Ruby Payne-Scott, the first woman radio astronomer, was born on 28 May 1912 in Grafton, New South Wales, Australia. [The photo is of her as a student in the 1930s.]

Payne-Scott started at Sydney University at 16 and became their third female physics graduate. She went on to work at the Cancer Research Institute from 1936 to 1938 before a brief transition into teaching - the result of a shortage of jobs for female physicists. Shortly after this, she joined AWA, a prominent electronics manufacturer and operator of two-way radio communications systems in Australia. Although originally hired as a librarian, her work quickly expanded to leading the measurements laboratory and performing electrical engineering research.

But having grown displeased with its research environment, she left AWA in August 1941 and joined the Radiophysics Laboratory of the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). During World War II, she was engaged in top secret work investigating radar technology, becoming Australia's expert on the detection of aircraft using Plan Position Indicator (PPI) displays.

After the war, radio astronomy began to develop in Australia, as elsewhere. Payne-Scott carried out some of the key early solar radio astronomy observations at Dover Heights (Sydney). In the years 1945 to 1947, she discovered three of the five categories of solar bursts originating in the solar corona and made major contributions to the techniques of radio astronomy.

But there were obstacles for women. One of the petty problems she had to argue against was the expectation that women should wear skirts rather than shorts (such fun when you’re climbing up ladders and aerials). More serious were the issues of equal pay (reduced to 75% of the male rate in 1949 for anyone new to the organisation) and the requirement for women who got married to resign. In fact, Ruby married in 1944 but the CSIRO administration didn’t find this out until 1950.

Mona Evans
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