100 Years of UA Astronomy Made Possible by Lavinia Steward's Gift
The arrival of a man who was fired for being a good scientist, followed by a major donation, launched the UA on a path to becoming the nation's leader in research dollars expended for astronomical and space sciences.

By Daniel Stolte, University Communications
Oct. 14, 2016


Tom Fleming teaches an astronomy class in the FullDome theater at Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium.
Tom Fleming teaches an astronomy class in the FullDome theater at Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium. (Photo: Jacob Chinn/UA Alumni Association)

One hundred years ago, on Oct. 18, Rufus von KleinSmid, then president of the University of Arizona, canceled all classes. Students celebrated with a pep rally and a bonfire, and a press conference was called to announce the first big grant the University had ever received at the time.

An anonymous donor had donated $60,000 — about $1.3 million in today's money — "to build a telescope of huge size." 

That gift would transform a dusty patch of farmland into one of the world's powerhouses of astronomy. 

UANews asked UA astronomer Thomas Fleming, whose lectures have inspired the public and students alike, how astronomy got off the ground at the Tucson campus.

Q: What events led to this gift that enabled astronomy at the UA? 

A: In 1894, Percival Lowell, a wealthy amateur astronomer from Boston, hired a man named Andrew Ellicott Douglass and sent him to the Arizona territory to find a suitable location to build an observatory. After visiting Tombstone, Tucson, Phoenix and Prescott, Douglass settled on Flagstaff and began to build Lowell Observatory, which would become famous for discovering Pluto. Lowell and Douglass observed Mars night after night and sketched what they saw. Now, Lowell is famous for coming up with this idea that the lines he saw on mars were canals built by a civilization to bring water from the ice caps to irrigate the red, desert-like equatorial regions. He actually wrote books about the civilizations on Mars with no evidence, but it was conventional wisdom in 1900 that there was a civilization on Mars. That inspired H.G. Wells to write his novel, "The War of the Worlds."

Douglass, on the other hand, was trained as a scientist. He knew that visually observing a planet with your eyes, processing that information in your brain and then drawing sketches of it had inherent errors. He even built a little mockup of Mars and put it on top of his house a couple of miles away from the telescope. He would point the telescope at it to see what it would look like through the telescope, and how accurately he could reproduce what was really on that disc. He tried to quantify his errors. When he wrote a letter expressing his concern about the scientific veracity of his boss to the observatory's business manager, who happened to be Lowell's brother-in-law, Lowell responded the very next day: "Mr. Douglass, your services are no longer required."

In 1906, Douglass joined the UA as a professor in geography, physics and astronomy, and started lobbying the Arizona legislature for money to fund an observatory. But in those days, it was not common for government agencies to fund basic research, and this is where we come to Lavinia Steward, who had moved to Arizona from Illinois, where her husband had started an oat-milling company that would later become Quaker Oats. The person that connected Douglass to Steward was Clara Fish Roberts, whose biography is on the UA Women's Plaza of Honor. She was the first student to matriculate at the UA in 1891, and the only woman in the first graduating class. Fish Roberts knew Steward, and when she learned that Steward was thinking about making a sizable donation to the UA in honor of her late husband, it looks like Roberts informed her about Douglass and his attempts to find funding to build an observatory. Steward, who had a 3-inch backyard telescope and a keen interest in astronomy, made her gift to the UA to fund an observatory with a telescope of 36 inches in diameter, but the construction was delayed due to World War I. On July 17, 1922, Douglass obtained first light with the new telescope, pointing it at Venus. The telescope was officially dedicated on April 23, 1923. Back then, the observatory dome was off campus; on land used as an ostrich farm by the UA's College of Agriculture.

Q: What did astronomers not know in those days that they know now?

A: A lot. We weren't sure about the nature of the Milky Way Galaxy, for example. Was our galaxy the entire universe, or was it only one of many galaxies in the universe? A Ph.D. thesis was published in 1916 proving that the sun was not at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, but somewhere off to the side. We also didn't know if planets were unique to our sun. We had no idea whether there were planets around other stars. Now we do. Cosmology was in its infancy because the Big Bang theory hadn't been proposed yet. At that time, there was no reason to believe that the universe wasn't this large infinite expanse that had always existed. We didn't know as much about stellar evolution as we know today. We had no idea how long the sun had existed. We didn't even know why the sun shines and whether it would last forever or if it would eventually burn out. Astronomers were not able to take quantitative data. At that time, you were looking at something with your eye and draw what you saw. That's not very quantitative. Photography, which had been invented in the mid 1800s and other techniques had to come together to break light into a rainbow, allowing astronomer to obtain spectra. It wasn't until the development of computers that allowed us to automate telescopes, and that caused an explosion of data and our understanding of stars, galaxies, the universe. And then of course, there was the development of detectors that could see light that is invisible to the human eye. In 1916, we only were observing light that the human eye could see; there was no infrared, no x-rays, no radio astronomy.

Q: What are some lesser-known facts from the history of the UA's Department of Astronomy?

A: Starting in 1922, the Department of Astronomy has offered the longest continuous public outreach program at the University, consisting of a public lecture and telescope viewing. The first bachelor's degree was awarded in 1929 to a gentleman named Philip Keenan, who later helped develop a system used to classify stars according to their spectral type and luminosity. Michael Chriss, an astronomy professor and planetarium director who earned our first master's degree in 1959, will be at the ceremony on Oct. 17. He retired to Tucson and teaches our History of Astronomy course. 1965 saw the first round of PhDs, awarded to five students.

Q: What are next big things to watch in astronomy, both in general and at the UA?

A: The big holy grail in the galaxy is to find another Earth. But also trying to understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy; the earliest formation of matter in the universe—how did matter come together to form stars and galaxies? Did stars form first and then galaxies? Or did galaxies form first and then stars out of the galaxies? One of the themes of the documentary, "Focusing the Universe," is that the whole enterprise of astronomy—which has impacted the state of Arizona economically and propelled the UA to being number one in the nation in astronomical and space sciences as far as research dollars expended—it all started with a gift from Mrs. Lavinia Steward. And to keep us at the cutting edge of astronomy—in 1923, a 36-inch telescope was pretty cutting edge—we needed another philanthropist. It's interesting that at this 100-year point, a man named Richard F. Caris comes forward to keep astronomy going at the UA.

Q: How did the gift from Richard F. Caris impact astronomical work at the UA?

A: Caris gave money to develop the Mount Lemmon Sky Center, which makes it easier for members of the public to use a relatively large telescope at a very dark site on top of a mountain. His most recent gift of $20 million allows us to participate in the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is going to make it possible to maybe find earth-like planets around other stars, and to answer big questions, for example about the origin of the earliest—and farthest—galaxies in the universe. He's following in the tradition of Lavinia Steward, and his gift is the bookend to hers.

"Focusing the Universe" tells the history of astronomy in southern Arizona by tracing the growth of Steward Observatory from a single telescope in one observatory to many telescopes in multiple observatories. Produced and directed by Peter Beudert and Michael Mulcahy of the UA's School of Theatre, Film and Television, the full-length documentary will premiere on Oct. 17 (see "Extra Info"). The film was funded in part by the UA Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, the UA College of Science and the UA Office for Research & Discovery. View the introduction here:

Extra info

A special public evening on Oct. 17 will be held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lavinia Steward's gift to UA Astronomy. The event features the premiere of "Focusing the Universe," a documentary about the history of astronomy in southern Arizona, and a panel discussion including Buell Jannuzi, the Steward Observatory director, Catherine Ellis of the Oracle Historical Society and film directors Michael Mulcahy and Peter Beudert. The evening will conclude with viewing time on the observatory's Raymond E. White 21-inch telescope in the white-domed building. The event is free and open to the public.