Donald E. Osterbrock Authors New Yerkes Observatory History Book

March 21, 1997

Author: Robert Irion

Tim Stephens
UCSC Public Information Office

SANTA CRUZ, CA: In 1892, wealthy railway magnate Charles T. Yerkes of Chicago set out to “lick the Lick”--the University of California’s Lick Observatory--by financing “the largest and best telescope in the world.” Five years later, his ambitions took concrete form in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, when astronomers dedicated Yerkes Observatory, home to a mammoth 40-inch refracting telescope.

Now, in the observatory’s centennial year, the University of Chicago Press has published the compelling story of the first half-century at Yerkes Observatory and the three men who directed it with varying degrees of success and personal turmoil. Titled “Yerkes Observatory, 1892-1950: The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Research Institution,” the book richly illustrates the challenges of running a “big-science” establishment, as well as the reasons behind the ascendance of American astronomy in the 20th century.

The book’s author, Donald Osterbrock, is uniquely qualified to tell this tale. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a distinguished astronomer in his own right, Osterbrock studied at Yerkes in the 1940s and 1950s and holds several degrees from its parent institution, the University of Chicago. He has become a leading chronicler of American astronomy with this, his fourth historical book. Further, he has firsthand knowledge of many of the same situations his three protagonists faced: Osterbrock directed Lick Observatory from 1973 to 1981. He now is professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Writing about the history of astronomy is, in a sense, a search for my own roots,” Osterbrock said. “I see myself more and more as one member of a line of people who go back to the astronomy of 100 years ago.”

In the book’s preface, Osterbrock expands upon this theme and acknowledges that his judgments of the three Yerkes directors are necessarily colored by his own lens: “I can see myself all too clearly in some of their less noble actions, taken, they believed, from the highest of motives, for their observatory, their university, and their science.”

The first director at Yerkes, and the man most responsible for its rapid rise, was George Ellery Hale. Hale was just 24 when he and University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper called upon Charles Yerkes and made their case for an observatory to top the legacy of eccentric California businessman James Lick. In the ensuing years Hale saw to it that the observatory would lead the world in the new science of astrophysics--studying the nature of celestial objects using the laws of physics--rather than simpler astronomical observations of motions.

“Hale had tremendous amounts of nervous energy,” Osterbrock recounted. “He was young and ambitious, and from the beginning he wanted to organize his scientists, to make astronomy like the company his father ran so well.”

But that same energy to excel at all costs lured Hale to California’s Mount Wilson in 1903, where a 60-inch reflecting telescope soon eclipsed that at Yerkes as the world’s largest. Yerkes was left in the considerably less busy hands of Edwin B. Frost, whose lack of vision (both figuratively and literally, as he went blind in 1921) and initiative nearly doomed Yerkes. During Frost’s 27 years as director, Osterbrock writes bluntly, “He brought no new scientific ideas to the observatory.”

Perhaps Frost’s most important action was to help rescue a brilliant young Russian scientist, Otto Struve, in 1921 from an army relief camp in Turkey. An obsessive and hard-driving man, Struve was an excellent researcher who was to become the savior of Yerkes, directing it for 18 years (1932-1950). He also recruited several astrophysicists who would gain international renown. Most notable were three foreign scientists: Subramanyan Chandrasekhar of India, Gerard Kuiper of Holland, and Bengt Str?gren of Denmark. Yerkes and the University of Chicago’s Astronomy Department were once again at the pinnacle of the field, especially in the years after World War II.

Struve’s relentless focus on his work and the endless administrative details of running an observatory extracted a heavy toll as his career progressed. His recruits matured and nurtured their own reputations and egos, and conflicts inevitably erupted. While most of Struve’s actions served the observatory--and American astronomy--well in the long term, some seem harsh in retrospect. For instance, he eased out one staff member who spent time with his wife after the birth of their child rather than working continuously at an affiliated observing station in Texas.

Frost, on the other hand, trod water scientifically but was a warm, sympathetic man, well liked by his staff and the residents of Williams Bay. Visitors to the town today may see Frost Park, Frost Drive, Frost Woods, and a Frost House, but nothing named after Struve or Hale, who also suffered from mental illness later in life. “Astrophysics is hard work, but you also have to have compassion for human beings,” Osterbrock said.

In a poignant section of the epilogue, Osterbrock notes that Frost reflected happily on his life and died surrounded by family and friends, while Struve died bitter and alone. The author wonders: “Which was better?”

Editor’s Notes:

You may reach Osterbrock at or 831-459-2605. For a review copy of his book, call Tim Stephens at 831-459-2495.

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