Judith L. Pipher

Dr. Judith L. Pipher, an infrared astronomer, has a career that people at the first women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848, could not even imagine. Her work as an astrophysicist at two acclaimed universities, Cornell University and the University of Rochester, is a significant first among women’s achievements.

Dr. Pipher, a native of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, graduated from the University of Toronto where she majored in astronomy. After graduation, she moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York State, and began graduate study at Cornell University in Ithaca. Along with her part-time study, she taught science classes at the high school and college level. Her doctoral study led her to research in the new field of infrared and submillimeter astronomy. She became the first woman to pursue this brand new research into ultra sensitive light detection of celestial bodies.

She received her Ph.D. from Cornell in 1971 and then joined the faculty of the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Rochester, where she became the founder of a group of observational infrared astronomers. For the next 31 years she taught full time at the University of Rochester and continued her astronomy research, which included a highly successful and frequently initiated partnership between academic and industrial research groups.

As one of the first US astronomers to turn an infrared array camera to the skies, she and her colleagues in 1983 were able to take the first telescopic infrared pictures of starburst galaxies. After her retirement as a full-time professor in 2002, the same year she received the Susan B. Anthony Lifetime Achievement Award, her involvement in infrared technology continued.

In 2003 the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope was launched. Dr. Pipher helped design aspects of this telescope which features infrared detector arrays. It is being used to study the distant universe, and clusters of forming stars and brown dwarfs, huge planet-like objects.

Dr. Pipher was a member of numerous astronomical organizations and the author of more than 200 scientific articles and papers. She chaired or served on a number of national committees that determine astrophysics funding for NASA and the National Science Foundation.


From the National Women’s Hall of Fame archives:

Oral history:

Below, Dr. Judith Pipher takes us through her early years as a girl charting the stars, her education and training, and her career as a trail-blazing professional astronomer. In this interview, “The mother of infrared astronomy” tells us about inventing and using the specialized cameras that dramatically expanded the reach of telescopes, enabling us to glimpse distant reaches of the universe and better understand its history. Along the way, we hear what its like to discover and nurture one’s intellectual passion while working as a woman in what continues to be a mostly male field. Her stories and reflections form an inspiring constellation of their own: a picture of women in science in the twentieth century and beyond.


Daniel Hastings: Recording       Bree von Bradsky: Editing

Year Honored: 2007
Birth: 1940 - 2022
Born In: Canada
Achievements: Education, Science
Worked In: New York, Canada, United States of America
Educated In: New York, Canada, United States of America
Schools Attended: Cornell University, University of Toronto