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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 529

Papers of Dorrit Hoffleit, 1906-2005


Papers of Dorrit Hoffleit, astronomer at Harvard and Yale Universities and at the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket.


  • Creation: 1906-2005

Language of Materials

Materials in English.


Access. Unrestricted, except that the letters of recommendation in #14.11 are closed until January 1, 2034; in #16.12 until January 1, 2046; in #21.5 until January 1, 2035; in #23.11 until January 1, 2037; in #26.1-26.2 until January 1, 2042; and in #26.10 until January 1, 2041; correspondence regarding Philip Lu in #16.11and #20.3 is closed until January 1, 2024, and personal information in #32.2 is closed until January 1, 2010.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers of Dorrit Hoffleit is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


15.47 linear feet ((32 + 1/2 file boxes, 2 folio boxes) plus 3 folio+ folders, 1 oversize folder, 1 supersize folder, 6 photograph folders)

This collection documents Hoffleit's career at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Harvard and Yale Universities, and the Maria Mitchell Observatory, as well as including material on women astronomers and the history of astronomy; it also documents the life of Hoffleit's mother and provides information on other members of the Hoffleit family. The collection includes appointment books, correspondence, articles, papers, and other publications, lecture notes, clippings, certificates, plaques, and photographs; and family memoirs and other autobiographical writings, a diary, poetry, and correspondence.

The bulk of the arrangement and folder headings were created by Hoffleit; those folder headings created by the processor appear in square brackets. In some cases the processor added additional information to Hoffleit's headings, placing such additions within square brackets. The bulk of Hoffleit's correspondence with her mother and brother is in German, as are her mother's diary, and several poems. Pressed flowers and four-leafed clovers were removed from a number of folders.

Series I, Hoffleit family (#1.1-4.2, 34FB.1-34FB.2), contains two subseries.

Subseries A, Kate Sanio Hoffleit writings (#1.1-2.7, 34FB.1), includes poems by Kate and Dorrit Hoffleit, as well as Kate Hoffleit's exchange of letters and poetry with Harvard University Professor of German William G. Howard and letters from him to Dorrit Hoffleit. Many of these letters and poems are in German. The subseries also includes Kate Hoffleit's four-volume memoir, which describes her life in Germany and work in the nursing profession, her decision to marry and immigrate to America, and her life in America. (Both original handwritten manuscripts and typed versions are included.) Other writings describing her childhood in Germany and her experiences on moving to Cambridge with her children are also included.

Subseries B, Family correspondence (#2.8-4.2, 34FB.2), includes Hoffleit's correspondence with her mother, brother, sister-in-law (Norfleet Daniel Hoffleit), and niece (Margaret Hoffleit Doleman), as well as some correspondence among other family members. Letters from Kate Hoffleit also appear in Series III Subseries A, in files pertaining to Hoffleit's work at Aberdeen Proving Ground, as well as in Series III Subseries B. Most of the correspondence before 1974 is in German.

Series II, Biographical and personal (#4.3-12.4, 34FB.2-34FB.7, F+D.1, OD.1, SD.1), consists of five subseries, each arranged chronologically.

Subseries A, Biographical (#4.3-4.6), consists of clippings about Hoffleit, and other printed material providing information about her life.

Subseries B, Personal (#4.7-4.9, 34FB.2, F+D.1, SD.1), contains personal items kept by Hoffleit, such as correspondence and drawings.

Subseries C, Schoolwork (#4.10-6.3, 34FB.3-34FB.7, F+D.1, OD.1), includes Radcliffe diplomas and notes for graduate courses Hoffleit took at Radcliffe, as well as a few papers and a portfolio of grade school artwork and essays.

Subseries D, Radcliffe Institute (#6.4-6.10), consists of a number of items related to Hoffleit's relationship with Radcliffe. These include minutes from the meetings of a 1940s study group, which discussed such issues as undergraduate education of women, women's work during the war, and opportunities for women in the arts and civil service, and in science.

Subseries E, Appointment books (#6.11-12.4), provides a detailed account of Hoffleit's day to day life. Some appointment books include lists of articles published during that year and of Christmas cards and gifts received. Most folders also include letters or newspaper obituaries and other clippings, and programs for events Hoffleit attended. Dried flowers and four-leaf clovers were preserved in several appointment books; with the exception of a few which were taped in, these have been removed.

Series III, Professional (#13.1-33.1v, 34FB.1-34FB.2, 35FB.1-35FB.2, F+D.1-F+D.3, OD.1), consists of four subseries.

Subseries A, Alphabetical correspondence and papers (#13.1-26.10, 34FB.1, F+D.1-F+D.2), includes letters from friends, fellow Radcliffe alumnae, astronomical colleagues, and summer assistants, many of whom corresponded with Hoffleit for years following their time at Nantucket. Also located here are folders on the Aberdeen Proving Ground, drafts and final versions of professional papers by Hoffleit and others, and material on a number of astronomical societies and associations. Several folders focus on women astronomers, such as Ida M. Barney, Henrietta Hill Swope, and Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming; Hoffleit's notes and essays on these women's achievements are included. A number of folders deal with the Maria Mitchell Observatory, Hoffleit's appointment there, issues and problems which arose at the Observatory, and the search for her successors.

Subseries B, Chronological correspondence and papers (#26.11-30.5. F+D.2), is arranged in two sections, with papers followed by correspondence. Among the papers are articles Hoffleit wrote for scientific magazines and journals, including the "News Notes" column she wrote for Sky and Telescope between 1941 and 1956, papers written for the Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, the Harvard College Observatory Bulletin, and the Harvard Library Bulletin, reports she prepared alone or jointly during her years at the Ballistic Research Laboratory, and other publications written during her years at Harvard and Yale. There is some overlap with Series I Subseries B and Series III Subseries A. Some correspondence is in German.

Subseries C, Other professional (#30.6-32.8, 34FB.2, OD.1), includes Hoffleit's notes documenting her time at the Maria Mitchell Observatory, as well as notes taken during meetings and trips in 1973. The subseries also includes material on the history of women in astronomy, consisting of Hoffleit's notes and drafts for articles and correspondence with other researchers seeking information on female astronomers.

Subseries D, Awards and honors (#32.9-33.1v, 34FB.2, 35FB.1-35FB.2, F+D.2-F+D.3), concerns awards received by Hoffleit throughout her career. Among these are a War Department certificate of thanks for her services at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, certificates from several astronomical societies, and certificates of thanks from the Republican Party. Also included is correspondence regarding her receipt of the Radcliffe Graduate Society's Distinguished Achievement medal and an honorary degree from Smith College.

Series IV, Photographs (#PD.1-PD.6), includes photographs of Hoffleit as a child with her brother Herbert, and other images of Hoffleit and of her family, friends, and associates, as well as photographs commemorating receipt of her high school diploma, bachelor's degree, and doctorate.


Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit was born on March 12, 1907, on her parents' farm in Florence, Alabama. Her parents, Fred and Kate Sanio Hoffleit, had emigrated from Germany, and her father worked intermittently as a bookkeeper for the Pennsylvania Railroad. While he preferred farm work, it was not possible to support the family this way, and they relocated from Alabama to New Castle, Pennsylvania. Fred Hoffleit later returned to the farm, while his wife opted to remain in New Castle, judging that the educational opportunities for Hoffleit and her brother Herbert were better there. Hoffleit thus spent most of her early childhood in New Castle, and her interest in astronomy began there, as she would watch the night skies in their back yard with her mother and Herbert. In 1920, Hoffleit and her mother moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, accompanying Herbert, who enrolled at Harvard University.

Hoffleit received her B.A. in mathematics from Radcliffe College in 1928. Her original plan was to teach high school mathematics, but as no jobs in this field were available, she obtained work as a research assistant at the Harvard College Observatory, working on the discovery and light curves of variable stars and earning 40 cents an hour while men doing similar work were paid a dollar an hour. While working at the Observatory, she took graduate courses at Radcliffe, receiving her M.A. and Ph.D. in astronomy in 1932 and 1938, respectively. She was the fifth woman to receive a Ph.D. from Radcliffe and was awarded the Carolyn Wilby Prize for best original work in any department for her dissertation on the determination of spectroscopic absolute magnitudes of southern stars.

When the United States entered World War II, many of the men at the Observatory joined government research organizations, while Hoffleit initially took on additional tasks created by the men's absence. In 1943, she joined the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where she calculated trajectories for missiles. The director of the laboratory did not permit women to hold professional ratings, but ultimately professional ratings were awarded to eligible women. After the war, Hoffleit deferred her full-time return to Harvard and remained at the Proving Ground for an additional three years, working on the determination of trajectories of captured V2 rockets. She remained a consultant for the Research Laboratory until 1961.

In 1948, she returned to full-time work at Harvard and remained there until 1956, when she was named director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket. (She did not actually begin work at the Observatory until 1957, as the previous director, Margaret Harwood, had requested an extension in order to complete a project. In the interim, Hoffleit taught astronomy part time at Wellesley College.) Her job at the Observatory was a half-year appointment, and for the remaining six months of each year she worked as a research associate in astronomy at Yale University, running its star cataloging program. In 1964, she edited the Catalogue of Bright Stars, which listed stars visible to the naked eye, and she also edited a 1983 supplement.

Upon beginning work in Nantucket, she developed a research program for female undergraduates, with two to six students a year spending the summer at the Observatory. (Towards the end of her tenure at Nantucket male students were also included.) The students conducted seminars and open nights for the general public and for school-age children, photographed and studied variable stars, and presented the results of their research at annual meetings of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Several of her summer assistants became professional astronomers and many retained close friendships with Hoffleit. Her appointment at the Maria Mitchell Observatory continued until 1978.

Hoffleit officially retired from Yale in 1975, but even after retirement, she remained active in the field of astronomy, writing papers, frequently on women astronomers, and presenting at conferences. She was considered an expert on variable stars, the history of astronomy, and astrometry, a branch of astronomy which deals with the positions of stars and other celestial bodies. In 1987, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after her, in acknowledgment of her contributions to the field of astronomy.


The collection is arranged in four series:

  1. Series I. Hoffleit family
  2. ___Subseries A. Kate Sanio Hoffleit writings
  3. ___Subseries B. Family correspondence
  4. Series II. Biographical and personal
  5. ___Subseries A. Biographical
  6. ___Subseries B. Personal
  7. ___Subseries C. Schoolwork
  8. ___Subseries D. Radcliffe Institute
  9. ___Subseries E. Appointment books
  10. Series III. Professional
  11. ___Subseries A. Alphabetical correspondence and papers
  12. ___Subseries B. Chronological correspondence and papers
  13. ___Subseries C. Other professional
  14. ___Subseries D. Diplomas, awards, and certificates
  15. Series IV. Photographs

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 79-M12, 82-M51, 98-M29, 98-M56, 98-M72, 98-M86, 99-M169, 2002-M115, 2005-M101, 2005-M110, 2005-M122, 2005-M159

These papers were given to the Schlesinger Library by Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit in January 1979 and between February 1998 and November 2005. An additional donation was made by Barbara Welther in March 1982.


Donor: Dorrit Hoffleit

Accession Number: 98-M56, 99-M169

Processed by: Susan Earle

The following items have been transferred to the Schlesinger Library book collection:

  1. Burwell, Cora G. Woodwinds. Eureka Springs: Dierkes Press, 1957. Autographed.
  2. Cohen, Barbara and Taylor, Louise. Dogs and their Women. Boston: Little Brown, 1989. Inscribed to Hoffleit.
  3. Fowler-Billings, Katharine. Stepping-Stones: The Reminiscences of a Woman Geologist in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1996. Signed by Hoffleit.
  4. Tickell, Jerrard, ed.Gentlewomen Aim to Please; edited from Victorian Manuals of Etiquette. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1938. Inscribed to and annotated by Hoffleit.
  5. Hill, Edward. My Daughter Beatrice: A Personal Memoir of Dr. Beatrice Tinsley, Astronomer. New York: American Physical Society, 1986
  6. Space for Women: Perspectives on Careers in Science. From "The Earth in Cosmos: Space for Women," a Symposium for Women on Careers in Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Earth and Planetary Sciences, Sponsored by Center for Astrophysics, Harvard University, Radcliffe College, and Smithsonian Institution
  7. Webb, Michael. Helen Sawyer Hogg: A Lifetime of Stargazing. Mississauga, Ontario: Copp Clark Pittman, 1991. Inscribed to Hoffleit by Helen Sawyer Hogg.

The following items have been returned to Dorrit Hoffleit.

  1. Hertzsprung, Ejnar. Zur Strahlung der Sterne. Ostwarlds Klassiker der exacted Wissenschaften, band 25, Leipzing: Akameishe Verlagsgesellschaft, 1976
  2. International Register of Profiles, 12th Anniversary Edition. Cambridge, England: International Biographical Centre, 2003
  3. Oles, Carole. Night Watches: Inventions on the Life of Maria Mitchell. Cambridge, MA: Alice James Books, 1985. Inscribed by author.

Processing Information

Processed: November 2005

By: Susan Earle

Hoffleit, Dorrit. Papers of Dorrit Hoffleit, 1906-2005: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by a gift from the Edward, Frances and Shirley B. Daniels Fund.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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