Western University Physics adn AstronomyWestern Science

Astronomy 1957 to 1991: Dr. Bill Wehlau

It was with the arrival of William Henry Wehlau [1957-91] (Berkeley, BA, 1949, PhD, 1953) at Western that astronomy began in earnest at the university. Bill Wehlau grew up in San Francisco and completed his education after serving in the U.S. infantry during the Second World War. After two years as instructor at the Case Institute of Technology (Warner and Swasey Observatory) he came to Western in 1955 as a post-doctoral fellow in the Mathematics and Astronomy Department. He was appointed to the faculty in 1957, and was rapidly promoted to Full Professor by 1961. In 1966 he became Head of the newly established Department of Astronomy (one of only two or three in Canada at the time; now there is only one - Toronto), and which he led until his retirement in 1991. He was an important figure in Canadian astronomy, actively involved in the negotiations leading to the construction of the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope (CFHT), and serving both on the Scientific Advisory Committee and on the Board (as member and chairman) of the CFHT from 1974 to 1985. He remained an active astronomer up to the time of his death in 1995.

Astronomy faculty
Left to right, Dr. Kingston, Dr. Magee (both from 1932 student yearbook), and Dr. Wehlau.
The 1960's were a decisive decade for astronomy at Western, as developments followed in rapid succession. Up until 1959 astronomy had been represented academically by just a few courses; it was only in 1959-60 that an honors astronomy program appeared in the university calendar, and in 1964 John Rice (now on the faculty of Brandon University) was the first student to graduate from the program; in 1969 he also became the first PhD to graduate in astronomy. In 1963 the first MSc in astronomy was awarded. Astronomy faculty arrived in numbers through the sixties, some to stay only briefly (Kim Innanen [1963-66], the future Dean of Science at York University, and Harry van der Laan [1964-67], later a Director-General of the European Southern Observatory), others remaining: Dave Gray [1966-present] (Michigan, PhD, 1966) and Jim Moorhead [1966-present] (UCLA, MSc, 1966); Mike Marlborough [1967-present] (Chicago, PhD, 1967), Romas Mitalas [1964 - 68 in Physics, 1968-96 in Astronomy] (Cornell, PhD, 1964), John Landstreet [1970-present] (Columbia, PhD, 1966). In 1965, filling in because of Bill Wehlau's serious illness with hepatitis, his wife, Amelia F. Wehlau [1965-1995] (Berkeley, PhD, 1953), began teaching part-time, and continued with the department until her retirement in 1995.

With Bill Wehlau's arrival the Hume Cronyn Observatory was finally put to use as a serious research instrument. Right up until his death Bill and his students produced valuable and productive research from the original refractor as well as with a 12" Cassegrain telescope which he had added to the observatory. However, Bill had bigger plans, and in the early 1960s, in addition to actively lobbying for Canadian participation in the construction of a 4-metre class telescope, Bill laid the groundwork for a larger instrument at Western.
Elginfield Observatory and crane
Completion of Elginfield Observatory, 1969.
By the time of the formation of the new Department of Astronomy in 1966, plans were well along; construction started in 1968, and the Elginfield Observatory, with its 1.2 metre telescope, was completed in the summer of 1969. It has been an excellent training facility for graduate students, and a fine research instrument, particularly for stellar spectroscopy (since the early 1980s it has been equipped with one of the larger Coudé spectrographs in the world).

Following Bill Wehlau's retirement in 1991, Dr. Dave Gray (Wisconsin, BSc, 1960; Michigan, MSc, 1962, PhD, 1966) took over as Acting Chair for 1991-92, and then Dr. John Landstreet (Reed, BA, 1962; Columbia, MA, 1963, PhD, 1966) became Chair in 1992, a position which he held until 1996.

The financial stresses of the 1990s were viewed as a threat to a small department such as Astronomy; accordingly the Dean of Science instructed the Chairs of Physics and Astronomy to develop a plan for the amalgamation of their two departments. This resulted in the formation of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in July 1996. Since the two departments had been together in the same building for the previous 15 years, this merger involved few physical changes beyond combining the two departmental offices into one. Although the Department of Astronomy has in this way ended its 30 years of independent existence, the amalgamated department continues to offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy, and the active research program in astronomy, which has sent out its graduate students into faculty positions in almost every province, continues unabated.