1 February 2023

This Month in Astronomical History: February 2023

Kristine Larsen Central Connecticut State University

HAD LogoEach month as part of this series from the AAS Historical Astronomy Division (HAD), an important discovery or memorable event in the history of astronomy will be highlighted. This month's author, Kristine Larsen of Central Connecticut State University, writes about E. E. Barnard. Interested in writing a short (500-word) column? Instructions along with previous history columns are available on the HAD web page.

Edward Emerson Barnard: Nontraditional Student and "First Gen" Role Model

The life and work of famed astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard are relevant — and hopefully motivational — for adult learners today, and 6 February 2023 marks the centenary of his death. His impressive list of astronomical discoveries — including the fifth moon of Jupiter (Amalthea), the high proper motion star now known as Barnard’s Star, 36 double stars, and 16 comets (including the first photographic comet discovery) — combined with careful measurements and observations of comets, star clusters, planetary features, occultations, nebulae, and novae, and pioneering photographic portraits of comets and star clouds and dark nebulae in the Milky Way, more than assured his place in the history of astronomy. As an observer, he is frequently compared with William Herschel1,2 and even Tycho Brahe.2 For all of that, the numerous laudatory tributes published in astronomy journals after his death unanimously draw attention to perhaps the greatest triumph of Barnard’s career: the very fact that it happened at all. John A. Parkhurst reflected that “the story of his early life is most romantic, though some features of his early youth during the war were so sad that he could not be persuaded to repeat them.”3

Barnard was born into poverty in Nashville, Tennessee, on 16 December 1857, after the death of his father, Reuben. His widowed mother, Elizabeth Jane (Haywood), struggled to provide for Edward and his older brother Charles, a task made more difficult with the outbreak of the Civil War less than four years later. Barnard spent only two months in formal schooling during his childhood and went to work for a local photographic gallery at age of nine. While his original job was to act as a human clock drive for the sizable rooftop enlarging camera dubbed “Jupiter” (keeping it aligned with the sun), during the 17 years, he honed prodigious skills in the photographic technology of the day and met his wife, Rhoda Calvert. Along the way, he discovered a passion for astronomical observing, aided by a volume of works by the Rev. Thomas Dick (including star charts) and a series of small refractors pieced together with the help of one of his fellow employees, J.W. Braid. In 1877, he acquired a 5-inch refractor, which numerous obituaries note famously cost him the equivalent of an astounding two-thirds of his annual salary.

Many of these same testimonials also draw attention to a fateful meeting Barnard had shortly afterward with Simon Newcomb. When asked by Barnard how he might make contributions to astronomy with his new telescope, Newcomb recommended searching for comets, warning Barnard that his lack of mathematical background would be a handicap to a serious study of astronomy. While Barnard was reportedly much distressed by this reply, he was ultimately greatly motivated rather than crushed by the experience, taking it upon himself to hire a mathematics tutor and begin a dedicated study of mathematics.

With the carrot of the Warner Prize, $200 awarded for each comet discovered in America or Canada, dangling in front of him, the newlywed Barnard began to seriously sweep for comets in 1881, finding his first on 17 September. In fact, Barnard saw what he believed to be a comet on 12 May but was unable to see it on subsequent nights.4

Having augmented his salary at the photographic gallery by nearly 50%, he was able to buy a lot on which he ultimately built a small cottage for his wife and himself, and his now-invalid mother, paying on his mortgage with the aid of additional Warner Prizes (five in total). The need to take on a second job, as it were, to make ends meet and caretaking for an ill parent seems a rather modern human experience rather than part of the biography from more than a century ago.

By 1882, the now two-time comet discoverer had come to the attention of nearby Vanderbilt University. While the university chancellor was initially hesitant to hire an astronomer with so little formal schoolwork, in 1883 Barnard was offered a paid astronomical fellowship (but at a significantly lower salary than the photographic gallery), with main responsibility for the observatory and status as a non-degree seeking “special student in the School of Mathematics” with free tuition and housing for his family.4 Biographer William Sheehan draws attention to the fact that due to his age, marital status, and responsibility for his ill mother, Barnard was not a traditional student. In addition, Barnard simultaneously carried the equivalent of a full-time job, especially given Barnard’s dedication to observing. It is no wonder that like many of our adult learners today, he frequently took a part-time load of courses.4

In modern academic speak, Barnard would also be what we call a “first-gen” student, the first in their family to seek higher education. Like Barnard, many of these students often come to our institutions from lower socio-economic or single-parent homes, and many have caretaking responsibilities. In the 21st century, such students have lower completion rates than their peers; in the 19th century, the odds certainly were not much better for Barnard, at least on paper.

In the mid-1880s, Barnard began corresponding with Edward S. Holden, the director of Lick Observatory (then under construction), successfully positioning himself to be one of the first staff members of this world-class facility which boasted a massive 36-inch refractor.4 Barnard left Vanderbilt in 1887 at the age of thirty as a graduate in mathematics but without a formal degree and in a notable case of paying it forward, arranged to have his financial aid transferred to another deserving astronomy student.4 It was at Lick that Barnard discovered Amalthea in 1892, the first new moon discovered orbiting Jupiter since the time of Galileo. Three years later he accepted another exceptional opportunity to join the staff at the Yerkes Observatory, with its larger 40-inch refractor, although the instrument was not officially available for observing until 1897.5 Barnard would remain at Yerkes for the remainder of his illustrious career. He was active in the observatory until shortly before his death on 6 February 1923, at the age of 65.

By the end of his life, Barnard had been awarded an array of medals including the Lalande Gold Medal of the French Academy of Sciences (1892), Arago Gold Medal (1893), Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1897), Janssen Gold Medal of the French Academy (1900), and the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1917).6 His name is attached to craters on the Moon and Mars and a region on Ganymede. But those formal awards pale in comparison with the ultimate achievement of Barnard’s life: the very fact that he not only became a professional astronomer through an unconventional path but throughout his professional career carried out his work with some of the most advanced instruments then in existence.

Sheehan concludes his biography by noting of Barnard that “his was an impossible success story, achieved at least in large part through sheer strength of his character.”4 Barnard had a keen eye not only for observing the heavens, but seeking out and identifying valuable opportunities, regardless of the personal hardship necessitated (starting with the purchase of that budget-busting 5-inch telescope).

Barnard in 1917

Fig. 1: Barnard in 1917 (age 60). Credit: Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Comet Swift (C/1892) photographed by Barnard on April 4 and 6, 1892

Fig. 2: Comet Swift (C/1892) photographed by Barnard on 4 and 6 April 1892. Credit: Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

M31 and Comet Holmes photographed by Barnard on November 10, 1892

Fig. 3: M31 and Comet Holmes photographed by Barnard on 10 November 1892. From R.S. Ball, A Popular Guide to the Heavens (1905). Credit: Wikipedia Commons (public domain)


  1. Aitken, Robert G. (1923). “Edward Emerson Barnard 1857-1923,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 35, 87-94
  2. Denning, W.F. (1924). “Edward Emerson Barnard,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 84, 221-225
  3. Parkhurst, J.A. (1923). “Edward Emerson Barnard 1857-1923,” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 17(3), 97-103
  4. Sheehan, William. (1995). The Immortal Fire Within: The Life and Work of Edward Emerson Barnard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Frost, Edwin B. (1923). “Edward Emerson Barnard,” Astronomical Journal, 58(1), 1-35
  6. Mitchell, S.A. (1923). “Edward Emerson Barnard, 1857-1923,” The Observatory, 46, 158-164.

Related Posts