Valentine’s Day is Just Around the Corner!

The Personal and Professional Partnership of Helen Hogg and Frank Hogg

First posted Friday, February 12, 2021 /  Yom shishi, 30 Shevat, 5781

By David Orenstein

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner! Breakout the chocolates and the wine! Breakfast in bed until noon with all the weekend papers, followed by a long romantic walk in your neighbourhood.  And let me tell you a story from the history of Canadian astronomy.

Helen Hogg and Frank Hogg were a married couple, parents and accomplished professional astronomers with a yen for collecting old books.

Helen Battles Sawyer was born August 1, 1905, in Lowell, Massachusetts. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1926, where Anne S. Young (1871-1961) was her Astronomy professor. From there Helen went to the Harvard College Observatory to study under its director Harlow Shapley (1885-1972). Helen obtained her master’s and doctorate from Radcliffe College, because back then Harvard did not grant degrees to women.

Frank Scott Hogg was born in Preston Ontario, July 26, 1904. He completed his undergraduate degree, also in 1926, at the University of Toronto, and won the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Gold Medal. His Astronomical mentor was Clarence Augustus Chant (1865-1956). Frank, too, did graduate studies Harvard, where his thesis supervisor was Cecilia Payne (1900-1979).

Once at Harvard, Frank and Helen met, fell in love, and became engaged. They married September 6, 1930, followed by a year when Helen taught astronomy at Mount Holyoke and Frank worked at the Amherst College Observatory. In 1931 they moved to Victoria, where Frank was taking up a position at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, directed by J. S. Plaskett (1865-1941).

In 1935, they were in Toronto for the University’s new David Dunlap Observatory with its 74” telescope. There they remained until Frank’s early death, January 1, 1951. Chant, who we have met in a previous blog, wrote this poignant obituary of his protégé in the January-February, 1951, issue of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada:


Helen retired in 1976 and passed on January 28, 1993. Helen’s student  Christine Clement and RASC historian Peter Broughton co-wrote Helen’s JRASC Obituary:


But since it’s just two days before Valentine’s Day, let’s look at the time between their engagement and their marriage:


“What counts is whether to judge you by your actions or your words… totally at variance with one another [wrote Helen to Frank, sometime in August 1928]. (I omit a few beastly actions such as sending back my pink.)

“The minister spent last evening with me and comes for the final word on Monday night…Send me a few lines of wisdom and moral support … so I shall get them on Monday. Probably I shan’t dare open the letter until the interview is over, for fear of the go-to-it advice it will contain.

“Anything you write me now has to stand for all eternity – and I am forced to accept it at its face value, without hearing your tone of voice…. [N]o matter what happens, this year with you means more to me than the rest of my life under these adverse conditions. You are my star – though the rope hitching me to you is severed.”

From September 1929 to May 1930, they exchanged letters daily. Frank was in Europe on the Parker post–doctoral travelling fellowship and Helen was stuck at Harvard trying with great frustration to complete her Ph.D. on the variable stars in globular star clusters. Frank embarked for England on the Bremen from New York on September 11. 1929.In his first letter from England on Saturday, 21, 1929, from 65 Victoria Road, Cambridge England, he wrote:

“Light of life!

“I kept tryst with you at 11:pm. Oh, Angel you have to be mine forever.”

“Keeping tryst” is regularly noted by Frank. Every Wednesday at 11:00 pm GMT they would have a long distance date. Helen and Frank would simultaneously meditate on each other and their love, despite the time difference, a trivial problem for trained astronomers to solve.

As typical in these letters, Frank describes the physical details of his circumstances:

“My lodgings are a pleasant place. The lady has left me a clean towel and a vase of flowers and set the fire in the fireplace.”

Frank would also describe his academic and scientific events. In the same letter:

“Sally, you should have seen our dinner party in the Caius College Common Room. The six of us (whom he identifies) ate off a great ancient walnut table in a room 500 years old, off college plates with old college crest silver – and drunk from great silver mugs, and the service was from platters and trays of silver with Caius crest.”

Frank also reports on his efforts to build up the furnishings for their future home. “I bought a little tea caddy spoon which looked like a nut spoon.”

He signs off “Forever F.” and with the mathematical “limit as n tends to infinity of X (for kisses) to the power n to the n to the n to the n and so on.”

While Frank’s letters are filed loosely in general chronological order (but with some exceptions), Helen’s are sewn together in groups. They’re also noteworthy for several excisions.

Her earliest transatlantic letter I read is dated Monday, October14, 1929:

“The sun shines bright sat the littul [sic] HCO.

“Dr. S. met me and closed his office door and said ‘How are you coming with Holyoke?’ I told him I would go and he thought it was best.

“Margaret Walton is the only person against my taking it: “You have to make a break when you get married.” Dr. Mitchell had wanted her at Swarthmore for a year to work the 24”, research, but she got married instead.” Sunday, October 20, 1929. Please note that Helen was serving as the Chart Curator for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO):

“Friday at the Ob I got your Oct. 6 letter. [Implying a 12-day transatlantic voyage] I worked on TU Cass[iopeiae] for my curator’s report. Clyde Fisher talked on the Zeiss planetarium at 8, and I met Miss Young there. The Shapleys invited people to meet the prominent AAVSOers but I wasn’t invited. How I hated Dr. S for it!

“After lunch I gave my paper on TU Cass with a huge chart of curves but being after much most people slept. Then Rosseland spoke on the aurora.

“At the AAVSO Council meeting in Building A, Brown and Pickering smoked constantly. Mr. Wetherell attached himself to me and we had a great time. Naturally I didn’t move a hair or make…[the rest of the passage is cut out. Hmmm.]

After this excision Helen continues:

“Many after dinner speeches, and then [Name excised] with his inevitable slides. And Frankie, then he showed us! ‘Here is the beginning of the romance,’ he said, ‘chaperoned by Miss Swope and Miss Ames.’

“Priscilla and Jan Bok were holding hands brazenly all evening. They knew each other 14 days in Europe; he arrived in New York September 7 and they married September 9.”

Was Helen hinting at something to Frank?

The Loves of the Astronomers continues:

“And Peter Millman! Miss Mabell Gill had him to herself all day long. I hope it was only temporary.”

The following Tuesday, Helen wrote:

“Dear Angel

My TU Cassiopeiae article is all done except inking the drawing, a very painstaking piece of work. You’ll be proud of your wife a month hence, when you go to the Ob and pick up the Harvard Bulletin.”

Their friend Harry Plaskett had reduced the enrolment in the Astronomy 1 course to 55 from 125 the previous year by setting a trigonometry prerequisite. Regarding her own approach to teaching “I’ll run my Mont Holyoke courses next year to inspire my students with a general love of astronomy so that they’ll love it all their days.”

Regarding their separation by an ocean, “I am sure I am accomplishing more work than if you were around. And you will probably get more done, too.

“I want you terribly sometimes, but then how proud we shall be of each other.

“Goodnight, dearest one,


Then on Wednesday, Helen wrote that the noted Dutch astronomer Anton Pannekoek was staying overnight with the Boks and that “Mrs. Shapley gave a tea for him this afternoon” and Helen provides the 14 person guest list. Helen and Pannekoek had worked together on clusters that morning.

Considering her “reading of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms has made me want children but also to do something worthwhile before that.”

Helen did share the tryst: “I would like a midweek tryst with you. I always think of you at 6 o’clock on Wednesday night because that is when I last saw you. So you concentrate on me then, will you?

“Goodnight dear lambkin”

Or Sunday, October 27

“And to think I missed writing twice in one week.

“This afternoon I listened to the Harvard-Dartmouth game: Harvard 7 – Dartmouth 34.”

Helen was having a struggle with her family over getting married to Frank and over taking a job at Mount Holyoke College or heading to Victoria’s Dominion Astrophysical Observatory with Frank. It seems we “must pay the price for being intellectually advanced. My epitaph will read ‘Here lies a girl who tried too hard to please everybody.’”

Their time in Victoria at the DAO, was very productive, both personally and professionally, but that’s another story.


Archival Sources

Please click here to access the finding aids for the archival materials used in this post:



CSTHA acknowledges the support and generosity of the University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services, which made these records available for use in this blog post.


Annotated Bibliography

1) Frank Hogg,  Frank Scott Hogg fonds (1929), 0.13 metres of textual records, Archives B1982-0026, U of T Archives & Records Management Services (UTARMS)

This fonds consists of notebooks of stellar observations for Frank Hogg’s PhD thesis at Harvard University.

2) Helen Hogg et al, Helen Battles Sawyer Hogg fonds (18–1993), 16.59 metres of multimedia records, consisting of accruals:Archives B1982-0025, B1992-0016, B1994-0002, B1996-0020, B1997-0028, B2009-0021. U of T Archives & Records Management Services (UTARMS)

The letters cited here are from Helen Battles Sawyer Hogg fonds at the University of Toronto Archives accrual B1994-0002 (the main accrual). It has material from the 1800s to Helen’s death in 1993 that runs for 16.59 metres of multimedia records. I could tell you about about many happy days (especially during blizzards or heat waves) spent perusing these files in climate controlled comfort. But that’s another story.

3) Helen Hogg, The Stars Belong to Everyone (1976), xiii + 274 pp., Double Day Canada, Toronto.

Helen Hogg wrote a popular astronomy book, The Stars Belong to Everyone (1976), based on her weekly popular astronomy columns published in the Toronto Star. In it she acknowledges the help of “my husband, the late Professor Frank S. Hogg….[and] my sons Dr. David E. Hogg for careful perusal of the manuscript and James S. Hogg for comments, and my daughter, Mrs. Sally L. MacDonald, for all the typing and extensive checking”, along with many other people and institutions.

4) Richard A. Jarrell, The Cold Light of Dawn (1988), xi + 251 pp., University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Richard Jarrell’s  (1946-2013) The Cold Light of Dawn (1988). It’s a general history of Canadian Astronomy written by this fondly missed York University professor. It was based on his Ph. D. thesis at the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST).

Richard was a key person in he founding and the life of the Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association (CSTHA). But that too is another story.

5) R. Peter Broughton,

a) Looking Up: A  History Of The Royal Astronomical Society Of Canada (1994), xvi +  288pp., Dundurn Press, Toronto.

b) Northern Star: S. Plaskett (2018), xxi + 539 pp., University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

There I are only two other monographs on the history of Astronomy in Canada, that I know of, published in the last fifty years. Both are by retired Toronto high school mathematics teacher Peter Broughton (1940- ). Looking Up is a 1994  history of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). Northern Star (2018) is a biography of J. S. Plaskett (1865-1941), the founding director of Victoria, B.C.’s, Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO).

Peter is himself a leading figure in the history of the RASC, having served as National President, among other roles. But that, yet again, is another story.

I don’t know of any other monographs that deal with solely with the the history of Canadian Astronomy, in any language,  that have been published in the last half century. I’ve even checked the catalogue of the University of Toronto Libraries, but to no avail. All three of these books talk about Frank and Helen, but so does the children’s book, by Michael Webb, about Helen.

6) Michael Webb, Helen Sawyer Hogg: A Lifetime of Stargazing  (1991), iv + 28 pp. Copp Clark Putnam, Mississauga, Ontario

Webb “thanks … Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg for her comments and support during this project. Also, special thanks to Francesca Verre, aged 11, for reading the manuscript.” It’s well-illustrated by such gems as a 1911 photo showing the six year old Helen at the steering wheel of the family car, while sitting on her father’s lap. It has a one page index and a two page glossary.

7) Dava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (2006), xii + 323 pp.

Sobel has several references to Helen and Frank, as on p. 218: “[I]n 1926 … [t]he new Agassiz Fellowship allowed the admission of Frank S. Hogg …. Mr. Hogg’s arrival coincided with that of the new Pickering Fellow, Helen B. Sawyer …. It soon became apparent that Mr. Hogg, who analyzed the spectra of comets, and Miss Sawyer,  who studied star clusters, awakened a more than a scientific interest in each other.”

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