Alenoush Terian, known as the “mother of contemporary astronomy in Iran,” broke the glass ceiling many decades before the term “glass ceiling” was ever used in English.
She was born on November 9, 1920, in Tehran. Her mother had studied in
Switzerland and was a French teacher, while her father, native of Nor Jugha,
the Armenian suburb near Ispahan, was a writer and became the director of the
Sepah Bank for the last twenty years of his life.
Alenoush Terian graduated in 1947 from the Faculty of
Science of the University of Tehran and went to work in the physics laboratory
of her alma mater. A year later, she was name head of operations of the
She tried to convince her professor, Mahmoud Hesabi, to help
her get a scholarship to pursue studies in France. However, she was rejected
because she was a woman. This did not deter her from going to Paris with her
father’s financial support. She studied at the Faculty of Atmospheric Physics
of the Sorbonne and obtained a master’s degree in 1956. She was offered a
teaching job there, but she rejected it with the aim of bringing her services
to Iran. She returned and became an assistant professor of Thermodynamics at
the Faculty of Physics in Tehran University.
The situation had changed by 1959, when Western Germany
offered a scholarship to Tehran University for studies in the observatory of
solar physics for four months. Alenoush Terian was selected for the scholarship
and went to Germany in March 1961. After finishing her stint, she returned to
Iran. In May 1964 she received the grade of full professor, and became the
first female professor of Physics in Iran.
In 1966 she became a member of the Geophysics Committee of
Tehran University. Three years later, she was named chairman of the study group
of solar physics at the Geophysics Institute of the university and went to work
at the solar observatory, which she had helped found. She retired in 1979.
She did not marry, but devoted her entire life to her
students. As one former student stated, “She always said that she had a
daughter called moon and a son called sun.”
The Iranian TV made a documentary on her life, “Towards the Sun,” in 2003. She
was decorated in 2006 by Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Alenoush Terian passed away on March 4, 2011, after spending
the last years of her life at a nursing home. In her will, she left her home to
the Armenian community of Nor Jugha and to those students who do not have a
proper living place.