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Interview of Dorothy Locanthi by David DeVorkin on 1977 August 3, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4747
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Covers professional career at Vassar and Smith Colleges, association with Henry Norris Russell and his family, International Astronomical Union (IAU) meeting in Stockholm 1939, and work during World War II.
Well, I’d like you to review the highlights of your whole career. Where you were, the approximate years. You don’t have to be exact. And then talk about your association with Dr. Russell, how you came to work with him, how it was working with him.
Well, after I left Berkeley (that was 1937), I went to Vassar and I taught there for about a year and then the next year I went to Smith and it was, oh yes, between Vassar and Smith when I first met Dr. Russell on the boat going to Norway in connection with the IAU meeting in Stockholm. Dr. Russell was on that boat and so was Rupert Wildt. That would have been a real nice trip if I had been a good sailor, which I wasn’t.
This was an interesting period, the late ‘30s. Were you involved at all or did you have a chance to listen to their scientific discussions?
Oh yes, I went to the meetings and it was a little hard to listen to anything because at that time they were remodeling their big auditorium while we met. We met in the Parliament House. There was scaffolding outside. They were hammering and running those loud drills the whole time. So it was a little hard to hear what was going on.
But particularly, let’s say in the boat going over, did they talk?
Oh you mean scientific discussion?
Sure. These would be purely off the record.
I’m afraid I wasn’t in on any of those. I’m afraid not.
Did you talk with Dr. Russell personally?
Oh, just mundane things. I don’t think we had any scientific discussions. We probably did but I just don’t remember. I wish I could.
You graduated from Berkeley in astronomy?
Well, I graduated from Vassar in Physics with a minor in Astronomy and Math. Then I went to Berkeley. I got my doctor’s degree in Berkeley. First I went to Mills and got a Masters degree in Astronomy there and that’s how I started on S-Type stars. My thesis was on S-Type long period variables. And during that first year I commuted to Berkeley to take the fundamental course every graduate at Berkeley has to take, orbit theory, you know. Dr. Leuschner was the director and there was just no way you’d get out of there if you didn’t compute an orbit. You didn’t belong. So I got that out of the way before I went over there and then I could concentrate on Astrophysics.
Then who did you work with? Dr. Shane?
Dr. C. D. Shane was the head of my committee. I guess I can’t remember who the other people were. I know Dr. Shane was. There might have been Birge. I had some courses with Birge, who was a very earnest lecturer. Well to get back to the meeting, the IAU meeting at Stockholm was a wonderful experience, and I remember seeing Dr. Russell off and on but I don’t think I had any great scientific discussion with him. Then after I finished my year at Vassar and a year at Smith I had the AAUW fellowship from 1939-40 that was the year I spent here at Mount Wilson gathering data for the spectrum of B Pegasi. Then the next year was when Dr. Russell invited me to Princeton I think. He had some films that were made at MIT of the Spectrum of Europium II which showed the Freeman patterns, George Harrison was doing it. Apparently Harrison couldn’t handle it all so he farmed these out to Russell, and Russell hired me to come there and analyze the Freeman spectrograms, so he could figure out the quantum numbers and analyze the spectra. He and Albertson collaborated and there’s a paper on that. Then the second year at Princeton I was doing more or less my own research, which was Beta Pegasi. That’s the spectrum of Beta Pegasi. But the wonderful thing about Dr. Russell that impressed me was that he wasn’t the kind of person that just sat in his office and waited for people to come in and see him, you know. He would go around and chat with us. Almost every day I remember he’d come in and see what I was doing. It wasn’t that he was nosey. We’d have a nice little talk each day about what I’d done, and what I should go on and do. This was a sharp contrast to other people that I have worked for, who shall remain nameless.
I would hope not eventually because we’d be interested eventually in personalities in research. For instance, most people that you would work with.
And of course he was a great Bible student. Evidently he had very good training in the Bible because he was able to quote long passages from the Bible completely from memory, and they always fit the occasion beautifully. And of course there were his limericks. I trust you have collected some of limericks.
Yes, from James Cuffy. The way that he would come in and talk to you about your research and the research that you did that were aligned to his interests is of great interest to me to get a better idea of the things he liked, his personality. What kind of characteristics most come to mind? Say, when he walked through the door.
Well he was a very “do it now” person, and if he had to send a letter off or do something like that, he wouldn’t put it off. He would do it right away, he wouldn’t put it off and let it sit there for days.
Was he a very steady worker or did he work in bursts?
Oh yes, and he had the faculty for inspiring people to do more than they ever thought they could do.
So you lived there pretty much during the war years?
Rosseland was there too.
Yes, I have a very distinct memory of the day that Pearl Harbor was invaded. I was working at my desk in the nine inch dome. I had the radio on softly and all of a sudden it was interrupted to tell the bad news of Pearl Harbor. This was a purely personal recollection. It will show you how human Dr. Russell was, how he really went out of his way to be nice to people that were working with him. During my last year at Princeton my mother fell and broke her ankle. She was living alone so I just had to go home and see what I could take care of until she came out of the hospital. And then I got involved at the high school. The physics teacher had to leave because he was going to do some kind of war work and they didn’t have anybody to teach physics in the East St. Louis high school. This was in East St. Louis, Illinois. Across the Missouri river from St. Louis. This was in the spring of ‘42, I guess. Well they needed somebody to teach physics and for some reason, I got the job. This was when I was also trying to take care of my mother in this great big house. So there I was trying to teach high school physics to people whom I learned to like. Dr. Russell got worried. He was afraid I was going to stay there.
Evidently, he was afraid I wasn’t going to come back to Princeton or ever get back into my astronomy work. I had left Princeton. I had taken leave, so I just dropped everything and went. My mother didn’t have funds for fancy nurses and things like that. Dr. Russell wrote me several times and asked me what my plans were. I remember one time he was on his way to California and he went out of his way. Normally in those days you would take a train to Chicago and from Chicago you’d go to Los Angeles. St. Louis was out of the way. But he went out of his way and got off the train in St. Louis and he must have hired a taxi to take him all the way from St. Louis to my home there in East St. Louis, which was at least five miles. He came there and met my mother. Oh yes, I was working on “Beta Peg”. I had some enlargements of the Beta Peg spectrum and I was estimating intensities. That was about the only scientific thing I could do at the time. As I remember, while I was out of the room, he started talking to my mother. “You know you really mustn’t keep her here. You should let her go back to astronomy and so on”. She said he talked to her like a “Dutch uncle”, instilling her with the idea that she mustn’t hold on to me, you know, she must let me go on. But wasn’t that a nice thing for him to do?
Well, how did you feel about it though?
Well, of course I was flattered to think that he would go out of his way to come there and see us and talk to my mother about that.
Well, he knew that you were needed by your mother.
Yes, he knew that I was needed. Eventually I got away. She got well enough more or less to take care of herself. I went back to Princeton.
You certainly wanted to go back?
Oh, of course I wanted to go back. There was no question about that? (My duty was evidently there, at home).
Were there any other brothers and sisters?
No. That’s the trouble. I was the only child of an only child. She didn’t have anybody to help her and there was only one of me.
Could she have moved out to Princeton with you?
That would have been very difficult. This was not a permanent position at Princeton, so there wouldn’t have been any point of doing that.
How long did you work with Dr. Russell?
Just two years minus the few months that I spent at home. And then I went to Mount Wilson. Dr. Adams gave me a position there, nominally as a computer but I was on my own, doing my own work. I finished up the Beta Pegasi work but this was interrupted. I didn’t finish it up before the war was over. It was interrupted by the necessity to do war work, so I got into the optical business. They installed an optical bench in the 200-inch room where they had been grinding the 200-inch, but work was stopped during the war. So the optical bench was set up there and I was taking pictures of the off—axis aberrations of aerial camera lenses which they would send from time to time. I was just so impressed while taking colored pictures; I had no idea that spherical aberrations and coma could make such beautiful pictures! They looked like brightly plumed birds. I got mostly black and white, but I also took some color pictures. When it was time to develop the films there was no dark room so I just turned out the lights and developed them in the great big room where the 200-inch was.
Whom did you work with on these?
I worked with Tony Lewis, Dr. Lewis. He was a physicist in Pasadena.
Not with Bowen or any of the other astronomers?
Bowen was the director of the project at that time, yes.
What other contacts did you have with Dr. Russell during the two years? Did you have contact with his family?
Oh yes. His health was not too good and he was advised to take hikes, regular hikes every other day or so, and I was invited several times on those hikes. It was a beautiful time of the year. It was in the fall, I remember, and I had never seen such gorgeous coloring. The fall coloring of the trees was just gorgeous, and we enjoyed all of that. Mrs. Russell usually went along too. Well that’s how I found out about his knowledge of the Bible and his limericks and things like that.
Did he ever talk about his early career? Any of the associations he had?
I don’t think we talked about that. I’m sorry, I wish he had. It would have been interesting. He invited me over to his house for dinner several times. He had a huge two story wooden house on the other side of the campus form the observatory. I’ve told you about his famous fig tree. He loved figs, and he made it a point to plant a fig tree there and even through the worst kind of a winter he somehow managed to save it. He would cover it for next year. It was his “functioning fig tree”. He was proud of that.
How did he seem to choose his problems — working on Europium, receiving all the problems form Harrison and others.
Well, first he was interested in Europium because it was in stellar spectra. It wasn’t analyzed. Nothing was known about it so somebody had to do it and apparently Harrison wasn’t going to have the time to do it, so he gave the data to Russell. We worked it out together. He and Albertson and I.
Albertson, he was at MIT. His name is on the paper.
Was Charlotte Moore-Sitterly at Princeton around that time?
Oh yes. She was revising the multiplet table. I guess that was when she was making the first edition of it. That came out in ‘49 or so. And Dr. Rosseland was there at that time, Russell provided a haven for Dr. and Mrs. Rosseland and son Hallvard, who had escaped from Oslo during the Nazi invasion of Norway.
What kind of contact did they have in front of other people? In front of you?
Well they were pretty much to themselves. You didn’t really see too much of them. Martin Schwarzschild was there at that time. We became good friends. Did you get some interviews with Martin Schwarzschild?
Certainly, as we are with Spitzer.
He would be a good speaker at your meetings, Dr. Spitzer.
Dr. Spitzer will be speaking at the historical session.
You haven’t got Martin Schwarzchild’s name up for that? Wells Russell’s daughter, Margaret and I, of course became friends, and we’ve exchanged Christmas cards ever since then. I still get Christmas cards from the Edmondsons with her children and their grandchildren on them.
Do you remember any of the sessions with Dr. Russell that might have been reflective about his ideas of science, with religion, personal goals and that sort of thing.
I’m afraid I have a very poor memory. I guess I relied too much on my camera. The camera got the picture and I forgot the words.
It has done a marvelous job.
I just know that he was a marvelous man and he had a great philosophy, but I can’t say anything definite, specific about him.
Well did he really direct your research in your first year.
Oh yes, because I didn’t know anything about analyzing the rare earth spectrum. That was all new to me so he taught me how to measure the films. I just had to go through the 35mm films and measure the separations of the Zeeman components and compute the quantum numbers and he took it from there. He’d find the levels.
Did he give you formal lectures or did he sit down with you?
Oh no. It just took a few hours to get me started. It was a pretty humdrum thing you know. There were yards and yards and yards of 35mm films that had to be measured.
He wanted to be sure that you knew what you were doing and what the significance of it was.
Yes. It wasn’t hard to catch on.
Did he have you read his earlier papers on solar atmospheres?
Oh, I had already done that. My goodness, I think it was when I was a senior at Vassar I did a paper on Stellar Evolution which Dr. Russell had really started. In those days it was a brand new thing, you know. People hadn’t thought much about the evolution of the stars. I remember I read everything that Dr. Russell wrote on that.
Quite interesting. Did you ever talked to him about stellar evolution?
I guess not.
That time of course they were just figuring out what “dwarf” stuff was but they still didn’t know what “Giant” stuff was. [And did he ever scratch his head (interrupted) and wonder out loud?]
I was interested in giant stars.
Did he ever scratch his head and wonder out loud about which way stars actually did evolve?
Yes, but I didn’t attend any of his lectures unfortunately. Wish I could have.
He still maintained lecturing through the forties while you were there?
Yes, I believe so.
Well, so there are no particular memories that do pop in mind?
I’m sorry, like I said, I can’t think of anything specific except that it was the most wonderful experience. I’m certainly thankful to have been at Princeton for those two years.
Okay, well thank you very much.
It really wasn't my research. I was helping HNR with his research.