Martha Betz Shapley


Born: 3 August 1890 in Kansas City, Jackson County, Missouri, USA
Died: 24 January 1981 in Tucson, Pima County, Arizona, USA

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Martha Betz's family had emigrated from Hannover, Germany, to the United States in the 19th century. Her grandfather remembered seeing Caroline Herschel (who was then assisting her brother in observing comets) been driven in a coach through the streets of Hannover; so vividly in fact, that he told his granddaughter about it fifty years later. However, Martha's early education was not in astronomy. Her father, Carl Betz (1854-98), born in Illinois, was an educator and director of music in schools of Kansas City. He proposed that schools should promote physical education for their pupils and presented this idea to the Teacher's Institute of the Kansas City Public Schools. He put on shows of exercises set to music. For this innovation he received the Silver medal at the Paris Exposition in 1889 and the highest medal at the World's Expo in 1893. He transmitted his passion for music to his daughter, whose favourite pastime was playing music even late in her life. Martha's mother was Louise Wittig Betz (1865-1956), born in Terre Haute, Vigo County, Indiana. Martha had six siblings (one of them died as a baby): Annette (November 1886-1987), Alma (July 1888-1978), Egmont (February 1893-), G Ludwig (1895-1896), Carl (November 1896-) and Louise (December 1898-1988).

At the time of the 1900 census the Betz family were living at 430 Bellefontaine Avenue in Kansas City where Martha was attending school. Carl Betz had died two years earlier from an operation to remove his appendix and Louise was looking after the six children, greatly helped by the eldest daughter Annette who was thirteen years old. Ten years on, at the time of the 1910 census, the family were still living in the same house and Louise, the mother, was a self employed teacher taking private pupils. Annette and Alma were both teachers in public schools, Annette at Scarritt School and Alma at kindergarten. Martha, Egmont, Carl and Louise were all still in full time education.

Martha Betz had completed high school, been awarded a teacher's taught certificate and had taught for three years at grade school before entering the University of Missouri at the age of eighteen. From the University of Missouri she obtained a B.S.Ed. in 1910, an A.B. in 1911 and a Master's Degree in 1913. It was while she was a student that she met Harlow Shapley. She was an outstanding student, and a better mathematician than Shapley. In recalling his student days later in his life, Harlow Shapley wrote [3] (or [8]):-

[At the University of Missouri] in my third year, I met a brunette named Martha Betz, from Kansas City, and never got loose - or wanted to. We first met in a mathematics class - she sat in the front row and knew all the answers. She was a clever lady ... She took five full courses and got top marks in all of them.
In fact the mathematics class they met in was a trigonometry class and on their first date they went to a performance of some travelling Shakespeare players. Through Harlow Shapley, Martha Betz gained an interest in astronomy. He made her learn the Gregg shorthand system he had learnt as a reporter so that they could easily correspond after they went their separate ways following graduation. On Monday 15 April 1912 Martha Betz began working as a mathematics teacher at Westport High School at 315 East 39th Street, Kansas City. The school had been founded in 1907 but no longer functions today, having closed down in 2010.

The Evening Missourian on Friday 19 April 1912 reported [16]:-

Miss Martha Betz, a graduate student at the University, has accepted a position as teacher of mathematics in the Westport High School in Kansas City. Miss Betz began her work Monday. She was graduated in the class of 1911 and was working this year for her master's degree. She is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honorary Society.
One year on, 5 May 1913, the same paper reported [17]:-
Miss Martha Betz of Kansas City, a graduate of the University of Missouri, was given a resident fellowship in German. Miss Beta is a teacher at the Westport High School.
She went on to begin working for a Ph.D. in Teutonic philology at Bryn Mawr College. From there, she made frequent visits to Princeton, where Shapley was doing a Ph.D. under Henry Norris Russell. Since neither of the two astronomers was a dedicated mathematician, Kopal posits in [7] that Betz might have helped with the calculations of Shapley's Ph.D. thesis, the Princeton Observatory Contribution No. 3, which was hugely important for the study of eclipsing binary systems.

Betz and Shapley married on 15 April 1914 after Shapley completed his Ph.D. and he had persuaded Betz to give up her research for a Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr [1]:-

In April 1914, on his way from Princeton, New Jersey to Pasadena, California and the Mount Wilson Observatory, Shapley stopped in Kansas City, Missouri. His fiancée Martha Betz had arrived earlier from Bryn Mawr, and was waiting for him at her parents' home. They were married at her home by Dr George Hamilton Combs, a well-known pastor in the Disciples of Christ Church in Kansas. After the wedding they boarded a train for California. Harlow Shapley recollected, "It was a long trip, but I had some nice observations with me, and we worked on the orbits of eclipsing binaries on the honeymoon. Mrs Shapley was very quick at computing, so we enjoyed ourselves for a couple of days."
After their honeymoon they moved to the Mount Wilson Observatory, in California, where they started working as astronomers. At this time they lived in Los Robles, Pasadena, Los Angeles. While Harlow Shapley went on to study Cepheid variables, Martha Shapley continued his previous work in eclipsing binaries. She produced a series of papers dedicated to computing the elements and the variation of the periods of eclipsing systems that represented outstanding contributions for the time. Her work includes The period of U Cephei (1916) and The Light Curve and Orbital Elements of the Eclipsing Binary Y Leonis (1918), among others. She also collaborated several times in her husband's research, for example in their jointly authored paper The Light Curve of XX Cygni as a Contribution to the Study of Cepheid Variation (1915) and in Studies Based on the colors and magnitudes in stellar clusters (1919).

In 1921, Harlow Shapley was appointed Director of the Harvard Observatory. Martha Shapley accompanied him and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, she continued her work on eclipsing binaries for a while, publishing in the Harvard College Observatory Bulletin (for example, Note on the Orbit of TT Hydrae and Orbit of the Eclipsing Binary UW Virginis, in 1927), but soon her family of five children became her main focus. The children were Mildred (born 15 February 1915), Willis Harlow (born March 1917), Alan Horace (born March 1919), Lloyd Stowell (born 2 June 1923) and Carl Betz (born 11 October 1927). Let us say a little about some of these children.

Mildred Shapley married Ralph Matthews and she became Assistant Director of the Observatory in Trieste, Italy. Willis Harlow Shapley became a NASA official involved in developing the project to land a man on the moon. Alan Horace Shapley was Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and served as Vice-Chairman of the U.S. Committee for the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. Lloyd Stowell Shapley became a mathematician and economist at the RAND corporation then a professor at the University of California Los Angeles. He won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2012. Carl Betz Shapley worked for the National Gallery of Art, and then became a teacher in private schools going on to open his own private school in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Along with her husband, Martha Shapley also hosted many events for the astronomers of the Observatory as well as national and international guests. Zdeněk Kopal writes ([3] or [8]):-

... at Harvard Mrs Shapley's career as a warm and gracious hostess blossomed out to the full, entertaining with equal grace the rich and the poor, famous or humble (sometimes, as with Albert Einstein or Igor Stravinski, both in one person), the geniuses and amateurs, or scared undergraduates. The Shapleys loved to entertain; and any occasion for a party was welcomed. On each Friday nearest the full moon, when astronomical photography (and most astronomical work in those days was photographic) was curtailed by bright moonlight, Dr Shapley was the host to a Full-Moon Club at his home for graduate students as well as staff.
During the Second World War, Martha and her husband participated in humanitarian activities, finding a home for many Jewish families that had escaped from Europe. Martha, however, also undertook war work using her mathematical skills computing the trajectories of shells for the Navy. After the war, working with the same group, she [6]:-
... continued with measures of the positions of photographic meteors, and computations of their orbits, to provide readings of atmospheric density in the 50- to 100-mile-up area.
Once her children grew up and left the family home, Martha Shapley went back to her astronomical research. Her work culminated in Catalogue of the Elements of Eclipsing Binaries (1956, co-authored with Zdeněk Kopal), her last contribution to astronomy. It was based on a re-discussion of observational data on eclipsing binaries, using methods developed by Kopal and Piotrowski. Its contents eventually became out of date, but her work is still well regarded due to its excellent presentation.

Martha Shapley retired in 1952 to Sharon, New Hampshire, when her husband stepped down from his position in Harvard Observatory. Once Harlow Shapley died in 1972, she moved to Tucson Arizona, with her daughter Mildred Shapley Matthews and her grandchildren. There, she died at 90 years old. Martha Shapley is buried in North Cemetery, Sharon, New Hampshire, along with her husband and children.

Finally, let us quote from [6] concerning Martha Shapley's thoughts on her career:-

Mrs Shapley feels some regret at not having accomplished more on her own. She is not the kind of woman who can be wholly satisfied with credit for having helped her husband. She believes that a woman born with gifts, and she obviously was, has an obligation to use them, and not solely in her capacity as wife and mother.

Article by: I J Falconer, J G Mena, J J O'Connor, T S C Peres, E F Robertson, University of St Andrews.


List of References (19 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country


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  1. zbMATH entry


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JOC/EFR November 2018
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School of Mathematics and Statistics
University of St Andrews, Scotland

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