Western University Physics adn AstronomyWestern Science

Astronomy up to 1957: Beginnings

As with the rest of the Faculty of Arts, both Physics and Astronomy got off to a slow start at Western. It was only after the Faculty of Arts was revived in 1895 that there was any teaching in natural science, and the first mention of astronomy appears to be a course, "An outline of the main phenomena of our solar system," offered in the 1915-16 calendar by Professor Patterson, who was at the time the only Professor of Mathematics.

In 1921 Harold Reynolds Kingston [1921-47] (Queens, MA, 1908; Chicago, PhD, 1914) (footnote 2) arrived from the University of Manitoba and took over as Head of the Department of Mathematics. He took a great, although largely amateur, interest in astronomy, and following his arrival at Western the name of the department was changed to the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy, a name which remained until 1958-59. The astronomy offerings were altered and expanded; in 1923-24 the calendar lists honors courses in Descriptive Astronomy and Mathematical Astronomy, as well as a graduate course in Celestial Mechanics. Dr. Kingston made observations of solar eclipses (London in 1925, and Louiseville, Quebec in 1932) in conjunction with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, whose London branch he helped to found. He apparently loved to share his enthusiasm for astronomy with the general public, presenting displays on astronomy at the Western Fair and frequently giving talks on astronomy to groups outside the university (Tamblyn, 1938, Willis, 1970).

By 1930 there were three faculty members in the Department, including, in particular, Gordon Richard Magee [1928-73] (Western, BA, 1925; Chicago, MSc, 1926, PhD, 1933), who was hired as an Instructor in 1928. He continued as a mainstay of the Department for over four decades until his retirement in 1973. Dr. Magee also had some astronomical connections through his PhD supervisor at Chicago, F.R. Moulton, who was well known for his work in celestial mechanics. When Dr. Kingston stepped down as Department Head in 1947 to take the position of Dean of Arts and Science, Dr. Magee took over both as Head of the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy (a position he maintained until 1967), and also in teaching astronomy, and promoting it in the community at large.

Dr. Kingston was a prime mover in getting Mrs. Hume Cronyn to finance the construction of the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory. This building with its telescope was officially opened on 25 October 1940, and was presented to the University by Mrs. Cronyn in memory of her husband, grandson of the first Bishop of Huron (founder of Huron College). This was a fitting memorial to Hume Cronyn, who had an interest in scientific research, and as a member of the House of Commons was chairman of the special Commons committee which recommended the establishment of the National Research Council, of which he became a member, and continued so until his death in 1933.

The Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory - 1946
Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory in about 1945.

The telescope in the Cronyn Observatory is a ten-inch refractor, and at the time of construction the lens was the largest made in the western hemisphere. Without additional charge the university received from the manufacturer, Perkin-Elmer, a Schmidt camera which they had just recently developed, and it was fastened to the same mount as the refractor. Over the years the Cronyn Observatory has been very important both as a research and teaching instrument and to make astronomy accessible to the general public, and it has continued in that role right up to the present.