Marie Paris Pishmish de Recillas

Quick Info

30 January 1911
Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey
1 August 1999
Mexico City, Mexico

Paris Pishmish was a Turkish astronomer with a doctorate from Istanbul University advised by Finlay Freundlich. She was the first person employed to teach astronomy in Mexico with an astronomy doctorate. She spent most of her career in Mexico City and made substantial contributions to both teaching and research.


Paris Pishmish, the daughter of Soukias and Filomen Soukiassian, was born Mari Soukiassian. We note that Pishmish, sometimes written as Pismis, is a simplified version of Pişmiş. This is in fact a Turkish title, meaning "well ripe", which was given to a great-grandfather Mikayel Pishmish who was Minister of Finance in Turkey. Mikayel Pishmish was a member of the amira class, a small group of elite, wealthy Ottoman Armenians who were important in the Armenian commercial activities of the Ottoman Empire. Paris's mother Filomen was the niece of Mateos Izmirlian (1845-1910) who was primate of the diocese of Egypt (1886-1890), Patriarch of Constantinople (1894-1896) and then Catholicos of All Armenians (1908-1910). Paris, therefore, was born into a wealthy, elite family who had a high regard for education.

Paris began her education at an Armenian elementary school where she became fluent in Armenian and Turkish. While at this school she showed her love of music, learning to play the piano from the age of seven, and of painting. She then entered the Üsküdar American Academy for Girls where she did her middle and high school studies. This Academy had been founded in 1876 but had moved to a new site just before Paris began studying there. She said in an interview in 1994 [22]:-
It was an American school - the American Mission Board - that was trying to make itself known in what are now called Third World countries, and Turkey was one of them.
This school provided a good quality education with teaching in English. She was taught French at this school but her favourite subjects were German and mathematics. She had a reason to want to learn German, she loved singing Franz Schubert's Lieder. In a strange way, her love of mathematics came, at least in part, from the belief that it was too difficult for girls to learn. She thought [22]:-
If Madame Curie could do theoretical work, why not me?
Pishmish was keen to go to Istanbul University. We note that although the city of Constantinople did not become Istanbul until 1930, the University of Constantinople was renamed Istanbul University in 1922. Her parents where totally opposed to her studying mathematics or sciences at university, believing this was not right for a girl. They told her that girls of her age should be having fun or looking for a husband. Pishmish said she cried and cried until her parents gave in, and in 1930 she began studying mathematics in the Faculty of Sciences of Istanbul University.

In 1933 Pishmish became one of the first women to graduate in Mathematics and Astronomy from the Faculty of Science of Istanbul University. After graduating, she taught mathematics and astronomy at the Getronagan High School in Istanbul. This school was a boy's Armenian High School established in 1886 and Pishmish taught in Armenian at this school. She next taught in Turkish at the Anatolian High School for Girls in the Kandilli district of Istanbul, and after that she taught in English at the American Academy in the Scutari district of Istanbul.

In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany and passed laws to prevent Jewish professors teaching in universities. Many of the leading German scientists were Jewish and Kemal Ataturk, President of the Republic of Turkey, saw that he could modernise the Turkish university system by offering them professorships in Istanbul University. Three of those who accepted the offer were Erwin Finlay Freundlich, Richard von Mises and Hilda Geiringer von Mises. In 1934 Pishmish registered as a D.Sc. student with Freundlich as her main advisor but with support also from von Mises. She explained in the 1994 interview the major change that took place in Istanbul University in 1933-34 [22]:-
All the teachers were retired and replaced by teachers who came from Germany, they were escaping from Hitler. The University was filled 90% with foreign professors. Well-known astronomers also came, and I worked with some of them, like Finlay Freundlich, who, unlike my previous teachers, had done research. With great enthusiasm, I began to work with Freundlich, I learned with him the astrophysics that I did not know and I translated his courses from English to Turkish; meanwhile I perfected my German.
From 1935 she worked as an assistant at the Istanbul University Observatory, serving as an interpreter into Turkish from French, English and German. She translated into Turkish lectures on Infinitesimal Geometry delivered in French by Hilda Geiringer von Mises and lectures on Astrophysics delivered in English by Finlay Freundlich. Pishmish undertook research for her doctorate which, given the limited instruments in the Istanbul Observatory, involved a mathematical theoretical study. She defended her thesis The Rotation of the Galactic Star System and the K-Term in June 1937.

Freundlich advised Pishmish to apply for a Fellowship at Harvard University in the United States and he strongly supported her application. She was awarded a Radcliffe fellowship and travelled to Harvard University in 1938 to undertake post-doctoral research. In the summer of 1939 she attended lectures at the Harvard Observatory Summer School delivered by Jan Oort (1900-1992), Findlay Freundlich and Svein Rosseland (1894-1965). For 1939-40 she was awarded an Edward C Pickering Fellowship and a report of the work she undertook is given in Annie Jump Cannon's report [5]:-
Since 1938 she has been engaged in researches relating to stellar photometry, variable stars, and galactic clusters. As a part-lime assistant in the Milton Bureau, the large undertaking for the systematic study of variable stars, sponsored by the Milton Fund of Harvard University, she is observing changes in the brightness of certain variables and discussing her results. Perhaps the most interesting subject of her present study is the well-known double cluster in the "sword hand" of Perseus, lettered h and Chi Persei. She finds that previous investigators of these clusters have treated them together assuming, as it were, that they are of the nature of twins. This point of view is, in her opinion, questionable. Therefore she is studying the two clusters separately, considering such properties as the luminosity, the variations of mean colour, density, and brightness according to the distance from the centre. She concludes that the assumption of their twin cluster is not sustained, but she adds, "there is need of further observational work on these clusters from the point of view which I emphasise."
On Thursday, 23 March 1939, The Boston Globe reported on a meeting in Radcliffe College [20]:-
Yesterday's program included a talk by Miss Paris Pishmish, a Turkish student from the University of Istanbul working under a Radcliffe fellowship at the Harvard Observatory.
Félix Recillas Juarez was a Mexican who had been employed to assist in setting up an observatory in Tonantzintla, Puebla. Recillas was more interested in mathematics than astronomy but he went to Harvard to take astronomy and mathematics courses. He decided that learning German would be advantageous and Pishmish, who had perfected her German while working for a doctorate advised by Finlay Freundlich, offered to help him. Recillas spoke about meeting her at Harvard [21]:-
She had beautiful eyes and above all she was very fine and highly educated. At Harvard, where I met her in 1941, I began to realise that the great astronomers Harlow Shapley, Sergi and Cecilia Gaposchkin, and Donald Menzel looked up to her and respected her, as did the physicists Manuel Sandoval Vallarta and Carlos Graef Fernández in Mexico, and of course the astronomers Luis Enrique Erro and Guillermo Haro, great promoters of science in our country.
Recillas and Pishmish married around the end of 1941. They had two children Elsa Recillas Pishmish (born 1942) and Roberto Sevín Recillas-Pishmish (born 1943). We will give some details about these children's careers later in this biography.

The new Mexican National Astrophysical Observatory near the small Aztec village of Tonanzintla was formally dedicated on 17 February 1942. About a week before the dedication the telescope mounting and tube arrived on a truck from Harvard driven much of the way by Recillas. Both Recillas and Pishmish were present at the dedication of the Tonanzintla Observatory and at the Astrophysical Congress that was held in Puebla to inaugurate the Tonantzintla Astrophysical Observatory. Nicholas Ulrich Mayall (1906-1993) writes in [11] about the staff of the new Observatory:-
The staff of the new observatory is headed by the Director Señor Luis Enrique Erro, who was for many years Secretary of the Mexican Embassy in Washington. ... Dr Carlos Graef, the Subdirector, received a part of his scientific training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his interest in astronomy naturally led him to study at the Harvard College Observatory. Harvard has also contributed in large measure to the astronomical education of the other two members of the staff: Professor Félix M Recillas, and Mrs Paris Pishmish Recillas, who received her Doctor's degree at the University of Istanbul.
It is worth noting that of these four members of staff, only Pishmish was a astronomer with a doctorate in astronomy. In fact she was the first person, man or woman, to be employed as an astronomer in Mexico who had an astronomy doctorate.

It is not surprising that the Observatory took some time to get the equipment working well particularly since most of those employed had no practical experience. In 1944 Recillas resigned his position at the Observatory and went to Princeton to study for a Ph.D. in mathematics. Pishmish remained at the Tonantzintla Astrophysical Observatory until January 1946 when she went to study at the Princeton University Observatory, joining her husband. Pishmish described how the Tonantzintla Observatory had by this time overcome initial difficulties and leading research was being carried out there [23]:-
Around 1946 we witnessed the beginning of a golden age for Tonantzintla. The Observatory was finally building a new reputation. Problems related to our galaxy as well as in other galaxies were attacked. Extremely distant high-luminosity stars, high-temperature stars with bright spectral lines, planetary nebulae and galactic nebulae were discovered: all of them accessible from the Tonantzintla sky. The systematic investigation of variable stars of the T-Tauri Type was promoted. The remarkable discovery of the first star flare in Orion was also made. And soon Tonantzintla took the lead in the discovery and study of star bursts in other regions as well. I would like to highlight the remarkable work of Guillermo Haro in these studies. Finally, Erro was reaping the fruit of his hard work after years of uncertainty. It is fair to say that the Schmidt Chamber of Tonantzintla is the one that has given a much higher performance than others of the same type and size.
Let us note the personal details that Pishmish gave on entering the United States on 30 January 1946 on her way to the Princeton University Observatory: Height, 5 ft 5 in; Complexion, dark; Hair, black; Eyes, brown. While in the United States, she also spent long periods at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, north of Chicago. In 1948 her husband Recillas was awarded a mathematics degree by Princeton and the family went to Mexico City where Pishmish and Recillas were both employed at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Although based in Mexico City, Pishmish still made many visits to the Tonantzintla Astrophysical Observatory over the following years. Her daughter, Elsa writes [23]:-
When my mother left Tonantzintla for the Tacubaya National Astronomical Observatory in 1948, the first astronomy courses began at UNAM. However, she continued her research by observing and using the pool of plates that was increasing at the National Astrophysics Observatory of Tonantzintla. For several years she came for long seasons. On those occasions, my little brother and I accompanied her and ran around the slopes of the Tonantzintla hill, trying not to disturb the sleep of the astronomers who slept during the day to cover her observation shifts at night. Of course, we didn't always manage to stay calm and on more than one occasion we woke up some late-night astronomer!
Recillas spent the year 1951-52 in Paris at the Henri Cartan Seminar at the École Normale Supérieure. Pishmish and her two children flew from Mexico City to New York on 12 November 1951. Meeting up with her husband, who was already in the United States, the whole family flew to Paris on 16 November 1951.

Back in Mexico, she continued to teach and undertake research. Although she spent much time at the Observatory, she did little in the way of observation herself, rather she was interested in theoretical work using the data others had found. Elena Poniatowsk writes in [21] about seeing her at the Observatory:-
I personally met Paris Pishmish in Tonantzintla. Her bungalow was the only one planted with flowers. Flowers in the windows, flowers around the walls, flowers in glass jars inside the house. Her look, in fact, was very beautiful because it was intense and because she wanted to encompass everything. She herself was very much like a flower: very well groomed, very coquettish, bathed in dewy water, her nails scrupulously clean, her neatness almost from an operating theatre. She played the piano, sang, and when another sang she immediately sat down at the piano to accompany them, improvising the melody from hearsay. She liked to dance and she did it very well: the gallants took her out and she danced until very late. ... Like Einstein's violin, she was fascinated by music and she said that a scientist should know everything, mainly arpeggios and cadences. Some chamber music ensembles even came to play at her house and she offered them snacks.
Her scientific contributions were both in teaching and in research. When she returned to Mexico in 1948 she began to give formal astronomy courses at the Tacubaya Observatory, associated with the UNAM. Beginning in 1955 she created new courses within the Faculty of Sciences of the UNAM. She taught a variety of courses, for example courses on stellar interiors, on kinematics, and on the dynamics of stellar systems, but her favourite course was Galactic Astronomy. She was an inspirational teacher and many of today's Mexican astronomers were taught by her. She firmly believed that the fact that she was an active researcher was an important factor in her teaching [21]:-
Extremely generous with her knowledge, Dr Pishmish gave herself entirely to her students. She was enthusiastic about her classes and took her students to observe Tonantzintla. They slept in the Institute's bungalows, in front of the volcanoes; they participated in their teacher's work, they shared her life for three or four days, and this coexistence confirmed them in their vocation or made them lean towards poetry (which has a lot to do with science).
The exceptional quality of her teaching led to her receiving the National University Award in the area of Teaching in Exact Sciences in 1989.

Let us quote from [14] concerning her research contributions:-
She contributed, with her studies of stellar populations, to explain the origin of the spiral structure of galaxies by means of density waves. Her most relevant contributions include the discovery of three globular clusters and twenty open clusters. Several of these clusters bear her name. She proposed an explanation for the structure of spiral galaxies and spent a good part of her years studying the motion of stars within clusters and galaxies. She also studied the effect of interstellar absorption of stellar associations on the large-scale distribution of stars in the galaxy. In 1972, Pishmish introduced Fabry-Perot interferometric methods in Mexico to be able to carry out studies of velocity fields of galactic nebulae.
During her career, Pishmish published over 130 articles on astrophysics topics; they appear under the name Paris Pişmiş. Her first papers are The Period-Luminosity and the Period-Spectrum Relations of Cluster-Type Cepheids (1945), An Investigation on Differential Galactic Rotation (1945), The Reflection Effect in Eclipsing Binary Stars (1946) and The Spectroscopic Binary Delta Orionis (1950). From the mid 1950s onwards she published papers in Spanish as well as in English. The topics of her early papers continued to be the main areas of her research, particularly the development of spiral arms in galaxies. In 1986 she published the survey paper Kinematics of spiral galaxies. An overview which has the following Abstract:-
The kinematics of spiral galaxies are reviewed with special emphasis on rotation curves, the flat maxima and undulations of these curves in late types of spirals. The two dimensional velocity fields from the HI21-cm line as well as from optical lines support the finding that the maxima and minima of the rotation correspond reasonably well to arm and interarm regions respectively. It is argued that all galaxies show nuclear activity of some sort. The energetics of the activity cover a very wide range; from the most active QSO's down to "normal" galaxies. NGC4736 is given as an example having mild nuclear activity at its nucleus which gives rise to a tight nuclear spiral. Such cases fall into a class which I call MAGN as against AGN (M stands for mildly). Finally, it is suggested that the morphological sequence of galaxies is essentially fixed by the global parameters with which a galaxy gets started. It appears that two independent initial parameters underlie the morphological sequence of galaxies. One such parameter is the total mass which doubtless is the most important one. The second parameter, unspecified as yet, may be the total kinetic energy or any other parameter. The remaining parameters will be derivable from the two independent ones. This writer believes that the main features both morphological and dynamical are essentially determined by global initial conditions although consequences of interaction between galaxies in some cases cannot be ruled out.
At the time this survey was written, black holes were postulated as the energy source at the centre of galaxies but there were other competing theories. It is now well established that the 'nuclear activity' discussed by Pishmish is the result of a black hole.

The Institute of Astronomy was established at the UNAM in 1974 and Pishmish was the first president of the College of Academic Staff of the Institute of Astronomy of the UNAM (1974-1977).

She loved to travel and made many trips to the observatories of Greenwich in England, and Mount Palomar in the United States. She attended congresses receiving invitations to NASA in Houston. She gave courses in Heidelberg, in Vienna, in Uppsala, in Athens, in Ankara, in Canberra, in Bonn, in Cambridge, in Buenos Aires, in The Hague, in Tenerife, at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, and in Palma de Gran Canaria, in Biurakan, where she spoke in Armenian, and in Paris, where she spoke in French.

Another important contribution to astronomy in Mexico was her editorial work. She edited the Boletín de los Observatorios de Tonantzintla y Tacubaya from 1966 to 1973, and she was a founding editor of Revista Mexicana de Astronomía y Astrofísica since it began publication in 1974 and continued to edit it for twenty years. She was an active member of the International Astronomical Union, and headed the Mexican delegation to all its general assemblies from 1958 to 1994. She edited the International Astronomical Union Colloquium, Observational Parameters and Dynamical Evolution of Multiple Stars 33, the Proceedings of the Colloquium held in Oaxtepec, Mexico, 13-16 October 1975.

Pishmish received numerous honours, for example she was given a title of Honorary Astronomer of the Institute of Astronomy of the UNAM in 1985 and in the following year she was awarded a title of Honorary Doctor of Mexico University.

We promised some details of her two children. Elsa Recillas Pishmish (born 1942) was awarded a physics degree by the UNAM in 1968, a Master's Degree in Astronomy by the University of Sussex, England, in 1971, a Master's Degree in Physics from UNAM in 1983 and a Ph.D. from the UNAM in 1988. She became a professor in the Mexican National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics. She married the astronomer Carlos Cruz-González, and their daughter Irene Cruz-González also became an astronomer. Sevín Recillas-Pishmish (born in Puebla in 1943) was awarded a Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics from the Faculty of Sciences of the UNAM in 1964, and then went to Brandeis University in the United States where he received a Master's Degree in 1967 and a Ph.D. for his thesis A relation between curves of genus 3 and curves of genus 4 in 1970. MathSciNet lists 27 papers by Sevín Recillas-Pishmish all on algebraic geometry. He died in 2005.

In 1998 Pishmish published her autobiography Reminiscences in the Life of Paris Pishmish: a Woman Astronomer which she wrote in collaboration with her grandson Gabriel Cruz González. She continued to attend seminars and, despite her vision and hearing both failing, gave a seminar at the age of 88 [10]:-
Marie Paris Pishmish passed away on 1 August 1999. Her positive influence turned her into an effective role model, especially for young women. At the time of her death, 25 per cent of the eighty astronomers working at the Institute of Astronomy of the National Autonomous University were women.

References (show)

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  19. Paris Pismis (30 de enero, 1911 - 01 de agosto, 1999), Taya Beixo.
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Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Paris Pishmish:

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2023