Martha Betz Shapley was born on August 3, 1890 in Kansas City, Missouri. Her husband was Harlow Shapley, a well known astronomer and director of the Harvard College Observatory for many years. What has not been so well known is that she was an accomplished mathematician and also herself an astronomer.

Martha Betz met Harlow Shapley at the University of Missouri. In later life he reminisced:
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.

Although a mathematician, she went on to go to Bryn Mawr College to work for a Ph.D. in Teutonic philology. From there, she made frequent visits to Princeton, where Shapley was doing his Ph.D. under Henry Norris Russell. They married after he finished his Ph.D and he persuaded her to give up her Ph.D to go to California where they both went to work as astronomers at Mount Wilson Observatory.

Martha carried out work on eclipsing binary systems and produced a series of papers “that represented outstanding contributions for the time.” She also collaborated with her husband and they produced some joint papers.

When Harlow Shapley was appointed Director of the Harvard Observatory, they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She continued her work on eclipsing binaries for awhile but with five children, she began to focus on the family and to act as hostess at the observatory.

During World War II, however, Martha 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 :-
... 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 (co-authored with Zdeněk Kopal), her last contribution to astronomy.

The Princeton Alumni Weekly interviewed her in 1964 and reported that
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.

[Source: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive]

Mona Evans
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