Helen Hogg and Frank Hogg at Victoria, B.C.’ s, Dominion Astrophysical Observatory

First posted St. George’s Day, Friday, April 23, 2021 / Yom shishi, 11 Iyyar, 5781

By David Orenstein


Celebrating “Mathematical Marriages”,  April 29-30, 2021

Just two days before Valentine’s Day I was telling you about Helen Hogg and Frank Hogg: a married couple, parents and accomplished Canadian professional astronomers. Also how they met at the Harvard College Observatory, married in September, 1930, and headed to Victoria’s Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in 1931 for Frank’s new job.

Helen and Frank’s partnership, both personal and professional, is  an excellent example of the sort of “Mathematical Marriages” being celebrated  next week at the online conference being hosted by the British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM):


It’s a two day event Thursday, April 29 and Friday, April 30. As is usual for international online events, coordinating time zones is a concern. The United Kingdom is now on British Summer Time (BST). BST = GMT + 1hr  = UTC + 1hr =  EST + 6hr = (EDT – 1hr) + 6hr = EDT + 5h. Here in Toronto, with Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), the correction is: EDT = BST- 5h.

The only reason these calculations have been so simple is thanks to the great Canadian engineer Sir Sandford Fleming and his tireless efforts to establish Standard Time Zones. But that’s another story.


Starting at the DAO

From The Canadian Encyclopedia online:

“In 1931, the couple moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where Frank was hired to work at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (see Observatory). During the Great Depression, according to their daughter, Sally MacDonald, public institutions were not allowed to hire both husband and wife, but Helen received permission to use the facility’s large telescope to carry out unpaid astronomical research on star clusters. In addition to the restriction on hiring spouses, few women were allowed access to the observatory, since it was deemed inappropriate to work alone with men at night. Ironically, the same factor that may have prevented Sawyer Hogg from being hired — her husband’s employment at the observatory — thus allowed her to use the facility for research.”

With the Hogg Papers at U of T still inaccessible due to the pandemic, luckily I have to hand photocopies of Correspondence from pre-COVID19 visits. They’re from every year of  their stay in Victoria except 1933.

By the end of 1931 the Hoggs were comfortably settled in Victoria. December 30, Helen wrote back to her family in Massachusetts:

“Dear Family,

Including “a check for five dollars from Cousin Effie… we are thinking of spending our Christmas money … and buying us a dinner set in semi-porcelain for 16 dollars, in English china. This is a fine place to buy English china….

“Lucie [amusingly] …sent the letter to Mrs. Frank Hogg, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and tucked down in the lower left, Observatory….My dear sister has several times sent things to the Astrological Observatory. They arrive … but I blush every time.

“Last night F. was supposed to observe but it was cloudy. So we made … about 25 pictures of our house that I am going to send in the thank you letters.

“By accident I found an article Cecilia [Payne] had published in the Harvard Bulletin. She used charts sent by [the Dominion Observatory]… never mentioning Ottawa, stating it was a Harvard project. Well, … she didn’t checked up on them and published 9 pictures which were absolutely wrong…. She published the corrections, putting the whole blame on Ottawa, saying… the mistakes were found at Har-r-r-r-rvard…. F. and I are tickled she got caught.”

December 31, 1931

“Dear Ellie,

Thank you for “our Christmas presents…. I love the scarf…. And Frank is very keen on his pipe. [It] will give him hours of solid comfort.

“We no longer have the gorgeous academic vacations; but our work is done at 4:30 every day, except for observing nights when we have the next day off… When I say we I mean Frankie. I can leave any time. But I always come to work with him, and keep regular civil service hours, even though, there is no one especially concerned in having me, and of course, there is no money in it. So far I have not really … worked for this observatory. I have been working on …what I did in Cambridge in July. I am still Chart Curator [for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) ]…; though now I don’t have to hurry it is really a pleasure to fool around with it.

“Christmas Day… we took the day easy because Frank was scheduled to observe that night, and of course it cleared off, and we had to come out and work till two.

“We are happily located in… dear little house just half way between” the Observatory and Victoria. “It has four rooms, all large… and we rattle around in it because our furniture is mighty scanty.

“Our office window commands the most glorious view of the southern portion of the island, looking out across the ocean to the Olympic range in Washington…. I would come out here very day even if I didn’t work just for the view.”

January 4, 1932:

“When Frankie is on Saturday night, we don’t go to the Ob in the morning, because Saturday night you have… visitors, clear or cloudy. It was cloudy, so …only half a dozen people. The Japanese Consul came with his retinue…. I stayed in the nice warm office building all the time, so I didn’t meet them.

“Yesterday I sorted through the Christmas Cards and tabulated the list. Unfortunately the list does not correspond with the list of those we sent… Also am enclosing the list of presents we received.

“For the first time in its career Wishbone [their car] lay down on us …. [Its] coil had become watersoaked and split… We could sell it now for about $400 …. Cars are more expensive here, [so] we could sell it anytime here for more than we paid….”

“We had a fine party at the Plaskett’s Friday night. There was another young couple there, minister and his wife…. We had a grand turkey dinner, and stuffed accordingly.”

Most of those Christmas cards came from family and friends back east, but also from fellow astronomers: HCO’s Henrietta Swope, the Harpers among fellow DAO staff, Adrian van Maanen and, of course, Prof. and Mrs. [Clarence Augustus] Chant. The presents included Isabel’s etching of the University of Toronto., Miss Anne Young: Maw’s Vacation-Book on Yellowstone and Mrs. Hogg’s baby pillow cover, leatherbound Tennyson, and Lawrence in Arabia. Helen’s mother had sent a varied package including “2 pairs of stockings… Reader’s Digest and 5 Milky Way’s.”

Most importantly:

“Frankie to me – wooden puzzles, Perfume, Coral brooch

“Me to Frankie – Yardley’s shaving soap, Mennen’s talc, Candy potatoes in crate, White silk scarf (half knit)”

In addition to that scarf, Helen was working on a vest and also fingerless gloves for Frank to wear while working in the unheated observatory on frigid winter nights. She would maintain her knitting activities, along with her astronomical research late in life. A Hands magazine article from 1985, when Helen was 81, reported :”Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg knits astronomical baby booties: long socks with a built in bend that cover the knees….[They] are treasured by families all over the world- she has knitted a pair for every new arrival amongst her friends in the vast astronomical network.” See <file:///Users/davidandjenny/Downloads/HelenHoggHandsMagazine1985byEllenMichelson.pdf>

This was the depression. On Saturday, February 13, Helen wrote: “We have had another financial blow. The civil service commission has announced that there will be no raises this year. We were due for a $120 raise. But with the 5% pension, and 10% cut, and no raise, we are down 20%…. Frankie has suggested we name the baby Bennett after the [author] of such a nice birthday gift. Of course it isn’t [Prime Minister R. B.] Bennett’s fault, he is doing the best he can. Frankie says whatever we call the baby… the kids in school will call it “Piggy”. … The child won’t mind, for will be smarter than all the rest in school.”

Helen and Frank also hosted DAO colleagues:


Friday, January 8, 1932

“Dear Family


“I had invited the [William Edmund] Harper family, Mr. and Mrs. and daughter Evelyn for dinner last night. So I stayed home all day yesterday getting ready for them.… Well I had a swell dinner ready for the Harpers. I cleaned the silverware and everything…. The menua  [sic] I  fed them way[sic]; cream of tomato soup with whipped cream, porterhouse steak with mashed potatoes, buttered carrots, loganberry jelly, salted cherries and ripe olives, maple tapioca pudding with whipped cream, and slated [sic] almonds, and coffee…. They  are not very fluent conversationalists, and we wondered how we would spend the evening because they are terribly holy and don’t believe in cards. So I bethought me of Auntie’s puzzle…, and it took up nearly two hours of time. They went about 11, and then I did all the diskes [sic] so they wouldn’t get stuck.”


Public Life

Both Helen and Frank were able to be part of the wider social life on Victoria, being active in the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), and with other Victoria societies, often as guest speakers. often reported on the local newspapers.

In that same Friday, January 8, 1932, letter (cited previously) Helen noted, “To-day Frankie is giving a colloquium. I forgot to tell you that I have to give a lecture before the Professional Women’s Club on Monday night.”

“D.A.O.  Tue sday [sic], Janu. 12

“Dear Family


“Last night was my lecture in town and I had a corker time. It was held… at the Y.W.C.A. They had a dinner party first … [with] two long tables, beautifully decorated with chrsanthemums [sic] and ferns…. We had a dandy dinner … [:] soup and olives and pickles and clery [sic], then roast chicken, huge slices, mashed potato, creamed caulfilower [sic], peas, bread, wonderful pineapple [next page] pie, and coffee…. I talked on ‘The Work of Contemporary Women Astronomers’, told them a lot about  … Miss Cannon, and the girls at Harvard. I think they enjoyed it, and understood parts. I had over 50 lovely pictures and they thought those were grand. The funny part was that that I forgot to tell them what I was doing myself….

“Lots of love  Helen”

From the Journal of  The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (JRASC) for November 1931, at the Victoria Centre RASC meeting on “September, 1931, … [t]he subject for discussion for the evening was finding the Distances of the Stars. The various methods were described as follows:

(d) Spectroscopic Method, Galactic Rotation Method, and Inter-Stellar Calcium Method, Dr. Frank Hogg of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.”

DAO Director J.S. Plaskett thanked the symposium’s speakers and summarised what they had said.

January 1932’s JRASC, listed “Dr. Frank Hogg” as one of the Victoria Centre’s Councillor’s on its executive elected November 24, 1931.

A Week in the Life

Let’s look at their life during one week, Friday, May 25, to Saturday, June 2, 1934. They were well established at the DAO, Frank as a staff astronomer, Helen able to pursue her research but without any pay, two year old daughter Sally and a maid, Lily.

On Thursday, May 24, Frank and Helen took a ferry boat excursion to Seattle. “ten hours on the boat for only $2.50 each. First on land we went to Don’s Sea Food and had a bunch of fried scallops, to which I had been looking forward for three years. And were they good. Yum yum. Seventy-five cents….”

They also “went to a stamp dealer…and learned a great deal…. Then we bought Cecilia a lovely Eskimo basket… $3.50, a good buy…. We bought Sally a little aluminum tea set.

“We enjoyed the ride home far more…. It was a lovely evening, though a little cloudy, and we did enjoy sitting in the closed deck, watching the sea and sky…. [A]s we neared Victoria it was Queen Victoria’s Birthday…. As we came into the inner harbor, the fireworks… were right above our heads… glorious.

“Lily took Sally to [Beacon Hill] Park, first time she has been on a bus.

“Have been out to the Ob measuring all day. Still have four more hours astronomy to get in….”

Monday, May 28’s letter was marked “PRIVATE”. First “Frankie has finished the doll’s cradle for Sally…. [B]uilt on old fashioned lines [it] rocks beautifully and [is] made of B. C. cedar.” Helen then asks for help in making the mattress and the bedding.

After this momentous announcement, Helen shares the news that “Frank has been offered a position at the University of Toronto.” This would be as a Lecturer in the Astronomy Department at $2400 per year and as an astronomer at the soon to be opened David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill. “An annual increase of $150 is guaranteed, so that in two years Frank would be asst. prof…. “

“Frank and I have terrible cold feet on leaving Victoria….[W]hat is appalling is the finality of the decision. Chant assured us that he was counting on Frank for this job…. [T]hat… made Victoria seem like a pleasant interlude or a desirable permanent position.… We would be flinging away a moderate climate for a harsh one – a small town location for a huge city… – cheap rents for expensive – cheap household help for expensive – magnificent surroundings….

“There is no job available for me at Toronto, but … something might break in time…. I am sure I can never get a paying job here. [O]nce Mr. Harper [succeeds Dr. Plaskett] I cannot even count on support toward my own research…. Certainly my future in Toronto is more cheerful.”

Thurs., May 31: “[M]y astronomy [is] coming fine this week as I had done 19 ½ [periods] by last night. I hope to get over 30.” Helen sent some postage stamps home. “We are still in a stew about Toronto.”

“This is Lily’s afternoon off… a real vacation from my office work. I do mending and play with Sally until Frank comes home and then we usually take a trip downtown, and Sally helps shop.”

Sat. June 2: Moore discussion of stamps. “My greatest love is for plate numbers on U.S. commems. I have 75 different… missing about… 300.

“The director returned yesterday… but we have not seen him to talk yet” about the job in Toronto.

“We will sleep this afternoon, and we are both going to the Ob to-night… My hours have come wonderfully this week… 31 ¼ already….But I have so many astronomical jobs… that I’m working for.

“For Sally’s birthday she would love a small floor mop.” Which couldn’t be found in Victoria or Seattle.

But soon they would be off to Toronto and the University’s new observatory in Richmond Hill, the David Dunlop Observatory. Helen even wrote home about the DDO’s May 31, 1935, official opening. But that’s another story.




Annotated Bibliography

1) 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 the Helen Battles Sawyer Hogg fonds at the University of Toronto Archives accrual B1994-0002, Box 053

2)  Journal of The Royal Astronomical Society Of Canada (JRASC)

  1. A. Chant was the editor during this period (1904-1956), with Frank going on to be Assistant Editor (1937-1951)

3) Ellen Michelson, “Astronomical Booties: Canada’s distinguished astronomer shares pattern for practical booties that stay put”. Hands July/August 1985, p. 28

4)  Peter Millman “Hogg, Frank Scott”, p.1091ab and “Hogg-Priestley, Helen Battles” p. 1091b in The Canadian Encyclopedia, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto

I have the edition from 2000, James H. Marsh as Editor-in-Chief , with lxvi + 2573 pp. Peter Millman was a colleague of Helen and Frank at the DDO. Here I cite the online edition.

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