History of Astronomy at the University

The history of astronomy at the University of Minnesota began in 1871, when Edwin Thompson, a professor of mathematics, began offering a course entitled “Practical Astronomy.” This proved a popular course, and was joined by “Descriptive Astronomy” in 1874. Thompson was replaced by John Downey in 1880, and a second professor of mathematics and astronomy, Francis Leavenworth, was appointed in 1892.

Leavenworth and Downey advocated for the construction of the University’s first domed observatory, which began in 1895. At the time, the only facility available to instruct astronomy students was a small observatory housing a transit circle, which was considered inadequate for a major university like the University of Minnesota. A 10½″ refracting dome telescope was installed in 1896, marking the inception of astronomical research at the University.

Leavenworth retired in 1927 and was succeeded in 1931 by Willem Luyten. Luyten was the first professor to give “public night” tours of the campus observatory, which means that MIfA Public Observing Nights are now a nearly 90-year-old campus tradition! By the 1930s, astronomy classes were extremely popular with undergrads. Students took a collective total of 1400 credit-hours of astro classes in the 1931–32 school year, even though there was only one professor to teach them. Luyten's contributions to astronomy were recognized by the Bruce Medal, and he continued to publish papers well into the 1980’s.

After Professor Luyten’s retirement in 1968, the existing Astronomy Department was merged with Physics, and a small infrared astrophysics group was developed under Nick Woolf’s leadership. By 1974, the astronomy program had grown to a group of eight astrophysicists with diverse research interests. In that year, the Astronomy Department was created within the School of Physics and Astronomy, with Professor Edward Ney as its first Chairman.

Artist's rendering of the moon playing baseball with a comet.