotels and entertainment by prominent celebrities like Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore. This was San Francisco at the time O’Halloran was a resident: simultaneously corrupt and cultured.

Astronomical career

O’Halloran’s life became better documented after she began to live and work in San Francisco. Her residential addresses appeared in street directories and in club membership rosters and the dates of her public lectures were advertised in the newspapers.  In addition, she wrote numerous articles in San Francisco’s newspapers about sky phenomena: she left a paper trail beginning about 1891.  Articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Call consistently report that during the day, O’Halloran taught classes in astronomy to girls from private schools “and convents;” and at night she opened a floor-to-ceiling window in her top-floor apartment and carried her telescope to an adjoining roof to watch the stars.  She informed reporters that teaching was only a means to an end: being an astronomer.  Reporters noted that even while being interviewed her eyes were often fixed in the distance as if gazing into the heavens that entranced her. 

        The caption reads: "Rose O'Halloran, the Woman Astronomer and her Pet Telescope"
          This image is from a March 10, 1895 issue of San Francisco Call from the Chronicling
                                                              America website.

O’Halloran’s astronomical work was first reported in 1892 when William Wallace Campbell (1862-1938) described a paper she had presented to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.  Campbell, a Lick Observatory staff astronomer, noted that Miss O’Halloran ('Miss' was her preferred title) had made 70 maps of sunspots.  These were the results of 129 days of solar observations she made from November 1, 1891 to March 31, 1892.  He credited her with probably being the first American observer to see a giant sunspot emerge at the limb (edge) of the sun’s disk on February 4, 1892.  She anticipated its arrival because she had seen smaller spots disappear behind the rotating sun in January and she continued to watch until sunspots reemerged.  This was the way an astronomer gained renown: persistent watches leading to an important result. O’Halloran continued observing sunspots from 1892 to 1913 and she published 16 reports about them in two national journals read by professional and amateur astronomers alike: Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP) and Popular Astronomy (PA).  Besides individual years’ observations, her years-long sunspot watch allowed her to make some general remarks about how the number of spots had waxed and waned during the 1891 to 1903 cycle.  Her annual reports and their summary were useful to professional astronomers who were trying to understand how the spots formed and what their role may have signified about radiant processes inside the sun.

Besides watching the Sun, Miss O’Halloran was an ardent student of other stars: long period variable stars.  Often abbreviated as LPVs, these stars typically completed one cycle of maximum light to minimum and return to maximum brightness during a several-month period.  Their prototype was one discovered with the unaided eye in 1596, about 13 years before Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) first pointed a telescope at the stars.  The changeable star was named ‘Mira’, the Wonderful, because at the time fluctuating brightness in a star was astounding; stars were believed to be changeless.  Mira was O’Halloran’s earliest LPV subject for study and publication.  She watched the star’s brightness variations from 1895 to 1907; and in addition to yearly reports she published a summary of Mira’s maxima in a 1907 article in PA.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amateur and professional astronomers were discovering LPVs at a rapid pace and Miss O'Halloran was eager to join the ranks of discoverers.  An April 1894 San Francisco Chronicle article reported that she had been monitoring the stars in the constellation Scorpius beginning in 1892.  The article described her procedure; she made a nightly chart of the positions and magnitudes of stars in the target region, with the goal of detecting those stars whose light varied cyclically during the three-year watch.  Although she apparently never found a new LPV, she monitored known variables.  Unfortunately, in 1896 when she published results about two LPVs, named R and S Scorpii, her methodology was criticized. 

John Adelbert Parkhurst (1861-1925), an Illinois amateur intent on training other amateurs to monitor LPVs, faulted O’Halloran for comparing R’s magnitude with S’s instead of with a star of unvarying magnitude.  O’Halloran’s procedure masked finding the actual dates when each star became brightest. Heeding the criticism, she improved her technique by consulting charts of unvarying comparison stars supplied by the editor of PA and by Edward Charles Pickering (1846-1919) the director of Harvard College Observatory (HCO).  The time period, 1892 to 1909, when Miss O’Halloran published her LPV results was a contentious one, when prominent astronomers argued about the best methodology to be used in making variable star observations.  Seth Carlo Chandler (1846-1913) argued that only visual estimates of LPV magnitudes were to be trusted, whereas the newer photographic methods advocated by Pickering were touted as the most efficient and reliable way to make these estimates.  Pickering offered and urged use of charts HCO generated.  At the same time Popular Astronomy printed different star charts with comparison stars for estimates to be used by amateurs.  Miss O’Halloran was cognizant of the professionals’ conflicts and in an effort to contribute useful variable star observations she astutely cited the names of the comparison star charts she used in her studies published in PA.  It is difficult to assess the impact O’Halloran’s LPV data had on variable star astronomy, but her contributions in PASP and PA from 1891 to 1909 added to the accumulated data available to professional researchers.

City astronomer

                               Caption reads: "One of Miss O'Halloran's Astronomy Classes"
                           Image is from the April 8, 1894 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle,
                                            courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

Many San Francisco residents knew of O’Halloran’s teaching career because she taught astronomy to their daughters.  She broadened the scope of her educational work by seeking to be San Francisco’s astronomer.  She wrote columns in the Chronicle and the San Francisco Call to alert citizens about current celestial events like the Leonid meteor shower storm expected in mid-November 1900 and about a solar eclipse on June 8, 1918.  In other articles she described advances being made, for example in a 1905 article how variable stars’ spectra had revealed new details about the stars’ physical nature.  Other articles explained astronomers’ current ideas about the shape and extent of the Milky Way, and the nature of comets. 

Acclaim and recognition from professionals

Her outreach to the public through local newspapers made her well known on the West Coast and locally she was regarded to be San Francisco’s astronomer.  Her biography and achievements made for good copy; an April 8, 1894 Chronicle article about her, ‘She Scans the Skies’, was reprinted across the nation in Denton Maryland’s Journal, on May 19 with a new title, ‘Fair Star Gazers”.

It was not only the media that were impressed with Miss O’Halloran.  Her published work earned the respect of local astronomical professionals.  United States Coast and Geodetic Survey’s George Davidson (1825-1911) and his wife knew her socially.  She borrowed and read many of his “scientific books and reviews” and he expressed the opinion that “…there is no doubt about her knowing a great deal more than many men who are famous…”  Davidson assisted O’Halloran by suggesting a four and one-eighth inch refracting telescope, by John Brashear (1840-1920) as a suitable instrument for her variable star and sunspot watches.  This telescope was her prized possession and it was the tool she used to gather data for all her publications. Edward Singleton Holden (1846-1914), first director of Lick Observatory, was so impressed with her knowledge that he nominated her for membership in the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the only woman to be a member for many years.  O’Halloran’s acumen was continually assessed too, because an author’s articles required approval by the ASP’s Board of Directors before they appeared in the ASP’s Publications.  Miss O’Halloran’s reports passed this test 25 times between 1892 and 1906.

O’Halloran’s career compared to female astronomers of her time period.

The history of women’s entry into astronomical work is a complex one, to be sure, but some highlights here may help put O’Halloran’s career in perspective.  Women began to be employed in astronomical settings in about the middle of the 19th century.  Toward the end of the century, women astronomers were at one of two institutions: professors at eastern women's colleges or assistants at large observatories, usually under male supervision. 

Female professors at colleges usually had heavy teaching loads that often interfered with performing research, but they could select their research topics, as long as the topic was one the male-dominated profession deemed to be ‘women’s work’ such as orbit determination and variable star studies.  Women’s college astronomers had previous academic training by male or female college astronomers. One example was Mary Whitney (1847-1921) at Vassar College, who had been trained by Vassar’s department chair, Maria Mitchell (1818-1889).  Whitney earned a Vassar bachelor’s degree in 1868 and then spent the next two years studying at Harvard.  She received an M.A. from Vassar in 1872 and in 1881, after studying mathematics in Switzerland she joined the Vassar astronomy department.  When Mitchell retired in 1888, Whitney became Vassar’s observatory director and professor of astronomy where her research was observing and computing orbits of minor planets (asteroids) and estimating variable star magnitudes (brightnesses).  Another professor, Anne Sewell Young (1871-1961) was trained by William Payne (1837-1928) and Herbert Wilson (1858-1940) at Carleton College (site of Goodsell Observatory and its Popular Astronomy) and she received a master’s degree there in 1897.  Young became professor of astronomy at Mount Holyoke in 1899 and she later earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1906.  Young found time from teaching to monitor sunspots and contribute the data to an international archive in Switzerland; in addition she measured the positions of asteroids, computed comets’ orbits and monitored variable stars at Mount Holyoke.

The best known female astronomers were assistants to Pickering at Harvard College Observatory. Director Pickering mapped out extensive data reduction programs in which photographs made by male astronomers were reviewed by their female colleagues.   

Seemingly banned from Harvard’s telescopes, the women were confined to desks scrupulously examining photographs and doing repetitious computational work.  Yet, within the bounds of their assignments, they were able to make some innovative contributions to astronomy that was of long term value to the science.  Two of the notable women astronomers were Williamina Fleming (1857-1911) who had a background as a student teacher in her native Scotland and Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941), who was an 1884 Wellesley College graduate and who did further study at Radcliffe in 1895.  Fleming developed a useful classification scheme of stars’ spectra and while examining photographic plates she discovered many new variable stars and other objects of interest.  Cannon refined Fleming’s spectral classification system which she personally applied to more than 225,000 stars.  The immense task required her attention for 22 years, 1896-1918.

Rose O’Halloran’s career was different from these female astronomers’. She attended school and had some private tutoring but no college training. She was not on the staff of a college or observatory, but was self-employed as a teacher instead.  Beyond her early formal education, her astronomical training was self-taught.  O’Halloran chose the subjects of her astronomical studies and did not suffer the fate of female counterparts at colleges or observatories whose research topics were limited by the day’s concept of what was appropriate work for a woman astronomer.  Despite the lack of an institutional affiliation, she was able to publish her work directly in PASP and PA with only minimal editorial review.  However, her lack of professional context and advanced academic training may have eventually limited her ability to publish: her name vanished from Publications of the ASP after 1906 and from Popular Astronomy after 1913.  Academic and observatory astronomers’ names began to displace amateurs’ from these journals during the first and certainly by the end of the second decade of the 20th century.  As astronomy became dominated by academically-trained professionals and research often required advanced training in physics, amateurs were less able to compete for journal space.

Her career resembled some male amateurs’ of the late 19th Century

Although Miss O’Halloran’s career was unlike other female astronomers’, it did resemble that of at least two other amateur astronomers, both male.  These men were independent researchers (IRs) whose sky surveys added to astronomy’s database.  Their pattern was like O’Halloran’s: some formal education, self-tutelage in astronomical observation technique and current advances in astronomy, solo sky watches, publication in national astronomy journals, and like O’Halloran they earned a living in an unrelated occupation.  Both men were O’Halloran’s contemporaries, actively observing and publishing during her career.

The eldest of the two IRs, Lewis Swift (1820-1913) was a hardware merchant in Marathon, New York who later relocated his business and family to Rochester.  He received a few years of formal education after he broke a hip in an accident on his family’s farm.  Swift studied an astronomy text that he bought for a few dollars.  After attending some lectures he bought a three-inch and later a four-and-a-half inch telescope with which he sought comets.  His success in finding them, thirteen from 1862 to 1899, brought him fame and recognition from professional astronomers.  Like O’Halloran, Swift had a gift for publicizing himself and his avocation.  He lectured Rochesterians about astronomy and showed them the moon and planets through his telescope.  His fame and public prominence earned him the attention of two millionaires, both of whom built him observatories to house a 16-inch refracting telescope paid for by the citizens of Rochester who were eager to equip their astronomer neighbor with a large telescope.  Swift wrote about his comet and nebular discoveries in PA and in international astronomical journals like Astronomische Nachrichten. 

Edwin Forrest Sawyer (1849-1937) was the second IR whose career resembled O’Halloran’s.  Sawyer graduated from a Boston high school and became a bank employee at age 19, a livelihood he maintained for 64 years.  Sawyer taught himself meteor observation techniques and began watching meteors and plotting them on star maps from 1872 to1915.  His meteor shower records resulted in two catalogs of the showers’ origin points (called radiants) in the sky.  Sawyer’s first catalog was published in 1879 in the highly regarded American Journal of Science and the second in 1881 in the internationally prestigious Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.  Sawyer belonged to the Boston Scientific Society to which a number of scientifically sophisticated amateurs belonged, including Seth Carlo Chandler.  Sawyer wrote meteor-related articles in the Society’s journal Science Observer, which was well-known locally, and by about 1883 was in demand over much of the United States.  When he acquired a four-inch refractor in 1883, Sawyer began to observe stars listed in a catalog of southern stars.  He determined the magnitudes of more than 3000 stars, and in the process discovered eight variable stars.  He published the results of this telescopic survey in 1893.

O’Halloran, Swift, and Sawyer were industrious and goal-oriented people who established a niche in astronomy that still exists today: the role of the amateur as an independent researcher.  In this role amateurs serve as data providers to professionals and occasionally as discoverers of new objects and phenomena.  Miss O’Halloran’s career has one important historical aspect: today’s U.S. amateurs practice an avocation begun by men and at least one woman.

Participation in local organizations

In 1889 the Astronomical Society of the Pacific was founded, in part due to the energetic advocacy of Edward Holden.   The society assembled professional and amateur astronomers with the goal of promoting astronomical science and education on the Pacific coast.  Holden nominated Miss O’Halloran for membership and the organization’s membership roster first showed her name in 1891, the same year she began her sunspot study.  Her name appeared continuously until 1920, when the PASP ceased publishing members’ names and addresses in its February number.  O’Halloran maintained an active role in the organization and advanced to the ranks of the ASP’s Board of Directors in 1896.  Three years later she became one of the ASP’s three vice presidents.  She served in both leadership positions until 1903.

In 1893, San Francisco’s women established a local chapter of the Sorosis Club.  In it were women interested in literary and intellectual issues and who wished to be of mutual assistance to each other. Although Miss O’Halloran’s name first appears on its 1899 roster, an 1894 newspaper clipping suggests that she was in sympathy with the club’s purposes years earlier.  The clipping announced that she attended a meeting of The Women’s Congress on May 3, 1894 at which she participated in a discussion about ‘women and science’ by reading a paper: ‘Our Place in the Study of Infinities.’  Disappointingly, there is no information about O’Halloran’s role in the Sorosis Club.  Her membership was current up to 1930 and suggests that she was interested in the organization and perhaps was flourishing personally until then.

World-travelling astronomer

Miss O’Halloran ignored turn-of-the-century cautions about women attempting solo long-distance sea travel.  She probably did not need the 1889 precedent of an oceanic voyage by Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (also known as ‘Nellie Bly’), because O’Halloran had it in her character to go to the ends of the earth in pursuit of a goal.  In 1910 O’Halloran brought her telescope to Auckland, New Zealand and made a year-long sky survey.  When she returned to San Francisco in 1912, her notes provided the material for a ten-page observational guide which she published in a 1913 issue of PA.  She illustrated the celestial tour with her sky map drawings of the southern hemisphere’s ‘alien skies.’  The fact that she took this hazardous expedition should not surprise us, after all, it was she who risked leaving the staid Old World to seek self-determination in America’s Wild West.

Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi

July 17, 2012

Selected References

Anonymous; She Scans the Skies: Miss O’Halloran’s Recognition by Astronomers All over the Country, San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 1894.  Retrieved from  Accessed on June 29, 2012.

Anonymous, The Woman’s (sic) Congress, in Riverside Daily Press, May 3, 1894, Riverside, CA.  This news clipping was accessed from GenealogyBank’s online database on June 25, 2012: 

Anonymous, Sorosis, accessed on line on July 8, 2012: 

California State Library; Author Biographical Card, 1906. online database for ‘Rose O’Halloran’  Accessed June 29, 2012.

Campbell, W.W.; editor, Observations of the Sun in 1891 and 1892 by Miss Rose O’Halloran, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, volume 4, 1892, p. 138.

Evelyn, M., Hopes to Discover a New Star, The San Francisco Call, March 10, 1897, page 7.
This article is available on the Library of Congress’s website, Chronicling America

Hoag, C.C., The Sorosis Club of San Francisco 1899, in Our Society Blue Book, San Francisco: Charles Hoag Pub. Co., 1899, pp. 295-296.  This was posted by Sally Kaleta in 2006 on

Hoag, J.J., San Francisco Blue Book and Club Directory 1929-1930, San Francisco: Jed J. Hoag Publisher, 1929, p. 533.  Accessed on July 8, 2012 at

Kurzman, D., Disaster!  The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906; New York: HarperCollins, pp. 3-11.

Mack, P.E., Straying from their Orbits; in Kass-Simon, G. and P. Farnes, Women of Science: Righting the Record, Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press; 1990, pp. 72-116.

O’Halloran, R., Observations of N (sic) and  S Scorpii, Popular Astronomy, volume 4, 1896, p.275.

O’Halloran, R., Awaiting belated shower of Leonids, San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 1900.

O’Halloran, R., The Milky Way as it appears to observers of the autumn heavens; San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 1901.

O’Halloran, R., Some Details of the Recent Solar Cycle, Popular Astronomy, volume 12, 1904, pp. 27-32

O’Halloran, R., Probing star mysteries from a California mountain top; San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 1905.

O’Halloran, R., Light Curves of Mira and W Lyrae; Popular Astronomy, volume 15, 1907, pp. 95ff.

O’Halloran, R., Stargazing Beneath Alien Skies, Popular Astronomy, volume 21, 1913, pp. 553-562.

O’Halloran, R., Humanity Pauses and Gazes Skyward during Sun
Eclipse, San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 1918

Parkhurst, J., R and S Scorpii, Popular Astronomy, volume 4, 1896,
pp. 331-332.

Taibi, R., Edwin Forrest Sawyer, WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Society. Volume 32, 2004, pp. 87-91

Williams, T.R. and M. Saladyga, Advancing Variable Star Astronomy, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp.10-21.

Winchester, S., A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, New York: Harper Collins, 2005; pp. 206-241, especially 223-225.

Wlasuk, P.T., “So much for fame!”: the story of Lewis Swift; Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, volume 37, 1996, pp. 683-707.

Wlasuk, P.T., Edward Singleton Holden, in Hockey, T. et al., Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, volume 1, New York: Springer; 2007; pp. 518-519.

Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi