Stargazing: 150 Years of Astronomy at the University of Michigan

Faculty Profiles

Franz F. Brünnow

The first director of the Detroit Observatory, Brünnow was recruited by Tappan after the Regents' first two choices for Director declined the position. Brünnow had been working at the Berlin Observatory at the time he was approached by Henry Philip Tappan about Directorate of the Detroit Observatory.

Franz F. Brünnow

Franz F. Brünnow, Michigan's first
Observatory Director and full-time
astronomy faculty member. From UM Faculty
and Staff Portrait Series, Box 1.

Three years after his arrival in Ann Arbor, Brünnow married Rebecca Tappan, Henry Philip Tappan's daughter in 1857. Brünnow served as Director of the Observatory from 1854 until 1863, when the Brünnows and Tappans permanently resettled in Europe. Tappan had been dismissed as President of the University and Brünnow subsequently resigned his post at the Observatory.

After leaving Ann Arbor for Europe, Brünnow assumed a position at Dunsink Observatory near Dublin, Ireland.

James Craig Watson

James Watson

James Craig Watson. From James C.
Watson Papers, Box 1.

Following Brünnow's departure from the University, James C. Watson assumed the directorship of the Observatory. Watson had been viewed as something of a genius for his mathematical abilities. Some of his students might have said that he was as portly as he was talented; his girth was a frequent target of students' mockery.

During his directorship, students complained of "considerable trouble in obtaining tickets of entrance and still greater difficulty in gaining the desired admission . . . So long as the University advertises to allow admission to the Observatory, it might be well to make the means of gaining this entrance a little more practical" (University Chronicle, February 1, 1868).

Detroit Observatory Admission Ticket

A coveted admission ticket to the Detroit Observatory.
From the Observatories Vertical File.

Watson publicly made admission tickets available, but in practice was reluctant to let the public enter the Observatory for viewings, likely because public tours diverted time away from his observational work.

Watson left the Observatory in 1879 for a position at the newly founded Washburn Observatory at the University of Wisconsin. While overseeing construction work of his new home in 1880, he fell ill and died shortly after. In his funeral memorial address, University President Frieze expressed, "The University is in mourning. She has lost the foremost and brightest of her sons. This community, this State, the whole world of science mourns his loss. A great light has gone out forever. Professor Watson is dead!" 1

Mark Walrod Harrington
An interesting figure indeed, Mark Harrington served as director of the Observatory for twelve years, from 1879-1891.

James Walrod Harrington

Mark W. Harrington.
From UM Faculty and Staff
Portrait Series, Box 2.

Students appreciated his accessible teaching style, and he advocated for new student observing equipment, as well as additional classroom space. Harrington published articles on botanical subjects and a plant identification guide; he'd previously held professorial appointments in botany, zoology, and geology. Like most other University of Michigan professors, Harrington was well traveled. Before assuming the directorship, Harrington participated in geological surveys in Alaska. Later, while an astronomy professor and Observatory director, had spent one year (1876) of study in Leipzig, Germany, with an addition year (1877) teaching astronomy and mathematics in Beijing, China.

In 1891, Harrington left Ann Arbor to become Chief of the National Weather Bureau, a post he held for three subsequent years. His experience at the Weather Bureau soured; he proved to be a poor manager when in charge of non- scientists and non-academics. The situation became so unbearable that Harrington was removed from duty. In retrospect, it was likely during his time at the Weather Bureau when his mental illness moved from a latent to more active state. Harrington then moved to Seattle to assume the presidency for the Territorial University of Washington (Washington did not become a state until 1889). The political climate at the University was turbulent and Harrington experienced leadership difficulties. He resigned his post two years later. After several intervening years, Harrington re-entered the Weather Bureau for one year (1898-1899), before retiring due to poor health. One day, he wandered away from home, saying that he was going out for dinner, and that was the last any of his family saw of him until 1908. He had no recollection of his name or history when he applied for shelter at a police station in Newark, NJ in 1907. During his absence, he worked menial jobs in China, Washington State, Louisiana, but perhaps other places as well. Some speculate that Harrington returned to places where he had previously worked. Though Harrington's family located him in an asylum, his mental state never improved to the point where he could return home and resume his duties. He died in 1926 at the New Jersey State Hospital at Morris Plains. In a letter about Harrington the Hospital Medical Director wrote,

"In regard to your inquiry of recent date concerning Prof. Mark W. Harrington, I will say that there has not been any apparent change in his mental condition during the last two years. He will not recognize his former identity or give any information concerning his previous history and experience. He claims to have undergone a complete metamorphosis in his personality and insists that his legal name is John Doe. If you desire to communicate with him you might address him as John Doe #8, Greystone Park, NJ." 2

Harrington's case is clearly one of the most sensational faculty histories in the department--his situation was widely covered by the newspapers of the day.

William J. Hussey

W.J. Hussey (seated, furthest left; Mrs. Ethel Hussey is the frontmost 
seated woman) with astronomy colleagues

W.J. Hussey (seated furthest left; Mrs. Ethel Hussey
is the frontmost seated woman) with astronomy colleagues.
From Hussey Family Papers, Box 10.

After Harrington left Ann Arbor, W.J. Hussey served as acting director of the Observatory, until Asaph Hall, Jr. assumed the position officially. Hussey left to take a professorship at Stanford University, where he taught and was able to conduct observations at the Lick Observatory. During the summer of 1892, Hussey created painstaking charcoal drawings of Mars' surface; the same images would be captured by a Mariner satellite not quite 100 years later.
William Hussey's Sketches of Mars' Surface

William Hussey's Sketches of Mars' Surface.
From Observatory Records, Box 16.

The similarities between Hussey's sketches and the satellite images are striking; one instantly recognizes that both depict the same celestial object.

Mariner 69 Satellite Image of Mars, 1969.
From AURA Records, Box 16.

Hussey was particularly interested in studying asteroid pairs in the early 1900s. Hussey frequently participated in eclipse expeditions, both in North American and abroad. Additionally, he traveled to Egypt, Argentina, and South Africa to supervise the erecting of new observatories. From 1910 to about 1915, Hussey had a dual appointment at the Observatory in Ann Arbor and at the La Plata Observatory at the National University in Argentina. Of his trip to Bloemfontein, South Africa, Hussey wrote,

"The Cape Observatory is well equipped and as we have known for many years, it has done excellent work. Its location is not favorable. It is about three or four miles from the center of Cape Town, and not on high ground, but almost down to sea level. Right back of Cape Town Table Mountain rises to an elevation of more than 3500 feet, I think the highest point is 3558 feet above the sea. But it would not be a good place for an Observatory, on account of its being so constantly covered with cloud. The cloud forms about its summit on one side, and flows over it and dissolves on the other side, keeping the top covered to a much greater proportion of the time than the surrounding country."3

Hussey had long wanted to establish a University of Michigan observatory in the southern hemisphere; one wonders if Hussey's trip to South Africa had as much to do with helping to establish the Bloemfontein Observatory as it did with scouting out a site for a future Michigan-owned and operated observatory.

Under Hussey's direction, the Astronomy department added new classrooms and a students' observatory in 1908.

1908 Dome Under Construction

The reverse of this photo reads, all in capital letters,
"YOU MAY WANT THIS." From Observatory Records, Box 16.

Hussey also developed the curriculum as well, offering a broader range of courses than had previously been available.

Hussey died abruptly in London en route to South Africa in Fall 1926, his dream of a southern hemisphere observing facility nearing actualization. On November 18, 1926, "at 3:15 p.m. the box containing Prof. Hussey's cremated remains was brought to his office, which he left just six weeks before almost to the minute."4 Hussey's ashes were interred at Forest Hill Cemetery in 1929 alongside his fist wife, Ethel.

Robert R. McMath
McMath, director of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory

McMath-Hulbert Observatory, Lake Angelus

McMath-Hulbert Observatory, Lake Angelus, MI, ca. 1950.
From UM Photographs Vertical File.

operated by the University of Michigan near Pontiac, MI, was born May 11, 1891 in Detroit.

R. McMath

Robert R. McMath, amateur astronomer,
professional industrialist.
From UM Detroit Observatory Records, Box 17.

Francis C. McMath, Robert's father, and Henry S. Hulbert were the namesakes for the McMath Hulbert Observatory. Earning his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 1913, his early career was spent designing bridges, as an Army Engineer in the Air Service, in real estate development, and in managerial positions for the Detroit-area Motors Metal Manufacturing.

In 1928, he directed his energies to astronomy, having been a devoted amateur astronomer while working in the industrial sector. He spent the next decade as Director of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory at Lake Angelus, near Pontiac. In 1939, McMath returned to his industrial origins, serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Motors Metal Manufacturing, the company where he'd earlier risen from general manager to president and director. Concurrently, he also continued his directorship of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory. McMath, though not conventionally trained, became a widely known, widely published professional astronomer, and he did so almost exclusively within the state of Michigan. His membership in over 20 professional societies put him in contact with many of the great scientific minds from the period between the World Wars. As his publication record 5indicates, McMath was particularly interested in solar prominences, sunspots, and in the study of motion picture capture of solar phenomena.

During World War II, McMath participated in army research, developing pneumatic artillery triggers, aerial photography, and precision telescopes, among other products. In the late 1950s, he also participated in navy weapons research. As the years went by, McMath stopped publishing articles on astronomical topics, turning instead to his other talents.

The following excerpts from a letter to Robert McMath from the Board of Regents highlights his contributions to astronomy at the University of Michigan and the field in general, as well as the obstacles he faced as a self-trained, amateur astronomer.

"Whereas, Dr. Robert R. McMath, devoted friend of The University of Michigan from the time he earned the B.C.E degree in 1913, is about to relinquish his active role as Professor of Astronomy; . . . whereas, the many gifts which Robert R. McMath has presented to the University have added great stature and genuine character to the University's program in astronomy; and whereas, Robert R. McMath, the amateur astronomer of the early thirties was eclipsed by the professional astronomer and authority of today who has become the highly productive scholar in the fields of solar astronomy and infrared spectroscopy; and whereas he is widely recognized for his authoritative studies in continuous records of celestial phenomena by motion picture methods and for his studies in the design and construction of telescopes" 6

The letter goes on to thank McMath for his contributions toward establishing the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, AZ and expresses gratitude and best wishes for the future.

Heber Doust Curtis
Heber D. Curtis, was affectionately referred to as HDC

Heber Curtis

H.D. Curtis. From UM Faculty
and Staff Portrait Series, Box 1.

by his colleagues, traveled extensively, both internationally and domestically, to observe eclipses, one of his research specialties. Curtis undertook much of the planning for eclipse expeditions during his tenure at Michigan as director of the University of Michigan Observatories, encompassing more than just the Detroit Observatory.
Maine Expedition

Equipment used for elipse expedition, Fryeburg, Maine.
A 40-foot portable telescope is depicted in this image.

Of the August 1932 eclipse expedition to Freyburg, Maine, Curtis wrote to his son, Baldwin in December 1931 that
"I am beginning to make plans for the eclipse of August 31st next, to be located at Freyburg, Maine, the same town as chosen by the Lick party. . . You and I, according to present plans, will get there about August 1st, to start the camp. Am looking for a volunteer to take charge of the 40-foot which Aitken is loaning us. The one in charge will not see the eclipse, except a few seconds by lifting up a flap. You may be the goat in charge of this." 7

Log Book

Fryeburg Expedition Log of
observing and camp activities.
From Heber D. Curtis Papers,
Box 1. Click for larger image.

Curtis had begun his career at the Lick Observatory in California and so would have been particularly interested in the prospect of observing again with former colleagues. A detailed log of eclipse camp preparation and observing activities was kept from this expedition.

Hazel Marie Losh
One of the most popular astronomy professors in the history of the department, Hazel M. Losh taught at the University from 1928 until her retirement in 1969.

Hazel M. Losh

Professor Hazel Marie Losh in the observer's chair
inside the dome of the Detroit Observatory.
From Hazel Marie Losh Papers, Box 2.

Rumor has it--though it is based on hearsay--that Losh had a unique grading scale:
"A for Athletes
B for Boys
C for Co-eds."

One former student, having got wind of accusations against Professor Losh, signed a supportive letter to her in the following way:
"No athlete, I: I remain today as I was then, a spindly, phthisic, ill-coordinated, non- competitive philosopher, who never quite saw nor understood what was going on in the great green field of a Saturday afternoon, and who is forever, this disability notwithstanding, your most respectful and admiring student." 9

A fervent Wolverine fan, Losh attend home games and traveled to Bowl Games to support Michigan,

Hazel M. Losh with Michigan Lettermen

Professor Hazel Marie Losh on the football field
with Michigan Letterman, Hazel M. Losh Papers, Box 2.

but football wasn't her only love; she cheered on hockey, basketball, and baseball teams as well. In a 1976 interview with Thomas Slavens, the 78-year old Losh attempted to describe her affinity with collegiate athletics, saying "athletics has been a great avocation, I guess you'd say, a hobby, or something-- it's so different from astronomy. Of course, astronomy is the reason I'm here. And it was my first reason for being here and the thing I've liked from the time I was a child. But still, you can't just have astronomy all the time. . . 9"

Seibert S. 
Sproull, History of Astronomy in Verse, 1949

Seibert S. Sproull's History of Astronomy in Verse, 1949. From Hazel M. Losh Papers, Box 1.

A colorful character, Losh tried to instill in students a sense of enthusiasm for astronomy. One of the ways in which she did this was to assign a paper on the history of astronomy, to be written in verse. Several other examples survive and can be found in the Hazel M. Losh papers.

Losh's greatest contribution to the University consisted of her educational legacy. In a 1970 letter, Losh wrote, "I estimate that I have taught 50,000 students during my 42 years on the staff at the University of Michigan (a guess, but I think a conservative one)." 10 Losh so enjoyed teaching that she retired unwillingly--she had originally been slated to retire in 1968, but arranged to remain on active faculty status until she finally accepted her retirement in 1969.

1. Memorial addresses delivered in University Hall, November 26, 1880, at the funeral of James Craig Watson. (1882), p. 5, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

2. Medical Director to H.S. Jewett, 27 March 1914. Mark W. Harrington Necrology Supplemental File, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

3. William J. Hussey to Colliau, 3 December 1923. Hussey Family Papers, Box 2. "Correspondence: 1923, July-December." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

4. Observatory Notes. University of Michigan Observatory Records, Box 8. "Records, 1921-1966." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

5. Robert Raynolds McMath. Robert R. McMath Papers, Box 1. "Vitae, dossiers, bibliography (1)." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

6. Letter to McMath from the Board of Regents, 21 June, 1961. Robert R. McMath Papers, Box 1. "Vitae, dossiers, bibliography (2)." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

7. Letter to 'Binks' Curtis from Heber Doust Curtis, 7 December, 1931. Heber Doust Curtis Papers, Box 1. "Correspondence, 1931." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

8. Letter to Cavendar from Losh, 27 October 1970, Hazel Marie Losh Papers, Box 1. "Biographical Material." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

9. Letter to Professor Losh from Harold Walsh, n.d., Hazel Marie Losh Papers, Box 1. "Correspondence, Undated and 1921-1923." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

10. Slavens, Thomas. Interview with Dr. Hazel Losh, 1976, Hazel Marie Losh Papers, Box 1. "Correspondence, Undated and 1921-1923." Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

This Faculty Profiles page was created February 2009 by Bentley Library graduate student assistant Rachael Dreyer, University of Michigan School of Information.

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