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Campbell, William Wallace

Campbell, William Wallace

(b. Hancock County, Ohio, 11 April 1862; d. San Francisco, California, 14 June 1938),

astronomy, education..

Campbell, who was called Wallace, was the sixth of seven children born to Robert Wilson Campbell and Harriet Welsh. Robert Campbell died in 1866, and Wallace was brought up on the family farm by his mother. He attended local schools, where his ability was sufficiently recognized that he was urged to attend a major university. After a short period of teaching school he was admitted to the University of Michigan in civil engineering. During his junior year he came across Simon Newcomb’s Popular Astronomy, which so captivated him that he decided to make astronomy his career. Under the tutelage of J. M. Schaeberle he became a skilled observer and in his senior year served as an assistant in the university observatory. He also calculated comet orbits after having read Watson’s Theoretical Astronomy. He graduated with the B.S. in 1886 and from 1886 to 1888 was professor of mathematics at the University of Colorado. In 1888 he returned to the University of Michigan as instructor to fill the vacancy left by Schaeberle, who had joined the newly opened Lick Observatory of the University of California, at Mount Hamilton, California. Campbell served as volunteer assistant at Lick in the summer of 1890 and joined that observatory in May 1891.

Campbell was married in 1892 to Elizabeth Ballard Thompson. There were three sons of this marriage: Wallace, Douglas, and Kenneth. At the Lick Observatory, Campbell was a very active observer during his ten years (1891–1901) as staff astronomer. His contribution to his major field, spectroscopic observation, was fostered in 1893 when D. O. Mills donated funds for the construction of an adequate spectrograph for the thirty-six-inch Lick refractor, to be built to Campbell’s specifications. The Mills spectrograph was a design classic and played an important role in Campbell’s career.

In 1898 Campbell went to India on the first of seven eclipse expeditions in which he actively participated: India (1898), Thomaston, Georgia (1900), Spain (1905), Flint Island (near Tahiti) (1908), Kiev (1914), Goldendale, Washington (1918), and Western Australia (1922). On the death in 1900 of James E. Keeler, director of the Lick Observatory and earlier Campbell’s mentor in spectroscopic observations, Campbell was made acting director of the Lick Observatory, an appointment that was confirmed as of 1 January 1901. It is a measure of Campbell’s stature in his profession that he was the nominee recommended by all of the twelve leading astronomers whose advice had been sought by the president of the university, Benjamin Ide Wheeler.

As director of the Lick Observatory, Campbell not only maintained its prominent position but in 1910, with the financial aid initially of Mills and later of others, established a southern station in Chile in order to obtain radial velocity observations of stars in the southern sky, to be used for the determination of the solar motion, a major area of Campbell’s research.

In 1923 Campbell entered another phase of his career by accepting appointment as president of the University of California. Although he retained the nominal directorship of the Lick Observatory, the nature of his publications changed in that he began to discuss problems of scientific organization and some problems of more popular scientific interest, along with his spectrographic work (done principally in collaboration with Joseph H. Moore) and his eclipse observations (done principally with Robert J. Trumpler); both collaborators were astronomers at the Lick Observatory. His publications also demonstrated an interest in the history of astronomy.

In failing health at the time of his retirement in 1930 and having recently lost the sight of one eye, Campbell returned with his wife to Mount Hamilton, planning to resume his scientific work. He was, however, invited to accept nomination for the presidency of the National Academy of Sciences, which position he assumed on 1 July 1931. During his term of office, 1931–1935, Campbell attempted to restore the preeminence of the National Academy of Sciences as an advisory agency to the government. His efforts were rewarded by the creation within the academy of the Government Relations and Science Advisory Committee. He must thus be viewed as a strong and successful exponent of the use of scientific advice by government at a time when this was not generally accepted practice.

Campbell and his wife returned from Washington to Mount Hamilton in 1935 but soon moved to San Francisco. In retirement he continued his interest in astronomical events, delivered an address in tribute to Simon Newcomb at the Hall of Fame at New York University in 1936, and published an obituary of Ambrose Swasey (who had made the mounting for the thirty-six-inch refractor at the Lick Observatory) in 1937. In deteriorating health and fearing a total loss of vision, he did not wish to become a burden upon others and took his life on 14 June 1938.

Campbell’s early scientific career was in orbit computation. Using his own observations along with those of others, he gained that dedication to precision of observation and refinement of technique which is the mark of a great observational astronomer. Campbell did not make any notable advances in this field, although in 1891 he published “Corrections to Watson’s Theoretical Astronomy,” a list of errata for this standard work. That year he also published A Handbook of Practical Astronomy for University Students and Engineers. This was later revised and enlarged, reappearing as The Elements of Practical Astronomy (1899). It ran through numerous editions and has remained a standard text for many years.

At Lick Observatory, Campbell initially was introduced to spectroscopic observation through association with Keeler while a volunteer assistant in 1890. On joining the observatory’s permanent staff, he continued to work in this area; and although his equipment was not ideal and did not become truly satisfactory until the Mills spectrograph became fully operational in 1896, he made notable contributions in the observation of Nova Aurigae (1892), noting the changes in the spectrum from continuous to brightline. He also observed the characteristic brightband emission spectra of Wolf-Rayet stars and made the first observations of the variation in spectral intensity of the F line of hydrogen and of the green nebular lines. At the opposition of Mars in 1894 he observed its spectrum and concluded that the atmosphere of Mars was deficient in oxygen and water vapor and unable to support life. His observational results were not in accord with general belief, but Campbell vigorously defended them. In 1909 he led an expedition to observe Mars from Mount Whitney, so as to minimize the absorption spectrum of the earth’s atmosphere. In 1910 he again observed Mars from Mount Hamilton, this time at quadrature, when the relative radial velocity could best be used to separate lines of Martian origin from those arising in the terrestrial atmosphere. His earlier findings were confirmed.

Campbell was a most careful observer and a designer of techniques of observation and of reduction, and he put forth his findings with confidence, irrespective of their accord with accepted theory. He did not, however, hesitate to repeat his observations if he felt this necessary, An example is his eclipse observations to detect the sun’s deflection of light from the stars, which had been predicted by Einstein. An attempt at the Russian eclipse of 1914 was thwarted by weather. Although the eclipse equipment was kept in Russia because of the war, a further attempt was made in 1918 at Goldendale, Washington. The results were negative. When Eddington reported a confirmation of Einstein’s predictions in 1919, Campbell returned to the task and attempted with Trumpler to observe the predicted deflection at the 1922 eclipse in Western Australia. This time the results fully confirmed the predictions of the general theory.

Campbell is probably best known today for his inauguration of a systematic program of radial velocity observation to result in a catalog, primarily to provide data for the determination of the sun’s path among the stars. This was begun at Lick Observatory in 1896. The results of this program with its numerous extensions were not only to provide data for the initial task envisaged but also to lead to greatly improved observational techniques, discovery of numerous spectroscopic binaries, and the compilation of the basic data that were used later in the more detailed analysis of stellar motion, including galactic rotation.

The successful observation of radial velocities at Lick Observatory was a model that was emulated in many other observatories. Lick Observatory, under Campbell, continued as one of the major training centers for astronomers. As graduates moved to other observatories, many continued an interest in radial velocity and spectrographic observation, for which Campbell and his colleagues were exemplars. His influence thus pervaded astronomy and has continued.

Campbell was William Ellery Hale Lecturer for the National Academy of Sciences in 1914 and Halley Lecturer at Oxford in 1925. After he was Silliman Lecturer at Yale in 1909–1910, his lectures were published as Stellar Motions; With Special Reference to Motions Determined by Means of the Spectrograph (1913).

Campbell received honorary degrees from six American universities, the University of Western Australia, and Cambridge. In addition to his term as president of the National Academy of Sciences, he was president of the International Astronomical Union (1922–1925), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1915), the American Astronomical Society (1922–1925), and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1895, 1910). Campbell was a foreign member of the Royal Society of London and was awarded honorary membership in many American and foreign organizations. He received the Lalande Medal (1903) and the Janssen Medal (1910) of the Paris Academy of Sciences, the Annual Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London (1906), the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1906), and the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1915).


I. Original Works. Campbell’s writings include “Corrections to Watson’s Theoretical Astronomy, “in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 3 (1891), 87– 91; A Handbook of Practical Astronomy for University Students and Engineers (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1891), rev. and enl. as The Elements of Practical Astronomy (New York, 1899); “The Reduction of Spectroscopic Observations of Motions in the Line of Sight,” in Astronomy and Astrophysics, 2 (1892), 319–325, repr. in J. Scheiner, A Treatise on Astronomical Spectroscopy, trans, E. B. Frost (Boston, 1894), pp. 338–344; Stellar Motions; With Special Reference to Motions Determined by Means of the Spectrograph (New Havenlondon, 1913); “A Brief History of Astronomy in California,” in Z. S. Eldredge, History of California, V (New York, 1915), 231–271; “International Relations in Science,” in University of California, Semi-Centennial Publications (Berkeley, 1918), pp. 390–413; and Newton’s Influence on the History of Astrophysics, spec. pub. no. 1, History of Science Society (Baltimore, 1928).

II. Secondary Literature. A bibliography of some 330 articles, besides those listed above, is in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 25 (1949), 58–74; it is preceded by a biography by W. H. Wright, pp. 35–58. See also University of California, In Memoriam (Berkeley, 1938), pp. 3–10. Obituaries are Robert G. Aitken, in Science, 88 , no. 2271 (1938), 25–28, repr. in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 50 (1938), 204–209; Henry Crozier Plummer, in Nature, 142 , no. 3585 (16 July, 1938), 102–103; Frank Schlesinger, in Popular Astronomy, 47 (1939), 2–5; and Robert J. Trumpler, in Sky, 3 , no. 2 (Dec. 1938), 18.

John W. Abrams

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Campbell, William

William Campbell, 1745–81, American Revolutionary soldier, b. Augusta co., Va.; brother-in-law of Patrick Henry. He fought in Lord Dunmore's War (1774) and helped expel the royal governor from Williamsburg in 1776. Campbell and his group of Virginia riflemen in 1780 joined Sevier and Shelby at Kings Mt. (see Carolina campaign), where he was in command. Later Campbell saw action at Guilford Courthouse, at Eutaw Springs, and in the Yorktown campaign.

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