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Dorothea Klumpke Roberts,
Pioneer Woman Astronomer

By Don Stone, Eastbay Astronomical Society


-- October, 2002

On March 6th, 1925, Dr. Dorothea Klumpke Roberts became one of a group of ten at Chabot Observatory to officially join the Eastbay Astronomical Society (EAS) as a paid member. In January 1928 she became its first life member.

She was part of a group who visited the Observatory that Friday night, March 6th, 1925. Along with Earle Garfield Linsley, she became one of the first ten paying members of the EAS. She paid $10 for her life membership in 1928 and contributed a like amount again in July 1930. At that time the membership fee was $1.50/year. This was an enormous sum for a tiny, struggling club to get in these times. Her donation probably helped the Eastbay Astronomical Society stay afloat! She was a true pioneer not only to the EAS but also to the Worldwide astronomical community.

Dorothea was born on August 9, 1861 to a German immigrant father, John Gerard Klumpke (1825-1917) and Dorothea Mathilda Tolle, (? - 1922) in San Francisco. Her father had come to California as a boy and tried his luck at gold prospecting in 1850, without success. He did however succeed as a real estate broker and became quite wealthy in this venue. In 1855 he married Dorothea Tolle, and they had five daughters and two sons. The five daughters went on to have distinguished careers and one son became a businessman and the other died as an infant.

Around 1877 the parents decided that the rough and tumble life in frontier San Francisco was not conducive to a good education for their children and decided to have them all educated in Europe. They were taken to Europe in 1877 by their mother and placed in schools in Germany, Switzerland and France. For many years after that, the mother traveled back and forth to visit her children. (Talk about commuting!)

Anna (the oldest sister) became a noted artist specializing in landscapes and portraits. She became the protégé and later partner of Rosa Bonheur. Rosa obtained a license that allowed her to dress in trousers with a smock and ride astride a horse like a man. When Rosa passed away (1899), Anna inherited her fortune and chateau. Augusta became a noted physician with a specialty in neurology. She and her physician husband, Jules Déjerine, founded a clinic and authored numerous works on medicine. Two sisters were successful in music. Mathida, a gifted pianist was a pupil of Marmontel, while Julia, found her niche as a concert violinist and composer, who studied under Isaye. Little is known about the sons except that one died in infancy and the surviving son was businessman who lived Berkeley, California.

Dorothea, the third sister, was born on August 9th, 1861. She and her siblings attended the local schools in San Francisco. In 1877, she and her sisters were taken to Europe to get a "continental education." Initially, she started out in music but switched to astronomy, and enrolled at the University of Paris.

She took a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) in 1886 and later won a post as attaché in the Paris Observatory. Her first work was with G. Bigourdan and Schulhof before working with the pioneer astrophotographers Paul and Prosper Henry in their work on a new 34 cm refracting telescope designed to facilitate the photographing of minor planets (asteroids). Her job was to measure star positions and reduce the data on the astrophotographs. She also worked on stellar spectra and studied meteorites.

In 1886, Sir David Gill, of England, proposed that the nations of the world join together and create an atlas of all the stars. The Director of the Paris Observatory, Admiral Ernest Mouchez, liked the idea so much that he suggested that a meeting should be held in Paris. Thus was born the Carte du Ciel project. In April 1877, Dorothea found a niche at the International Congress of Astronomers as a linguist translating all the papers into French for the official records. The Carte du Ciel venture required that all of the sky be photographed down to the 14th magnitude on plates of 2° a side. Plans were made for the Paris Observatory to do a major chunk of the sky as its official part in this enterprise. Also, a catalog was to be prepared listing all the stars to the 11th magnitude.

It soon became obvious to Mouchez that the flood of plates that needed to be measured and reduced was overwhelming the staff of the observatory. So he initiated a search for a director to head a special bureau to handle the plate reductions.

In 1889, she became the first recipient of an award, the Prix de Dames, from the Sociétié des Astronomique de France. In 1893, she was made an Officier d'Académe of the Paris Academy of Sciences. Both honors were a first for a woman. In 1891, in spite of being a foreigner and a woman, Dorothea beat out 50 men for the post as Director of the Bureau of Measurements at the Paris Observatory. It was an immense project. After 96 charts had been made it was estimated that a pile of all the Paris charts covering the entire sky would stand about 37 meters high.

Dorothea held this post until she left in 1901 to marry Isaac Roberts. On December 14, 1893 Dorothea read her doctoral thesis, "L'étude des Anneaux de Saturne" before a large crowd of expectant professors and several hundred others at the Sorbonne, winning unanimous assent for her degree as a Docteur-és-Sciences. Her academic discipline was mathematics and mathematical astronomy. So well did she defend her thesis, that Dr. Darboux of the examining committee (which also included Drs. Tisserand and Andoyer) graciously said in her honor:

"Your thesis is the first in which a woman has presented and successfully defended before our faculty to obtain this degree. You worthily open the way, and the faculty unanimously makes haste to declare you worthy of obtaining the degree of Doctor."

By comparison, Harvard did not confer this title until the mid-20th century. That honor was first conferred on Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin.

In 1896, Dorothea sailed away on the Norwegian vessel, Norse King, to observe the August 9th, 1896, solar eclipse in Norway. While the eclipse itself was clouded out, Dorothea met a man to match her interest and skill in astronomy.

Dr. Isaac Roberts, a 67-year old Welsh widower, and a retired entrepreneur turned astronomer had an avid interest in astrophotography. Not only was he one of the delegates at the Paris Carte du Ciel Congress, he was also one of the foremost pioneers in astrophotography. Quick to appreciate the enormous potential of astrophotography, Roberts established his private observatory equipping it with a 50 cm reflector with a camera, and a 13 cm Cooke refractor, the first in Wales, and later on moving it to Sussex, on the south side of London.

With this equipment, in 1888 he produced the first good photographs in England of the Andromeda Galaxy and other objects. He was also involved in a mammoth project to photograph all of the Herschel 52 "Areas of Nebulosity. "

His numerous astronomical contributions included taking about 3000 plates, many of which showed detail and structure unknown to English astronomers. He also designed and made a device called the Pantograver, It was used to transfer stellar images (both in size and shape) from perishable gelatin film onto an imperishable Copper plate, thus making his work permanent. In 1893 and again in 1895 he produced two thick quarto volumes of photographs called, "Photographs of Stars, Clusters, and Nebulae." For his work he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Trinity College, in Dublin, Ireland, in 1892. In 1895, the British Royal Astronomical Society awarded him its Gold Medal for his considerable astronomical achievements.

In 1899, Dorothea was selected by the French to be lofted in a balloon to observe the Leonid meteor shower. Dr. Janssen, the Director of Meudon Observatory and President of the French Society of Aerial Navigation made the selection. The nations of France, Germany and Russia collaborated on a scientific mission to observe the Leonid meteor shower of November 1899. The Leonids were expected to put on a good show. Alas! The Leonids did not cooperate, She wrote,

"I do not know what good fairy overheard my wish to take a trip in the blue sky... My surprise was great when I learned that the French Society of Aerial Navigation had chosen me for the astronomical expedition of the Leonids. After reflection I accepted the unexpected invitation. I had the most mysterious and alluring anticipation of an ascent in a balloon."

The Leonids, so magnificent in their passes through the inner solar system in 1799, 1833, and 1866, were eagerly anticipated in 1899. Around 1 a.m. in Paris as she prepared for launch, she was already aware that the Leonids were far, far below expectations based on reports received earlier.

Finally, as the full moon rose over Paris, the balloon, La Centaure, carrying a pilot, a secretary and Dorothea took off. La Centaure rose to a height of about 500 meters and traveled westward at about 35 km/hr. towards the English Channel where it landed at dawn about 1060 kilometers from where it was launched. Upon landing, the crew enjoyed a repast of cold chicken and champagne. Only thirty meteors were seen of which just fifteen were Leonids. Upon returning home she wrote,

"... safe back in my little student's room at the Observatory of Paris... My body seemed lighter than ever, and I had the sensation of floating in air, and my heart was filled with gratitude."

It was a success for Dorothea, as she became the first woman to make astronomical observations from a balloon. Although this first flight appears to have both terrified and excited her, that she made a second astronomical flight, for which the date and details are unknown.

Meanwhile, after a five year courtship, Dorothea and Isaac married in 1901 and moved to his Sussex home nicknamed "Starfield." Also that year Dorothea resigned her post at the Paris Observatory and moved to England with Isaac, where she assisted him in his massive project to photograph all 52 of the Hershel "areas." This idyllic interlude ended abruptly when he passed away in 1904, bequeathing to Dorothea all of his astronomical effects and considerable money.

She stayed at Starfield long enough to complete the photography of the 52 regions before moving back to Paris to stay with her mother and sister, Anna, at Chateau Rosa Bonheur. She brought with her the enormous collection of photographic plates. It appears that she went back to the Paris Observatory and labored for about 25 years to measure. reduce and print the results of Issac's work, intermittently publishing some results.

Finally in 1929, on the centennial of her husband's birth she published a catalog, "The Isaac Roberts Atlas of 52 Regions, a Guide to William Herschel's Fields of Nebulosity". In 1932 she added a supplement.

In all, she published two photographic atlases and associated catalogues of deep sky objects as a tribute to her husband. The supplement were enlargements of fifty plates taken with Robert's telescopes. In 1932 she received the Hèléne-Paul Helbronner prize from the French Academy of Sciences for her work in publishing the atlases.

On February 22, 1934, she received her highest honor by being elected a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur with the President of France personally making the presentation of the Cross of the Legion in grateful appreciation of her half century of service to French astronomy. Despite being away from the United States for almost 60 years, she retained her American citizenship, frequently returning home to her roots, in San Francisco.

Shortly after this presentation she left France with her sister Anna, moving to San Francisco where they lived in a house built next to their niece, Mrs. G. E. Austin.

The Eastbay Astronomical Association recognized this honor by sending a letter of congratulations, dated March 30, 1934 to her San Francisco address.

March 30, 1934
Dr. Dorothea Roberts,
38 Hill Poin
San Francisco, California

The press notice of the new honor which has recently come to you reached the eyes of the Eastbay Astronomical Association and they desired to recognize it in some way. They therefore instructed Mr. Baird to draw up an expression of their pleasure and they instructed me to extend to you our compliments and congratulations which I most cordially do.

Very sincerely yours,
Margaret C. Walker,
Corresponding Secretary

She and her sister spent the rest of their lives in San Francisco playing host to many soirees for all manner of artists, musicians and scientists. As part of her continued interest in astronomy she endowed a number of awards through the Paris Observatory and the University of California to benefit young astronomers. At least twelve major societies in Europe and the United States elected Dorothea to their membership. (See list at end of this article.)

Dorothea, ill and a partial invalid for several years, passed away on October 5, 1942. During her life she bequeathed money to establish prizes and awards and also gave money to countless young astronomers in need so that they could continue their education.

The importance of Dorothea Kumpke Roberts career is not be underestimated. She and other women of her era, like Annie Jump Cannon, did almost all of the work in cataloging the heavens. Their pioneering work laid the foundations for the future progress of modern astronomy. All of today's astronomers stand on their shoulders. Minor Planets MP 339 Dorothea and MP 1040 Klumpkea were named after Dorothea Klumpke Roberts, Pioneer Woman Astronomer and life member of the Eastbay Astronomical Society.



Dorothea Klumple-Roberts bibliography

collected by Don Stone, Eastbay Astronomical Society.

Major Publications:
Preparation of many of the Carte du Ciel (star charts (1891 - 1901)

"A Night in a Balloon: An Astronomer's trip from Paris to the Sea in Observation of the Leonids" Century magazine (1900)

"Isaac Roberts Atlas of 52 Regions, A Guide to William Herschel's Fields of Nebulosity" (1929); consisting of two atlases, two catalogues and a supplement (1932)

Awards and Honors:

  • Prix des Dames (1889) from the Sociétié des Astronomique de France (1st recipient of this award)
  • Officier d'Académe (1893) from the Paris Academy of Sciences.
  • Helene-Paul Helbronner prize from the French Academy of Sciences (1932)
  • Election as a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur (Feb., 22,1934)

Membership in Organizations and Societie:

  • American Astronomical Society
  • Astronomical Society of the Pacific
  • British Astronomical Association
  • Comité National Francaise d'Astronomique de France
  • EAS Life Membership (28 Jan. 1928)
  • International Astrophysical Union
  • Fellow, Royal Astronomical Society
  • Sociétié des Astronomique de France

Gifts and Endowments:
(1942) American Astronomical Society ($3,000) Which was to be used according to her instructions which were already known or as the AAS deems fit.

To the President and Council of the Astronomische Gesellshcaft ($100), To be warded to the writer of the best paper on some subject relating to Herschel's 52 areas.

(c.1939 -42) Astronomical Society of the Pacific ($2000) Klumpke-Roberts Lecture Fund (Named in honor of her parents and husband) Interest to be used to sponsor a variety of educational programs, including a series of Klumpke-Roberts lectures, Renamed (1974) The Klumpke-Roberts Award. This international honor is awarded yearly to honor an individual or group making significant contributions to the public understanding of astronomy.

Paris Observatory ($100): For years she had sent money to the Director of the Paris Observatory to be given to the younger members of the staff.

(unkn) Sociétié des Astronomique de France ($ unknown): Bequest to be used to, reestablish the Prix des Dames (Which had been discontinued for some years)

(5/31/39) University of California ($2,000): Dorothea Klumpke-Roberts Prizes (one in the department of astronomy, one in the department of mathematics) to honor her father, mother and husband with two awards of equal value to be given to undergraduate students who had shown ability in their chosen field.


  1. Aitken, Robert G. "Dorothea Klumpke-Roberts," PASP, Dec 1942, vol. 54, pp. 217.

  2. Bracher, Katherine, "Dorothea Klumke-Roberts: A Forgotten Astronomer," in Mercury, Sep/Oct 1981, pp. 109, and photographs.
  3. Eastbay Astronomical Assn., Copy of lrtter, March 30,1934.

  4. Klumpke-Roberts, Dorothea, A Night in a Balloon," Century Magazine," 1900, vol. 60, pp. 276.

  5. Klumpke-Roberts, [Title unknown] PASP, 1937, vol. 49, pp. 115-117.

  6. Reynolds, J. "Dorothea Klumpke-Roberts," Monthly Notioes of the R.A.S. ,1944. vol 104, #2, pp. 92.

  7. Rogers, David, "Window in the Wilderness," The Double Cone Quarterly Spring Equinox, 2000, vol III., No. 1

  8. Weitzenboffer, Kenneth, "The Triumph of Dorothea Kumpke." 8/1986, Sky & Telescope, pp. 1 109, and photographs.

Minor Planet 339 Dorothea was discovered on September 25, 1892 by M. F. Wolf, Heidelberg

Minor Planet 1040 Klumpkea was discovered on January 20, 1925 by B. Jekhovsky, Algiers



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