After your visit to the Volta Laboratory & Bureau, take a five minute walk to the Georgetown University Astronomical Observatory at the juncture of 37th and O Streets NW. Completed in 1844, the observatory is the third oldest in the United States. Some of the most notable astronomical research of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was conducted at this location.
While the field of astronomy is often associated with men, women contributed to the field and made groundbreaking discoveries. Vera Rubin’s research is one example of how women contributed to the field. Rubin originally wanted to attend Princeton University, but the school only accepted male students. Instead, she enrolled in Georgetown University’s astronomy program and received her PhD in 1954.
Entering Georgetown’s doctoral program at 23, Rubin was already a mother of one and was pregnant with her second child. She went on to have four children, all while making some of the most groundbreaking research of the twentieth century. Her work revealed evidence of dark matter. Scientists believe dark matter makes up about 80-90% of the universe. In 1993, Rubin was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Bill Clinton and her work continues to inform our understanding of space today.
While the Georgetown University Astronomical Observatory contributed to new discoveries, growing light pollution from Washington, DC limited viewing from the observatory. Georgetown eventually closed its Department of Astronomy in 1972. A year later the observatory was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Overby, Dennis. “Vera Rubin, 88, Dies; Opened Doors in Astronomy, and for Women.” New York Times (Dec 27, 2016),
“Georgetown University Astronomical Observatory,” DC Historic Sites, accessed May 10, 2018,http://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/773.