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HAD into the 21st Century

History of HAD: Into the 21st Century


In her review article for The American Astronomical Society’s First Century1, Katherine Bracher concluded by stating that the Historical Astronomy Division “has had a strong and dedicated membership of between 200 and 300 for its eighteen years of existence”. At the start of the new century, HAD Chair Virginia Trimble reported (in her annual Division Report to the American Astronomical Society1) that our Division “had a steady-state membership near 300.” Indeed, the number of HAD members varied little (311±11) during most of the first two decades of the 21st century.

However, in 2018 the HAD Executive Committee, in an effort to increase the number of younger members, decided to waive dues for graduate and undergraduate student members. This resulted in a marked increase in our numbers; at the end of the 2018 calendar year we had a total of 412 members, including 46 junior members! The table below provides membership statistics, by membership category, for the period 2012-2018. Included in the “other” category are two Patron members: Irene Osterbrock (who sadly passed away in February 2019), and Virginia Trimble, (who became a Society Patron in 2018).


The Historical Astronomy Division continues to hold its annual meetings in conjunction with the January meetings of the American Astronomical Society, the only division to do so. The desirability of this arrangement has been debated over the past decade. Some of these were remote from outside restaurants, hotels, and transportation hubs, and some members complained about the cost of attending meetings at these AAS-selected facilities. However, meeting with the AAS yields several benefits: HAD provides at least one plenary lecture every two years (the Doggett Prize Lecture); non-members frequently attend HAD sessions and, in several instances, have chosen to join; and HAD members have access to a much larger selection of exhibitors (including several publishers) than would be the case were we to hold our meetings separate from the AAS. It should be noted that, while other divisions may meet at less expensive venues than those selected by the AAS, their meeting registration fees are often greater than the reduced two-day HAD registration fee offered by the AAS.

A typical HAD meeting begins on the afternoon prior to the AAS opening sessions with a special session on a special topic. The speakers are invited by the individual organizing the session, and may include a panel discussion. Additional special sessions, if any, are held the following morning and afternoon. Sessions of contributed oral presentations commence after the special sessions are completed, and may extend into the following day if needed. The AAS has graciously allowed the special two-day HAD meeting registration fee to cover a third day of sessions if needed. The HAD Town Hall (our annual business meeting) is held early in the afternoon on the second meeting day, and poster presentations are available for viewing throughout that day in the Exhibit Hall. Recently the AAS has provided facilities for electronic presentations (“iPosters”), and some HAD members have taken advantage of that opportunity.

The AAS ceased its practice of hosting a society banquet after its January 2012 meeting. Four years prior to that, Joe Tenn, who was at that time Secretary-Treasurer, suggested that we have our own HAD “minibanquet” at a local restaurant. That first one, at Louie's 106 in Austin, TX, attracted twenty-eight guests and was an acclaimed success. The tradition has continued since, and a division dinner is held at each January meeting, on the evening of the second day.

On occasion the Historical Astronomy Division has met at other times of the year, often with other organizations or AAS divisions. In September 2005 HAD held a joint meeting in Cambridge, England, in conjunction with the Division of Planetary Sciences. This was a substantial event, with thirty presentations. As part of the June 2009 AAS meeting a special session, “History of Astronomy at the Huntington Library,” was held at that facility in Pasadena. There were two HAD special sessions at the May 2011 combined meeting of the AAS and AAVSO and three HAD sessions at the June 2014 AAS meeting, both in Boston, MA. And, since the fall of 2013, HAD sessions have been included in the annual meetings of the Division of Planetary Sciences; we are very grateful to Jay Pasachoff for his efforts in organizing these!

One particularly noteworthy HAD event was a splinter session held in June 2009, in conjunction with the Pasadena AAS Meeting and the International Year of Astronomy. Proposed and organized by Tom Hockey, the Cultural Astronomy Summer School (CASS) was a two-day event open to “graduate students in science, early career astronomy professionals, natural-history interpreters, and in-service astronomy teachers”, membership in the AAS was not required. The class sessions were led by Stephen McCluskey, Joann Eisberg, and E. C. Krupp, and were attended by sixteen individuals who thoroughly enjoyed the experience. CASS concluded with a bus trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory arranged by Harold McAlister and Gale Gant, and conducted by Don Nicholson, who is the son of Seth Nicholson (who was an astronomer at Mount Wilson from 1915 until 1957) and an expert on the history of the Observatory.

Prizes and Awards

The Leroy E. Doggett Prize, first presented to Curtis Wilson in 1998, continues to be awarded in even-numbered years. Winners receive a framed certificate, a cash honorarium, and (usually) partial travel support to present a plenary talk at the January AAS meeting. A list of recipients may be found at .

On January 11, 2007, long-time HAD member and former Chair Donald Osterbrock passed away. A generous bequest from his wife Irene provided for a new HAD award in his honor. The Donald E. Osterbrock Book Prize is awarded in odd-numbered years to the author (or authors) of a book “judged to advance the field of the history of astronomy or to bring history of astronomy to light.” Recipients are listed at As with the Doggett Prize, recipients receive a certificate and an honorarium. At present no AAS meeting plenary talk is associated with this award, but the awardee is invited to give a prize talk at a HAD session, and sometimes a special session is dedicated to that year’s Osterbrock Prize.

In 2017 the Osterbrock Book Prize was presented to Thomas Hockey, Editor in Chief for the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (2nd edition). In this unique case Tom received the physical prize, and virtual certificates (in the form of pdf images) were sent by e-mail to most of the 430 authors who had contributed biographies. Unfortunately, some of those individuals had passed away, and a few could not be located.

The Doggett and Osterbrock Prizes were originally made possible through generous bequests, and are now funded primarily by donations from HAD members (and a surprising number of nonmembers as well).

Beginning in 2011, the Division instituted a series of Student Travel Awards. These are intended to encourage students (undergraduate or graduate) to present papers at HAD meetings. More than one award may be given in any year, and the prize amount may vary (but is limited to $750). The first award was presented in 2011 to Clifford Cunningham, author of a well-known series of books on the history of asteroid studies, who was at that time a PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland. Other recipients of HAD Student Travel Awards may be found at .

HAD Newsletter

In The American Astronomical Society’s First Century1, Katherine Bracher stated that “the HAD Newsletter … has been the Division’s principal means of communicating with its members concerning meetings, dues, elections, etc.” With the nearly universal adoption of e-mail, however, this is no longer the case. Electronic announcements are regularly sent as needed to our membership. Nonetheless, HAD News continues to be an important division organ, and is published twice a year in spring and fall. Each issue contains messages from each of the three HAD officers, reports on meetings, announcements of new publications of interest, and other news which may be of interest to our members.

Each member of HAD is sent a pdf copy of each issue of HAD News as soon as it is available, and previous issues (with the exception of a very few early ones, print copies of which we have so far been unable to obtain) may be accessed at . These are public documents, freely available to any individual. Print copies are sent at no charge to any member who requests one.


Since 1992 the Historical Astronomy Division has borne responsibility for compiling and publishing obituaries for deceased AAS members. These were originally published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society. As we entered the 20th century much of that journal’s content (such as meeting abstracts) migrated to online venues, while the Observatory Reports faded to irrelevance as those facilities developed their own websites. As of 2019 the BAAS has been relaunched as a standalone publication3.The AAS Obituaries are now available online as a searchable database at .

The Vice-Chair of the Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) is responsible for commissioning and compiling these obituaries and for maintaining the website. We continue to depend on the network of astronomical colleagues, including astronomy department and observatory administrators, for notification when an astronomer has died.

New Projects and Initiatives

During the past two decades HAD has initiated several new projects. In response to a report presented by HAD to the AAS Board, the AAS established the Working Group on the Preservation of Astronomical Heritage (WGPAH) at its January 2007 meeting in Seattle. WGPAH is charged with developing and disseminating procedures, criteria and priorities for identifying, designating, and preserving astronomical structures, instruments, and records so that they will continue to be available for astronomical and historical research, for the teaching of astronomy, and for outreach to the general public. Prior to 2018, the Group’s members had been appointed by the HAD Executive Committee; they are now chosen from candidate nominations submitted directly to the AAS Board. Members are selected on the basis of their professional qualifications in seven key areas: Archaeoastronomy, Archives, History of Astronomy, Historic Observatories, Working Observatories, Instruments, and Observational Data. This group has been particularly active in preservation efforts relating to historic observatories (notably Shattuck, Sproul and Yerkes), photographic plate collections, and archival print materials. Further information about this Working Group, including its July 2019 “State of the Profession White Paper” for the National Academy of Sciences Astro2020 Decadal Survey, can be found on their website at

The Astronomy Genealogy Project (AstroGen) is the brainchild of HAD member (and former Secretary-Treasurer) Joseph Tenn. Inspired by the highly successful Mathematics Genealogy Project, AstroGen will list as many as possible of the world's astronomers with their “academic parents” (thesis advisors, supervisors, promotors, directors, etc.) and enable the reader to trace both academic ancestors and descendants. This project will enable historians and sociologists of science to assemble information about individuals who have earned doctorates with astronomy-related theses. As of this writing Joe Tenn and a small group of volunteer assistants have entered more than 27,000 astronomy-related dissertations into a temporary database, comprising a nearly complete list of modern (from 1853 through early 2019) astronomy-related doctorates awarded in over two dozen countries. Further information may be found on the AstroGen website at, and a review paper published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage4 ( offers a description of this ongoing project. If you would like to participate, please contact Joe!

Finally, in July 2016 the Historical Astronomy Division initiated a series of monthly articles devoted to various topics. “This Month in Astronomical History” is included each month in the AAS News Digest, sent electronically to all AAS members. This feature enjoys tremendous popularity, and all features are freely available at . Access is not limited to AAS members, and its impact has been considerable: the articles are used by historians and educators around the globe!


1  David H. DeVorkin, ed. (Washington, DC: The American Astronomical Society, 1999), pp. 277-286.

4  Joseph S. Tenn, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage (2016), 19(3), 298–304.