Sunday, January 3, 2010

William Wilson Morgan

Dr. William Wilson Morgan was born on January 3, 1906 in Bethesda, Tennessee. Dr. Morgan, the son of Southern Methodist missionaries, moved frequently so he and his younger sister were initialy educated by their mother. At age 9 he went to school for the first time in Perry, Florida, then in Colorado Springs and he finished 8th grade in Poplar Bluff, Missouri in 1919. He finished his first two years of high school at Marvin Junior College in Fredricktown, Missouri and finished his last two at Central High School in Washington D.C.

In 1923 Dr. Morgan started his undergraduate study at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia finishing three years of classes before he joined the staff of Yerkes observatory after being recommended by Dr. Benjamin Wooten, Dr. Morgan's physics professor who had spent a summer at Yerkes, for a job taking daily spectroheliograms. Dr. Edwin Frost had been desperately searching for somebody to continue a series of spectroheliograms that had been taken daily for thirty years. At Yerkes, he was able to finish his bachelors by taking astronomy graduate courses and only set foot on the University of Chicago campus to sign up for the degree. He stayed at the observatory and finished his Ph.D. in 1931.

After finishing his doctorate he remained at Yerkes and began teaching a few years later, making full professor in 1947. He remained at Yerkes for 68 of his 88 years and was director from 1960 to 1963. From 1947 to 1952 he served as editor of the Astrophysical Journal. He was awarded the Bruce Medal by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1958 and was awarded the Herschel Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1983.

Dr. Morgan made numerous contributions to astronomy, including extending the Harvard system for classifying stellar spectra to include luminosity (named the MK system after Dr. Morgan and his colleague Dr. Philip Keenan), developing a system to determine the distance to remote stars more accurately, and demonstrating the existence of super giant galaxies. In 1951 he received a standing ovation from a meeting of the American Astronomical Society when he announced his discovery of two spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy.

Because astronomers are unable to look at our home galaxy from the outside and at the time were limited to earthbound observations it was difficult for astronomers to determine the shape of the Milky Way. Dr. Morgan's observations allowed him to determine that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy, similar in shape to the Andromeda nebula.

Dr. Morgan died on December 21, 1994.


Garrison, R. F.;"William Wilson Morgan (1906-1994)"; Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; (1995)107:507-512

Osterbrock, Donald E.;"William Wilson Morgan"; Biographical Memoir at National Academy Press

Wilford, John Noble; "William Wilson Morgan dies at 88; a leading U.S. astronomer"; New York Times; June 24, 1994

William Wilson Morgan's Bruce Medalist page at

No comments:

Post a Comment