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DU’s bright star

In 1880, Prof. Herbert Howe (pictured in the Chamberlin Observatory) introduced the study of astronomy at DU. Photo courtesy of DU Archives

Astronomy was one of the first disciplines taught at the University of Denver, and the program remains strong 125 years later.

“Astronomy is one of the academic disciplines at DU nearly as old as the University itself,” says astronomy Associate Professor Robert Stencel.

DU astronomy owes its start to Prof. Herbert Howe, who introduced the subject in 1880. His original course, Descriptive Astronomy, still lives on today as an elective — PHYS 1050.

During his 46-year career at DU, Howe amassed volumes of notebooks filled with his astronomical observations — some of which he made with a borrowed surveyor’s transit. “Beautiful exhibition of colored circles, etc., about the moon in the evening,” Howe noted in his journal on Feb. 14, 1881.

Howe knew, however, that proper astronomical study required a telescope, so he set out to procure one for DU. In 1883, he began raising funds for a roof-top observatory, and in 1888, construction began on Chamberlin Observatory. Named after Denver real estate developer and DU benefactor Humphrey Chamberlin, the observatory building was completed in 1891,making it the first University structure in south Denver. In 1894, a 20-inch refractor telescope was installed; Howe carried the lens with him on the train all the way from Cambridge, Mass. At the time, the telescope was one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Under Howe’s mentorship, DU math Prof. Albert Recht became director of the observatory in 1928. He wrote a popular astronomy textbook, Space Trip for the Jones’, and believed that astronomy was for everyone, not just an educated elite. Recht served as director for the next 32 years.

For a decade beginning in 1968, DU staffer Francis Ohmer minded the observatory with occasional help from the newly formed Denver Astronomical Society. Professor Edgar Everhart became Chamberlin’s third director in 1969, serving until 1985. Everhart called himself an “amateur astronomer,” though he was widely known for his research on comets and atomic physics. Under his directorship, Chamberlin was added to the National Register of Historical Places in the spring of 1980.

The director’s seat again sat vacant until 1991, when the University received a bequest of $3.75 million from William Womble, BA ’34, to fund an astronomy chair. In 1994, Stencel became the first Womble Professor of Astronomy and the Chamberlin Observatory’s fourth director.

Among Stencel’s first efforts was a push to have the observatory placed on the Denver Historic Landmark list. He also helped obtain a $100,000 emergency grant from the State Historical Society to stabilize the observatory’s water-damaged walls and leaking roof.

Stencel, whose research focuses on stellar evolution and infrared instrumentation, breathed new life into DU’s astronomy program. He introduced a new curriculum, updated the astronomy holdings in Penrose Library and developed a University observatory on Mount Evans.

Dedicated in 1996, the Meyer-Womble Observatory sits at 14,148 feet near the summit of Mount Evans and is one of the highest operating observatories on earth. The facility is used for optical and infrared astronomical research, and astronomical conditions there are among the best on earth.

Just as Howe had done more than a century before, observatory benefactors Eric and Barbara Meyer brought the Meyer-Womble optics from Chicago personally.

In 2004, the Student Astronomy Lab was installed on the roof of the Physics Building, allowing for student observations in the visible and infrared spectrum without requiring travel to Mount Evans.

Today, visitors avail themselves of the Chamberlin telescope during monthly public viewings, and researchers come from around the world to work at the Mount Evans facility. An estimated 250,000 researchers, students and visitors have peered through DU telescopes since Herbert Howe first arrived on the scene, making star gazing perhaps second only to hockey as DU’s most popular pastime.

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