Owen Gingerich, senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and professor emeritus of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University, passed away on May 28, 2023, in his 93rd year. One of the most respected names in modern astronomy and in the study of its history, Gingerich’s professional attention ranged widely in time and space, from the computer analysis of ancient astronomical tables and ephemerides to exploring the atmospheres of the Sun and stars by comparing theoretical models of their structure to observations from space. He will be remembered for many projects, most of all for his tireless campaign to track down every existing copy of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, making a detailed census of over 500 sixteenth-century texts around the world.

Owen Gingerich was the senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and professor emeritus of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard.

Gingerich was born into a Mennonite family in rural Iowa. His father was at the time a high school history teacher who was ardently working on a PhD. On hot humid nights the family would sleep outdoors, where, as Gingerich recalls, his mother introduced him to the stars. His father then deepened his fascination, bringing astronomy books home from school, most notably one on how to make a telescope. They built a telescope together when Gingerich was about nine, and with it he got his first peek at the rings of Saturn.

The family travelled a good bit as Gingerich’s father sought out his doctorate. When Gingerich was about 11, they moved to Los Angeles, California, so that his father could attend the University of Southern California for a semester. Gingerich wandered endlessly in the museums in nearby Exposition Park, and at least once he and his family visited the Mount Wilson Observatory, where Gingerich peered through the 60-inch reflector there, a memory he cherished all his life.

Gingerich entered Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, where his father was teaching. He majored in chemistry but became fascinated with journalism. The family moved again when his father took a faculty position at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. By then, in contact with local amateur astronomers and reading the “Harvard Books on Astronomy” he decided that “Harvard Observatory was the place.”  But before he moved to Harvard,  he accompanied his father to Poland in 1946 as part of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s effort to use reconditioned “liberty ships” to take “horses and cattle to war-torn countries.” “That episode,” Gingerich recalled, “led indirectly to my tremendous interest in Copernicus.”  

Gingerich applied to Harvard hoping to start a career in science journalism, taking a summer job with the magazine Sky & Telescope, then based at the Harvard College Observatory. He also became Harlow Shapley’s summer assistant. Shapley, the director of the Observatory, had been a journalist in early life, but assigned Gingerich to assist in managing the huge collection of photographic plates of star fields and spectra.

Owen Gingerich, February 1973.

With a master’s degree from Harvard in 1953, and marriage to Miriam Sensenig in June 1954, Gingerich was called up for the draft. Shapley, however, knew that the American University of Beirut was looking for an astronomer, and immediately thought of Gingerich, a pacifist Mennonite who could take the job as “alternative service” to military service. In Beirut he continued to work on his PhD thesis while developing an active astronomy program as well as upper-level mechanics courses. By then Gingerich’s continuing stream of articles for Sky & Telescope were gaining popular and professional notice.

After two years in Beirut, Gingerich returned to the United States for a teaching position at Wellesley College, but soon resumed graduate work at Harvard to complete his PhD. The Harvard College Observatory had just gained access to an IBM 704 computer, so Gingerich joined others, like Charles Whitney, putting it, and then soon a 7090, to good use in astronomy. Supported partly by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Gingerich wrote a computer program to model the structure of stellar atmospheres based upon physical variables that could be adjusted to fit observed characteristics and earned his PhD in 1962. Gingerich performed his thesis work within a “Stellar Atmospheres” group specifically created to be ready to interpret data from ultraviolet observatories in space as well as observations of the solar spectrum from rockets. 

Gingerich became the “leading systems programmer” on a new and improved 7094 and applied it to a variety of interests. At first it was, as he put it, “[a]ll stellar atmospheres, all the time.” But soon he looked into broader applications; from his experience teaching in Beirut, and before then as a teaching assistant to the historian I. B. Cohen. And now at Harvard, in 1963 he applied his broader interests in history to build ephemerides for solar and planetary longitudes over a 4,500-year period. This was part of his growing fascination with assessing Babylonian planetary, solar, and lunar tables, and by 1967 it gained him a joint appointment in the History of Science department at Harvard.

Staff of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams of the International Astronomical Union, located at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, plotting the course of a newly discovered comet. (Left to right) Richard Southworth, Barbara Welther, Brian Marsden (seated) and Owen Gingerich.

Through the 1960s Gingerich’s research continued to center on stellar atmospheres and he maintained his continuing stream of articles for Sky & Telescope, becoming very active in a wide range of educational programs. His series of “Laboratory Exercises in Astronomy” became an important source for introductory astronomy courses, as did his contributions to Harvard Project Physics. By the 1970s, his research and publications had shifted almost completely to historical topics, centering on the works of Copernicus, Kepler, and Hevelius, and, unusual for historians of his generation, exploring the social, cultural, and technical influences on them that shaped their work, from cataloguing to theorizing on the nature of the world system.

Gingerich was never single-threaded, teaching, writing, public lecturing (including at the National Air and Space Museum, see photo), mentoring, and becoming very active in professional societies such as the American Astronomical Society, where he co-created its historical astronomy division. He also helped to organize and lead some of the most ambitious multi-authored compendia for the history of astronomy. Throughout his career he played many influential roles and won countless awards and prizes.

Owen Gingerich speaking at a public lecture at the National Air and Space Museum.

In 2005-2006, when the question “Is Pluto a Planet?” became a critical issue, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) asked Gingerich to head a committee to deliberate over the matter. Gingerich passionately argued to retain Pluto as a planet, given historical precedent. The IAU Executive Committee endorsed this compassionate view, but the members of the General Assembly voted it down, a decision still being debated.

Historian, astronomer, teacher, and colleague, Gingerich enriched many lives and stimulated many minds. News of his passing stimulated a flood of encomia on the web by people who benefitted from his guidance and collegiality.

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