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Features

Iranian Women You Should Know: Alenoush Terian

April 1, 2021
Maryam Dehkordi
5 min read
Alenoush Tarian's parents, Arto and Varto, were prominent dramatists in Tehran in the 1920s
Alenoush Tarian's parents, Arto and Varto, were prominent dramatists in Tehran in the 1920s
Terian, pictured here in 1950, was supported by her parents in pursuing a physics career
Terian, pictured here in 1950, was supported by her parents in pursuing a physics career
Pictured here at the Sorbonne in Paris, she went on to become the first Iranian woman professor of astrophysics and set up a solar observatory at Tehran University
Pictured here at the Sorbonne in Paris, she went on to become the first Iranian woman professor of astrophysics and set up a solar observatory at Tehran University
A celebration was held in her honor in 2010 to mark her 90th birthday
A celebration was held in her honor in 2010 to mark her 90th birthday

Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the last 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.

In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.

This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. These articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.

IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.

Astronomy and physics aficionados will know the name of Alenoush Terian well: that of a pioneering Iranian-Armenian who, were she still alive, would now be almost 100 years old. During her lifetime she made a name for herself with her scientific achievements, especially in physics and planetary studies. Terian was on the vanguard of modern astrophysics in Iran, and a co-founder of the solar observatory at Tehran University.

Theatrical Background

Dr. Terian was born on November 9, 1920 in Tehran. Her father, Arto Terian, and mother Lala (Varto) Terian were two famous faces in the city’s Armenian theater. Arto had studied theater and acting in Moscow and owned the drama studio, while Varto was a graduate of literature and rhetoric and became one of the first ever Iranian women to direct a play.

Alenoush Terian has said in an interview that her parents supported her rather different career choice: "My parents had a very clear and modern mindset, and weren’t the type to prevent me from studying or impose a certain field of study on me. Since they were artists and I had some writing experience, they had hoped I would pursue a degree in literature. But when they found out that I wanted to study physics, they didn’t show any opposition, and always encouraged and supported me on this path."

Terian studied at the Armenian School in Tehran up until her first year of high school, then enrolled at the Anoushirvan Dadgar High School, which was reserved for Zoroastrians. Her high grades then earned her a place at the University of Tehran to study physics. "When you start a course with a good teacher,” she has said, “you are fascinated by it. I am fascinated by physics because I had very good teachers in that subject.”

At the same time, she told her father that she wanted to surprise people. "As a child, I saw and heard people say 'Girls can't do math', for instance, and that always annoyed me. I wanted to prove that it doesn't matter if you are a girl or a boy; if a person has enough talent and perseverance, they can do anything. And I did prove it."

University in Iran and Europe

In 1947 Terian graduated from the University of Tehran with a bachelor's degree in physics, and soon afterwards she was hired to work at the physics laboratory of the Faculty of Science at Tehran University.

Two years later Terian left for France to study atmospheric physics at the University of Paris. After seven years there she received her doctorate and returned to Iran. During her studies she met Irène Joliot-Curie, Marie Curie's daughter. "Working in a laboratory with Marie Curie's daughter was a great honor for me, even for a short time," Terian said.

A Solar Physics Observatory in Iran

After returning to Iran, Terian taught an astrophysics unit at Tehran University: a course that had not previously been offered there. At the time only astronomy was taught in Tehran, and then only to scholars of mathematics. This was the first time instruction in stellar physics had been offered to physics students.

Some people later commented that her hasty return to Iran had been a bad move. "I wanted to serve my country,” she has said in response. “In France I was invited to work before I had graduated, and in response to the French teacher who wanted to hire me, I said that I had come to France to study only to better serve my own country.

“After returning to Iran, many people told me that I was stupid. But I knew it was my duty to return. I came back and I don’t regret it, because I was able to deliver good students to society, and this makes me happy."

In 1959 Tehran University was awarded additional funds by the West German federal government. Since Terian was establishing a solar physics observatory there, she was offered a scholarship. Three years after moving to Germany, she became the first woman to become a professor of physics.

Known by some as “the Mother of Modern Iranian Astronomy”, Terian introduced many of her students to the topic for the first time, teaching them how to use telescopes and other observatory instruments.

Mother of the Moon and the Sun

Terian was so enamoured by the stars that despite never having married or had children, she would always tell her students, "I have a daughter named the Moon and a son named Khorshid [the Sun]." Many of her students remembered the comment, and they recounted it in a special ceremony held for her in 2010.

On November 9 of that year, the Ararat Cultural and Sports Club of Tehran and the Hoor Translation and Research Institute organized a celebration on Terian’s 89th birthday. The brilliant scientist and many of her students attended the event, which was also held in cooperation with Tehran Armenian Women's Charity Association.

Not long afterward, Professor Alenoush Terian died on March 5, 2011, at the age of 89. In the last years of her life she dedicated all her property and assets to an endowment and lived in a nursing home.

Read other articles in this series:

Mojgan Roustaei, Raising Crocodiles

Zinat Pirzadeh, Diaspora Comedian

Marzieh Boroumand, Children's Wartime Puppeteer

Fatemeh Sayah, the First Iranian Woman on a Diplomatic Mission

Tuba Azmoudeh, Founder of Iran's First Girls' High School

Moniro Ravanipour, Outspoken Writer in Exile

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