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Women Saints and Scientists You Should Know
The Inspiring Lives of Maria Skobtsova, Henrietta Leavitt, and Hildegard of Bingen
“If we want our girls to benefit from the courage and wisdom of the women before them,” said UN Ombudsman Shireen Dodson, “we have to share the stories.” As the father of two girls, I couldn’t agree more.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share the biographies of three courageous and wise women: Maria Skobtsova, Henrietta Leavitt, and Hildegard of Bingen. If you don’t know their stories, you definitely should. We’ll take them in reverse chronological order.
Maria Skobtsova, aka St. Maria of Paris
She wasn’t your standard nun. She was divorced twice. She smoked and drank. She lived not in a convent with other nuns but with a ragtag group of refugees and outcasts in a house in Paris. She was once an atheist. She died in a Nazi gas chamber.
Born in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1891, Elizaveta—the woman who would become St. Maria of Paris—moved to St. Petersburg as a young woman, circulated among literary and radical sets, and published poetry.
Elizaveta unluckily married, divorced, and then moved to Anapa on the coast of the Black Sea where she became mayor—but only temporarily. She married again, but the ongoing Bolshevik Revolution caught up with her and pushed her little family to emigrate, eventually arriving in Paris in 1923.
When Elizaveta’s daughter Anastasia died in 1926, her second marriage disintegrated. Her world in shambles, Elizaveta threw herself into social and charitable work—helping refugees and others who struggled pulling their lives together. She saw in these destitute and derelict “the very icon of God incarnate in the world . . . an awesome revelation.”
Sergei Hackel’s compelling biography, Pearl of Great Price, focuses primarily on events following Anastasia’s death and Elizaveta’s momentous decision to become a monastic. Her second marriage was formally dissolved in 1932 and she became a nun, taking the name Maria. She continued her charitable work, now fully part of her divine calling.
Never much concerned with her own appearance, she wore a shabby habit and men’s shoes. She could regularly be seen in such a getup at Les Halles, the main market in Paris, buying and begging food in the early morning hours to feed the people in her care. As she wrote in 1932,
I am intensely aware at present that any theory, however remarkable, is inevitably less valuable and less needed than any practical work, however unspectacular.
Or, as she put the same sentiment in verse,
There are no prophecies. Only life continuously acts as prophet.
Action proves more eloquent than words, and the severity of the circumstances did nothing but elevate the expression of her love.
When the Nazis invaded, she persisted in her work—and also resisted their efforts, tearing down recruitment posters, forging papers, sheltering Jews. Her subversion was eventually discovered, and she was taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she died in the gas chamber, possibly taking the place of another prisoner.
Incidentally, she died the day before Easter, 1945, a week and two days before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg. She is recognized as a righteous gentile for her efforts to preserve Jewish life during the war, and was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2004.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Harlow Shapley, head of the Harvard College Observatory, called her “one of the most important women to ever touch astronomy.” The Commission of Stellar Photometry referred to her as a pioneer.
Born on the Fourth of July, 1868, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, highly educated, and very eager by twenty-five years old to learn astronomy. She began as a volunteer at the Harvard College Observatory, which housed a massive telescope and which networked with other observatories. Eventually, she started earning 25 cents an hour! But for what exactly?
The telescopes produced a steady stream of photographic plates in negative—stars sprinkled like black specks across seas of white. Someone had to analyze all those specks. The trouble was there were too many.
“Astronomers were soon overwhelmed,” writes George Johnson in his treatment of Leavitt’s life, Miss Leavitt’s Stars. “That is where the computers came in.” Of course, this was a couple generations before the electronic and digital revolutions that occupied the second half of the twentieth century. “Computers” were people—usually women like Henrietta Leavitt—tasked with measurements, calculations, and the like.
“Early on,” says Johnson, “she was asked to look for ‘variables,’ stars that waxed and waned in brightness like slow-motion beacons.” Variables stood out by comparing pictures of the same stars taken over days or months. Leavitt proved adept at the chore, identifying a dizzying number of variables. The Washington Post even took note, reporting on her skills.
Though her work went beyond these variable stars, Leavitt’s greatest contribution to astronomy comes from her work with them. Studying the Magellanic Clouds she realized variability of stars indicated more than relative brightness, but also relative distance. In other words, by measuring the pulse of a star she might also measure how far away it was.
I say might because there was nothing yet to calibrate the measurement. Harlow Shapley, Leavitt’s eventual boss, later used her research to do exactly that, allowing him to calculate the length and breadth of the Milky Way. “Her discovery of the relation of period to brightness is destined to be one of the most significant results of stellar astronomy,” Shapley wrote at the time.
That was just the start. Leavitt died in 1921, but astronomers indebted to her work used it to measure the heavens. None did so more famously than Edwin Hubble who formulated what’s known as “the Hubble constant—the number by which you divide a galaxy’s velocity to get its distance,” explains Johnson. “At its core lie Miss Leavitt’s stars.”
Would someone else eventually make the same discovery as Leavitt? Undoubtedly. But Leavitt got there first. Once, dealing with a particularly vexing variable, she said, “We shall never understand it until we find a way to send up a net and fetch the thing down!” But Leavitt did us one better: She helped us go up ourselves and compass the span of the universe.
St. Hildegard of Bingen
One woman who brings together aspects of both St. Maria and Henrietta Leavitt’s lives is their forebear in both faith and science, St. Hildegard of Bingen.
The first I ever heard of the twelfth-century abbess wasn’t in a book. It was an album of some of her music, performed by the medieval ensemble Sequentia. I was not quite twenty at the time and mostly enjoyed rock and hip hop. I liked classical and other forms of music as well, but nothing could have prepared me for Canticles of Ecstasy and medieval chant. More than two decades later, I still listen to that record while rock and hip hop have dimmed for me like one of Leavitt’s variable stars.
Hildegard might warrant our attention for her music alone, but she was far more than a composer. Writes biographer Fiona Maddocks,
She was a polymath: a visionary, a theologian, a preacher; an early scientist and physician; a prodigious letter writer who numbered kings, emperors and popes among her correspondents. She was an artist not only in the musical and literary sense but in painting and, it would seem, architecture.
By visionary, Maddocks means something other than our modern definition: a person who imagines a compelling future and attains it. From her childhood, Hildegard experienced overwhelming spiritual visions. For decades she rarely spoke of these visions and never wrote about them. Eventually though she gained confidence to put them to parchment.
Her first collection of visions, Scivias, which means Know the Way, won the approval of the pope and of readers in every generation since. Two more mystical-theological treatises followed, as did two scientific and medical treatises, two works of invented language, eighty or so songs, and a collection of nearly 400 letters sent from her position as a Benedictine abbess to bishops, secular rulers, monks, and fellow nuns.
Any of these works deserve recognition and exploration. But it’s worth focusing on her scientific and medical writings. Though primitive, her two books—Physica and Causae et Curae—nonetheless reflect immense learning and useful application. Writes Maddocks,
The Physica, consisting of nine books listing almost a thousand plants and animals in German, is a study of botany, zoology, stones, metals and elements, describing their physical and medicinal properties. Causae et Curae, as its title indicates, examines the causes and cures of diseases . . . and offering remedies, mainly using plants.
She was famous in her day for her curative methods but represents a wider movement toward medical advancement. Across Europe “monasteries became centres of healing and medical expertise,” writes Maddocks, “with their own elaborate herb gardens in which to grow their remedies.”
Many of her cures and recommendations strike moderns as hogwash; others are still in use. But the important thing was not her accuracy. As we saw with monk John Westwyk in Seb Falk’s The Light Ages, it was Hildegard’s curiosity and drive to explain that matters. Erring is part of scientific advancement; without venturing solutions, we never discover what works and what doesn’t.
While some have attempted to read Hildegard’s life as progressive or revolutionary, she was decidedly of her time—in ways that might even make some readers wince. But that is in many ways what makes her accomplishments so noteworthy.
The very same can and should be said for St. Maria and Henrietta Leavitt. Of their times, their achievements nonetheless speak across the years to challenge us in our own.
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