For a Tribute and for History: The History of Astronomy Division’s Obituary Program
This article was originally written for the American Institute of Physics History Newsletter, Vol. 55, No. 1.
Unquestionably, obituaries are a vital resource for historical research. While many texts and objects in research can require context and background knowledge in order to make sense, conversely, obituaries are written to be easily understood by the average reader, making them a highly accessible historical resource. They can provide colorful details about a person’s life and situation, information about their careers, families, and the people they knew, as well as basic facts such as place of residence and dates of birth and death that might be difficult to find elsewhere. It is easy to find obituaries of famous people, but what about lesser-known people who nonetheless contributed to a field? This is the problem that the Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) set out to fix for the field of astronomy in the late 1980s to early 1990s.
“AAS members felt that, except for famous astronomers who get obituaries in [big] publications, there was no venue for regular members’ astronomical and historical contributions to be recorded for the future,” says Terry Oswalt, HAD Chair, on the early days of the program. HAD’s obituary program, which publishes obituaries of AAS members in AAS’s publication Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society (BAAS), was proposed by Steve Dick and other AAS members in 1989. After a bureaucratic process within the AAS, which involved setting up a committee, finding a home for the obituaries within the BAAS, and asking for a waiver for page charges, the first obituaries appeared in print in 1992, featuring 14 astronomers.
Since 2010, BAAS has been an online-only and free-to-read publication, along with its obituaries section. The program has grown enormously from its initial 14 obituaries, and today, you can freely access its robust 900+ obituaries at https://baas.aas.org/obituaries. Whose obituaries might you find? The selection ranges from students to amateurs, to support people, to “regular” astronomers, to “famous” astronomers. A small sampling includes Margaret Burbidge, Edgar Everhardt, John Fountain, Jose Flores-Velazquez, Ruth Freitag, Riccardo Gianconni, Roger Griffin, Arlo Landolt, Eugene Parker, Jay Pasachoff, Elizabeth Roemer, and Caroline Shoemaker.
When asked about the purpose and value of the obituary program, Terry Oswalt remarks:
“These obituaries record what the general astronomical community was doing across time; without them, only the most seminal contributions would be referenced in the literature. What the majority of the astronomical community was doing would not otherwise be represented in the records available to future historians.”
The obituary program would not exist without the ongoing efforts of people in the astronomy community.
Dear reader, you can get involved with this growing historical effort!
- Read and use the obituaries in your research (and perhaps bookmark https://baas.aas.org/obituaries).
- Write an obituary! Find the running list of people who need obituaries written for them and contact information at https://had.aas.org/obituaries/outstanding-obits.
- The obituary program depends entirely on the network of astronomical colleagues, including the astronomy department and observatory administrators, for notification when an astronomer has died. Please contact current Vice Chair/Chair-Elect J. Allyn Smith at [email protected] to announce the passing of a colleague or to volunteer to participate in the writing of an obituary.
- Spread the word about the obituary program to your colleagues interested in the history of astronomy.
Many thanks to Terry Oswalt and to Steve Dick for their crucial contributions to this article.
“Elegant, wise, fair, knowledgeable, original, and fiercely determined, Eleanor Margaret Burbidge was one of the great observational astronomers of the past century.” Quote from Eleanor Margaret Burbidge’s obituary by Jeremiah Ostriker and Kenneth Freeman. Credit: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection, Catalog ID Burbidge Eleanor Margaret B2
“On cold winter mornings his mother would send him to school with a baked potato for each pocket to help keep him warm.” Quote from Arlo U. Landolt’s obituary by Geoffrey Clayton and Juhan Frank. An influential observational astronomer, Landolt was involved with the creation of an important set of photometric standards used in the field. Image credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, John Irwin Slide Collection, Catalog ID Landolt Arlo A1
- Bracher, Katherine. 1999. “The Historical Astronomy Division.” In The American Astronomical Society's First Century, edited by David H. DeVorkin 277-286. Washington, DC: The Society
- Clayton, Geoffrey, and Juhan Frank. 2022. “Arlo U. Landolt (1935–2022).” Bulletin of the AAS 54, no. 1. https://baas.aas.org/pub/2022i045/release/2
- “Obituaries.” Bulletin of the AAS. https://baas.aas.org/obituaries
- Ostriker, Jeremiah, and Kenneth Freeman. 2021. “Eleanor Margaret Burbidge (1919–2020).” Bulletin of the AAS 53, no. 2. https://baas.aas.org/pub/2021i0334/release/1
- Oswalt, Terry. 2023. “HAD Obituaries article.” Email to the author.