History of the McCormick Observatory

Heber Doust Curtis




Heber D. Curtis
Heber D. Curtis eventually became famous for his role in astronomy's "Great Debate" with Harlow Shapley in which Curtis argued that what astronomers called spiral nebulae were actually spiral galaxies outside our own Milky Way. Before we leap to science fame, we had simpler beginnings as a graduate student at the University of Virginia's Leander McCormick Observatory.

Curtis was born on June 27, 1872 in Muskegon, Michigan, the son of a one-armed Union veteran named Orson Blair Curtis and his wife Sarah Eliza Doust. His early education had little to do with astronomy. He attended Detroit High School and went on to the University of Michigan. He studied there for three years to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree and another year to receive his Master of Arts degree, both in classical languages. In his four years at the University of Michigan, he never stepped foot into the observatory there.

Upon graduation he returned to Detroit High School as a Latin instructor and six months later moved to Napa College, a small Methodist institution near San Francisco, where he taught Latin and Greek. He discovered astronomy as a hobby there with Napa College's small refracting telescope.

In 1895, he married Mary D. Raper and they went on to have four children. In 1896, Napa College merged with the College of the Pacific in San Jose and in the next year Curtis switched to become a professor of mathematics and astronomy. Curtis spent the summers of 1897 and 1898 at the Lick Observatory to further his astronomical studies and returned to the University of Michigan in the summer of 1899 to study celestial mechanics.

In 1900, Curtis attended the eclipse in Georgia as part of the Lick expedition. There, astronomers from other institutions, including the University of Virginia, encouraged Curtis to attend graduate school at UVa. That fall, Curtis, with his wife and two small children, moved to Charlottesville, where he studied as a Vanderbilt fellow under Ormond Stone. Curtis and his family managed to get by with only his fellowship to live on and his wife later remarked to McCormick Observatory director Samuel Mitchell that their days at Virginia were "the happiest of their lives."

He received his Ph.D. from UVa in 1902 and the Lick Observatory immediately hired him, where he stayed for the next eighteen years. While at Lick Observatory, he composed his paper on spiral galaxies. It was the presentation of that paper, before the National Academy of Sciences in 1920, that erupted into a debate with Harlow Shapley now known as the "Great Debate." Edwin Hubble would later prove Curtis's theories correct.

In 1920, Curtis left the Lick Observatory for the University of Pittsburgh to serve as the director of the Allegheny Observatory. Unfortunately, the growing industrialization in Pittsburgh proved detrimental to astronomical observation. In 1930, Curtis returned to the University of Michigan one more time to serve as the director of its observatory.

Sadly, Curtis spent much of his last years suffering from a severe thyroid disease and he passed away in Ann Arbor on June 9, 1942. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and remembered as a well respected astronomer.