History of the McCormick Observatory

Charles Scott Venable




Charles Scott Venable was instrumental in acquiring the donation of 26¼-inch refractor telescope at the Leander McCormick Observatory.

Charles S. Venable

He was born on March 19, 1827 at Longwood, his family's estate in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Venable's father, Nathaniel Venable, helped to found Hampden-Sydney College, so it was no surprise when young Charles Venable went off to school there at age twelve. After three years of study and two years as a math tutor, Venable went to the University of Virginia for one session, but was quickly called back to be a math professor at Hampden-Sydney, where he remained until 1856. At that time, he moved to the University of Georgia to serve as a professor of Natural Philosophy. In 1857, he went to South Carolina College (which would later become the University of South Carolina) to become the chair of Mathematics and Astronomy. While teaching at South Carolina, Venable attended an expedition to observe the eclipse of 1860.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Venable enlisted and served in the Confederate army beginning with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, straight through to the surrender at Appomattox in 1865. In 1862, General Robert E. Lee chose Venable as one of his aides and Venable remained close to Lee until the end of hostilities. Through his time in the Confederate Army, he obtained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, a title he held the remainder of his life.

Venable came to the University of Virginia in 1865 and began his thirty-one year term as a math professor. The South during Reconstruction was invariably short on funds and supplies, so Venable wrote math texts for the University. He served has Chairman of the Faculty 1870-1873 and again in 1886-1888. He helped to procure more than doubled state appropriations to start new science departments at the University of Virginia in the late 19th century and was instrumental in the starting of new schools in astronomy, biology, agriculture, applied chemistry, engineering, natural history and geology. In his time at UVA, Col. Venable lived in Pavillion VIII on the Lawn and in Monroe House.

Col. Venable acted as the primary correspondant with Leander J. McCormick from 1870 through to the dedication of the observatory in 1885. Col. Venable served on the committee appointed by the Board of Visitors to obtain information about the proposed telescope and to suggest a possible site for the observatory. Venable also spear-headed the fund-raising efforts, particularly from friends and alumni of the University.

Venable married Margaret Cantey McDowell, daughter of Governor James McDowell, in 1856. Together they had five children and she tragically died in 1874. He married again in 1876 to Mrs. Mary Southall Brown, the widow of Colonel J. Thompson Brown. Together they had a son and raised his five other children. Col. Venable made considerable contributions to the University community and has been honored with the University dormitory, Venable Hall, named for him. He was elected professor emeritus in 1896. He died August 11, 1900 and was buried in the University Cemetery.