She was the daughter of Gerard Swope, and niece of Herbert Bayard Swope. Her father went to MIT and was an engineer. He worked for General Electric, eventually rising to be president of the company and enabling Ms. Swope to be independently wealthy throughout her life.
By vacationing with her family on Nantucket, she learned of talks at Maria Mitchell Observatory, and took an evening class there alongside her brother. She also heard Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley speak; eventually she would go to work with him on variable stars.
Swope attended Barnard College, and graduated in 1925, with an AB degree in mathematics. She only took an astronomy class, from Harold Jacoby, in her final year.
After college, she went back to Chicago and attended the School of Social Service Administration, at the University of Chicago, but only for one year.
While working with Harlow Shapley, she obtained Masters in Astronomy in 1928 from Radcliffe College.
She learned that Dr. Shapley at Harvard was offering fellowships for women to work on finding variable stars. Swope went to work for Shapley in 1926 and began working alongside other "girls" to identify variable stars in the Milky Way. She became friends with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Adelaide Ames. She supported herself on a salary from Harvard and a stipend from her family. She became an expert on estimating magnitudes of stars from images on photographic plates.
Swope left Harvard at the start of World War II to work for the Hydrographic office at MIT. In her Oral History, she says, "...they said, 'How much were you getting [at Harvard]?' And I said, I think, $2000. That’s what they say they would pay me, what I was getting, but that was too little for them. They couldn't. So I rose fairly quickly." During the war, 1942-1947, she worked on the LORAN navigation tables.
After the War, Swope taught for two years at Barnard college and Connecticut College for Women and did research using old plates from Harvard.
In 1952, Walter Baade of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Observatories asked her, via Martin Schwarzchild as an intermediary, to come work with him on variable stars detected in other galaxies by the new 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. Although she was hired as Baade's research assistant, in the "nebular-studies" group, she worked independently even to the point of writing scientific publications with his name on them after his death. She stayed at the Carnegie Institution for the rest of her career; she officially retired in 1968.
In 1964, a paper by Baade & Swope reported the results of light curves for 275 Cepheids derived by Swope from photographic plates of the Andromeda Galaxy taken at the relatively new Hale 200-inch Telescope at Palomar Mountain. They reported a new distance to M31, given as a distance modulus of 24.25. They followed up this work in 1963 with new results of 20 Cepheids in a region of Andromeda less affected by extinction and estimated a new distance modulus of 24.20 mag.
In 1967, Swope made a donation of securities valued at $650,000 to the Carnegie Institution of Washington to develop "optical astronomical observatory facilities in the Southern Hemisphere." This gift was used for development of the site, including roads, water, and power systems, and for building a 40-inch telescope at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. This telescope was named the Swope Telescope in her honor; it started operation in 1971 and is still used today. Swope also left most of her estate to Carnegie to support further Las Campanas and astronomical research at the institution more generally.Annie J. Cannon Award in 1968
Asteroid 2168 Swope is named in her honor.
Barnard Distinguished Alumnae Award, 1975
The Swope Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile is named in her honor.
Honorary PhD, 1975, University of Basel, Switzerland
Barnard College Medal of Distinction, 1980