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Winifred (“Wini”) Sawtell Cameron, lunar expert and one of NASA’s first female astronomers, died on 29 March 2016 at age 97. Born on 3 December 1918 in Oak Park, Illinois, to Amos Alexander Sawtell and Mildred Winifred Shields, Wini received her Bachelor of Engineering from Northern Illinois University in 1940 (and later their Distinguished Alumnus Award) and her Master of Arts in Astronomy from Indiana University in 1952.
Wini served as a research associate at Weather Forecasts, Inc., in Chicago, 1943-1946, 1949-1950; astronomy instructor at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1950-1951; and as a solar researcher at the United States Naval Observatory (USNO), in Washington, D.C., 1951-1958. In 1953, during her time at the USNO, Wini married astronomer Robert Curry Cameron. Three years later, she gave birth to their first daughter, Selene, named after the Greek goddess of the moon.
In 1957, Wini’s husband Robert was one of eight astronomers selected by the Smithsonian Institution to build and manage a radio tracking station in Johannesburg, South Africa, that was used to track the first American satellite, Explorer I. While there, Wini gave birth to a second daughter, Sheri Carina, her middle name inspired by the southern-hemisphere constellation Carina.
In 1959, Wini and Robert were both hired at NASA’s new Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, where they were the only astronomer couple in NASA at that time. Wini worked as a planetary and lunar researcher and lecturer. Her main field of study — and her life’s passion — was the moon. Over the years, she compiled the largest database ever published of historical and modern-era Lunar Transient Phenomena (LTP), reported short-lived changes in brightness or color in areas on the surface of the moon. It remains the premier resource in the LTP field and resulted in a series of papers, by Wini and others, analyzing and evaluating the observations.
Wini was also involved in the manned spaceflight program, serving as NASA’s astronomer on duty at Cape Canaveral for Mercury astronaut John Glenn's historic flight as the first American in orbit, as well as for Scott Carpenter's second orbital flight. And she was a member of the team responsible for selecting safe landing spots for the Apollo missions.
While completing his Masters-thesis at Indiana University, Robert Cameron discovered an asteroid, which he named 1575 Winifred, in honor of Wini. Later she successfully petitioned the IAU to name a crater on the moon after Robert following his unexpected passing in 1972: Cameron crater on the rim of Taruntius, formerly known as Taruntius C.
After her retirement from NASA in 1984, Wini continued her LTP research and lectured on the subject to various civic and science organizations. Her later years were devoted to her seven grandchildren, her horse and pets, world travels, bowling league, and many clubs in Sedona, Arizona. She was a popular speaker and ambassador for astronomy, and an inspiration to subsequent generations of women in astronomy.
Wini was a member of the International Astronomical Union, International Association of Planetology, American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union, Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (Lunar Transient Phenomena Lunar Recorder, 1973-1993), British Astronomical Association (honorary), and Goddard Astronomy Club in Greenbelt, Maryland (vice president, 1972-1974; president, 1974-1976). She was preceded in death by her husband, Dr. Robert Cameron, and is survived by her daughters Sheri Katz and Selene Green (Richard), and her grandchildren Cameron, Carina, and Colin Green and Joey, Rebecca Moon, James, and Ryan Katz.
Obituary Written By : Alan Hirshfeld (UMass Dartmouth) with the assistance of Selene Cameron Green and Sheri Katz.
Photos courtesy of Selene Cameron Greene.
Right photo: Bob and Wini Cameron at the telescope.
BAAS Citation: BAAS, 2018, 50, 019