Albert Whitford, eminent astronomer and former director of Lick Observatory, dies at 96

Albert E. Whitford, an acclaimed astronomer, former director of the University of California's Lick Observatory, and a professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, died on Thursday, March 28. He was 96.

Whitford died at Meriter Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, after a short illness.

"He was a very important figure in American astronomy and at Lick Observatory," said Donald Osterbrock, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC and a close friend of Whitford. "He did a tremendous amount of excellent observational research, chiefly on the structure of our Galaxy, and was a leader of American astronomy for many years."

Born in 1905 in Milton, Wisconsin, Whitford received a B.A. from Milton College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Mt. Wilson Observatory in California, he joined the astronomy faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked at Wisconsin's Washburn Observatory for 23 years, serving as its director from 1948 through 1958.

As director of the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton from 1958 to 1968, Whitford oversaw the completion of the 3-meter (120-inch) Shane Telescope in 1959, the observatory's premier research instrument. At the time, it was the second largest telescope in the world, and it is still a highly productive instrument. He was also director when the observatory moved its headquarters to the newly established UC Santa Cruz campus in 1966. The Mt. Hamilton astronomers formed the core of UCSC's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

"He planned and led that move, and his leadership and diplomacy made the other astronomers willing to go along, so the move was accomplished without disrupting the observatory," Osterbrock said.

Whitford is best known for his pioneering work in photoelectric photometry, which began with Joel Stebbins at the University of Wisconsin. Trained in laboratory physics, Whitford greatly improved the sensitivity of photometers. This led to the first precise measurements of the magnitudes and colors of many faint stars, clusters, and galaxies. The "Whitford Reddening Curve," which quantifies the interstellar absorption of light, proved vital in mapping the distribution of stars within our Milky Way Galaxy. Whitford also studied the structures and dynamics of the spherical blobs of stars at the centers of galaxies, known as nuclear bulges.

Whitford played a key role in the growth of U.S. astronomy, presiding over several national commissions on astronomical research. He chaired a 1953 conference that led to the national observatory system, and he presided over a 1964 report from the National Academy of Sciences, known as the Whitford report, that laid out the first of a series of 10-year plans for the field.

After resigning from the Lick Observatory directorship in 1968, Whitford returned to full-time research and teaching. He continued to collaborate actively and publish papers with other astronomers at UCSC even after formally retiring from the active faculty when he reached mandatory retirement age in 1973. Whitford lived in Santa Cruz until 1996, when he returned to Madison, Wisconsin. There he continued his active interest in research from an office in the university's Astronomy Department until October 2001.

Whitford received many honors for his work in astronomy. The American Astronomical Society named him the Henry Norris Russell Lecturer in 1986, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific awarded him its Catherine Wolfe Bruce Medal in 1996, the highest honors given by each of those societies. Whitford served as president of the American Astronomical Society from 1967 to 1970, and he was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received honorary doctorate degrees from Milton College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Whitford married Eleanor Bell Whitelaw in 1937. They remained married until her death in 1986. He is survived by three children--William C. Whitford of Madison, WI, Mary Graves of San Francisco, CA, and Martha Barss of Baltimore, MD--and nine grandchildren, plus many nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, April 14, at 1 p.m. in the auditorium of the Meriter Health Center in Madison. Contributions in Whitford's memory may be sent to Lick Observatory at: Office of the Director, UCO/Lick Observatory, University of California, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA, 95064.


A photo of Albert Whitford can be downloaded from the web at