AAS 197, January 2001
Session 1. HAD I: Boners of the Century
Special Session Oral, Sunday, January 7, 2001, pm, SDSU, Zinner Collection

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[1.05] The Director's Choice: Mellish, Hubble and the discovery of the variable nebula

T. R. Williams (Rice University)

In the summer of 1915, amateur astronomer John Edward Mellish joined the staff of Yerkes Observatory as an unpaid observer. Soon after arriving, Mellish discovered what he thought was a comet in the dawn twilight. Yerkes director Edwin Brant Frost promptly notified Harvard Observatory of the discovery only to learn later in the day, too late to prevent distribution of an international telegram, that the object Mellish observed was actually the diffuse nebula NGC 2261. Edwin Powell Hubble, a graduate student in his first year at Yerkes, was assigned the task of determining whether, as Mellish insisted, the nebula had changed. This led to Hubble's first professional papers and his initial fame as the discoverer of `Hubble's Variable Nebula.' Frost's choice, assigning the investigation to Hubble rather than Mellish, reflected his irritation with Mellish over matters that went well beyond the mistaken comet discovery. When Mellish discovered another comet a few weeks later, Frost delayed his notification to Harvard for several days to allow photographic confirmation of the discovery by George Van Biesbroeck, another newcomer at Yerkes.

These events highlight staffing problems at Yerkes in 1915, problems that were common to other American observatories. Mellish and Van Biesbroeck were likely the last two amateur astronomers to have an opportunity to `try out' as professionals at Yerkes. By 1915 a stronger requirement for educational credentials was emerging in the astronomical community. On the other hand, like other observatory directors, Frost was experiencing considerable difficulty employing graduate astronomers. With S. W. Burnham already retired, Frost adopted stopgap measures for staffing as E. E. Barnard and others from an earlier generation prepared for retirement. The assignment of the nebula investigation to Hubble indicates that Frost had likely already concluded that Mellish would not be an acceptable substitute for a degreed professional.

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