Early Department History

Astronomy Department History through 1980

Judson B. Coit

Judson B. Coit

Astronomy was the first of the sciences to be taught systematically at Boston University. Professor Judson Boardman Coit was hired as an Assistant Professor of Astronomy in 1882, the year the College of Liberal Arts (currently the College of Arts and Sciences) was moved to a new location at 12 Somerset Street on Beacon Hill in Boston. Biology and chemistry were added to the curriculum 22 years later in 1904 and physics in 1905. Since BU did not yet have any telescopes, Professor Coit led his students to Boston Common to look through a small pay telescope, paying the required fees himself.


7 inch Telescope

In 1890 Boston University acquired its first telescope, a 7.1-inch refractor made by Clasey. It also built its first observatory with a 12-foot copper dome to house the new telescope at the corner of the roof of the Somerset building facing Ashburton Place. The principal donor for the telescope and the observatory was James A. Woolson. In 1903 L.W. Tycott donated to Boston University a 5-inch telescope that was built in 1881 by Alvan Clark, the famous telescope craftsman of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1906 Wilbert Gilmour contributed a fund for the maintenance of the Boston University Observatory. All of these donations resulted from the tireless efforts of Professor Coit. These early telescopes still exist, but are currently in storage. A 6.5-inch telescope, still in use, was later donated by Professor William G. Aurelio. The current observatory on the roof of the CLA building is officially named the “Judson B. Coit Observatory” in honor of the man who started astronomy at Boston University.

In the archives of the Department are some student notebooks from 1905, in which are recorded observations of sunspots, an activity in which Professor Coit held a personal research interest. Sunspot observations that he performed with his students over the years were published in the Astronomical Journal. In 1900 Professor Coit travelled with several of his students to North Carolina to observe a solar eclipse. Professor Warren Aults, in his book on the history of the College of Liberal Arts, writes: “Indeed, the output of this tiny department with few facilities for teaching and none for research has been remarkable.” In 1915 Professor Coit was given the official title “Professor of Astronomy.” Professor Coit had also assumed the office of Secretary of the Faculty in 1885, only three years after joining Boston University, and held this position for 26 years until 1911, when he became the Acting Dean of the Graduate School. He died in 1921, leaving a legacy of contributions to Boston University and to astronomy.

The Old BU Observatory

The Old BU Observatory

In 1907 Boston University moved to another location at 688 Boylston Street, near Copley Square. The observatory was also moved to the roof of the new building, which had to be reinforced to bear the weight of the observatory with its two telescopes.

In 1916 Lewis A. Brigham joined Boston University as a College Instructor in Mathematics and Astronomy. In 1920 he succeeded Professor Coit, who had become ill and died (in 1921), as Professor of Astronomy, but continued to teach mainly mathematics. In 1925 Professor Brigham and his students conducted observations of a total solar eclipse from Connecticut. In 1926-28, in order to develop a greater expertise in astronomy, he spent a two year sabbatical at the Lick Observatory of the University of California. Upon his return he was appointed Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Judson B. Coit Observatory. He was a fine teacher and did significant work in celestial mechanics, which combined his two areas of interest, mathematics and astronomy. He retired in 1957 after 41 years of service. Unfortunately, astronomy at the University had declined during his later years and the small Department of Astronomy was discontinued upon his retirement.

In the same year (1957), a young astronomer from England, Gerald S. Hawkins, who had been working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory next to the Harvard Observatory in Cambridge, was hired by the Physics Department of Boston University to teach astronomy. He also maintained his position with the Smithsonian. The year 1957 also signaled the advent of the Space Era with the launching of Sputnik I on October 12, 1957. Boston University became an active participant in the tracking of this first artificial satellite. The chairman of Physics at that time was Professor Duncan MacDonald, who had developed an impressive optical research lab. He teamed with Hawkins to track Sputnik I using the Boston University Observatory and optical instruments from MacDonald’s lab. Soon after, MacDonald and his large optical group left Boston University to establish ITEK, a very successful optics research company in the Boston area. After a year or two, Professor Robert Cohen became the new Chairman of Physics, and managed very rapidly to rebuild Physics into a solid department.

Astronomy Department Faculty History

Hawkins was a very stimulating teacher, and with the excitement of the new space era his course for non-science majors, “Introduction to Astronomy,” became extremely popular. This started a continuing tradition of contributions of astronomy in the science education of non-science majors at Boston University. He also published his first book, Splendor in the Sky, which was used as a textbook for this course. In 1963 he managed to reestablish a concentration in Astronomy, offered through the Physics Department. Hawkins also hired Mrs. Homer as the first secretary for the Astronomy group.

In 1964 Professor Michael D. Papagiannis, a recent Ph.D from Harvard University, was asked to teach a graduate course in astrophysics, the first such course in astronomy offered by Boston University. The following year (1965), he was hired as a full-time Assistant Professor of Astronomy in the Physics Department. He also took over a small research contract that Hawkins had with the Air Force, and expanded it significantly, establishing in a few years a research group with six graduate students. One of these students was Michael Mendillo, who later joined the faculty and is now Professor of Astronomy. Professor Papagiannis also started a separate Astronomy section within the Physics Library (1965), and sponsored the establishment of a graduate (MA and PhD) program in Physics and Astronomy (1966), which supplemented the existing graduate program in Physics. He also organized the Space Science Seminar, which was supported by a large grant from NASA and which over the next six to seven years brought to Boston University many distinguished astronomers and space scientists from around the world.

In 1966, Hawkins, who had already become a full professor, published his famous book, Stonehenge Decoded, which brought him great publicity. He used this publicity to convince the University to establish a new Department of Astronomy, which formally became an independent department in the fall of 1966. Hawkins was named the first Chairman of the Astronomy Department, which had two other full-time members, Assistant Professors Papagiannis and Richard Berendzen, who became a full-time member in 1966, and one part-time member, Gerald Ouellette.

During the mid and late 1960′s under President Case, Boston University had a period of tremendous physical growth. It built the 700 Commonwealth Avenue triple-tower dormitory, the Law School, the George Sherman Union, and the Mugar Memorial Library, which until 1967 had occupied the 5th and 6th floors of the CLA building under the name “Chenery Library”. The vacated floors of CLA became the site of the new Astronomy Department, conveniently located directly below the BU Observatory. Professor Papagiannis made the floor plans for the reconstruction of these two top floors of the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) building, and the Department moved into the renovated space in the spring of 1967. Department members transported the nearly 500 books and journal volumes of the Astronomy section of the Physics Library, thus establishing an independent Astronomy Library. For several years, Papagiannis supported a librarian for the Astronomy Library through his research grants. He continued to supervise the operations of the Astronomy Library until 1989.

In 1969, Professor Hawkins announced that he was leaving Boston University to become the Dean of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Dean Lee of the College of Liberal Arts asked Papagiannis, who had just been promoted to Associate Professor, to replace Hawkins as Chairman of Astronomy. He accepted, provided that he would be allowed to convert Hawkins’ position and a portion of Professor Ouellette’s part-time position into two full-time Assistant Professorships. His proposal was accepted. During the thirteen years (1969-82) of Papagiannis’ chairmanship the Department of Astronomy grew from a faculty of three to a faculty of eight. As a result, Assistant Professor Robert Kandel and Instructor Robert Stefanik were appointed in September 1969. In 1970, two new assistant professors were appointed, Dennis Hegyi and William Straka, replacing Ouellette and Stefanik, the latter of whom later joined the faculty of the College of Basic Studies. Part of the funding also came from the first offering of a course in astronomy by Metropolitan College. In that year, Papagiannis was promoted to Professor of Astronomy, and Dimitris Matsoukas joined the Department as a postdoctoral research associate.

Prof. Papagiannis in 1970

Prof. Papagiannis in 1970

In January 1970 Dr. John R. Silber became the president of Boston University, starting a new era. The 1970′s were tough years for Boston University, both because of internal strifes and because of serious financial problems. Still, the Astronomy Department managed to grow in all areas, including facilities, faculty, graduate students, and enrollment in courses.

In 1971-72 Professor Papagiannis received his first sabbatical, and Professor Berendzen served as the acting chairman. Upon his return, Berendzen took his own sabbatical, but never returned, having accepted a Deanship at American University in Washington, D.C., where he later became president. Kenneth Janes was appointed in 1973 as an Assistant Professor to replace Berendzen. Hegyi left for the Bartol Research Foundations of the Franklin Institute after the University decided not to reappoint him as part of a general reduction in CLA faculty. In the following year (1974), Kandel left to accept an appointment at the Observatoire de Haute-Provence in France, and Straka departed as the result of a negative tenure decision. The Department hired three new Assistant Professors, two as replacements and the third as an expansion to bring the number of faculty back to five. These new faculty were Saul Adelman, Lucas Kamp, and Michael Mendillo. Mendillo had received his Ph.D. with Papagiannis in Physics and Astronomy at Boston University three years earlier and had served as Assistant Professor in 1971-72. In 1976, Professor Janes served as an Assistant Dean of the College.

Papagiannis, Mendillo, and Baumgardner examine the starball

Papagiannis, Mendillo, and Baumgardner examine the starball

The Department expanded further with the appointments of Robert Deupree in 1977 and W. Jeffrey Hughes in 1978 as assistant professors. In 1977, three postdoctoral research associates (C. Chacko, A. Hearn, and F. Wefer) joined the staff.   Also in 1977 Jeffrey Baumgardner designed and built the Department’s solar telescope. The Department also added Jeffrey Baumgardner to the new position of Curator of the Observatory and Planetarium in 1978 after he had completed his Master’s degree in the new Master of Astronomy program. His Master’s thesis, supervised by Papagiannis, consisted of the construction of the Boston University Stellarium. Papagiannis had managed to obtain the star ball for the Stellarium from Draper Laboratories, which used it in the training of astronauts in the lunar flight program. Also in that year, Mendillo was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. Adelman left at the end of the first semester following a negative reappointment decision. Kenneth Brecher was added as an Associate Professor in 1979. Also in that year (1979), Janes was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure and Mendillo became Associate Dean of the Graduate School, a position he held for nine years. Janes served as Acting Chairman during Spring Semester 1979, while Papagiannis was on sabbatical leave. Brecher was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in that year. Martha Liller was Adjunct Associate Professor in 1979-80.

In 1980, Deupree left to take a position on the scientific staff at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Kile Baker, a postdoctoral research associate with Papagiannis, served as Visiting Assistant Professor in 1980-81. Z.-Z. Jiu, A. Frenkel, and H. Singer joined the Department as postdoctoral research associates. At the end of 1980, Kamp left as the result of a negative tenure decision to join the scientific staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Professors Michael Papagiannis and Alan Marscher, Edited by David Bradford


Ault, W. O. 1973, Boston University – The College of Liberal Arts 1873–1973 (Boston University).