Indiana Daily Student

Retired astronomy professor reflects on career

Colleagues named asteroid in honor of Edmondson

Frank K. Edmondson has dedicated his life to astronomy – so much that he has his own piece of outer space named after him.

Colleagues honored Edmondson, former chairman of IU’s Department of Astronomy, by naming an asteroid after him. Now 96 years old, he was a vital asset in transforming both IU’s department and national observatories across the country, said Caty Pilachowski, IU’s Kirkwood chair of astronomy.

“We owe everything to Frank,” said Pilachowski, who has known Edmondson for 30 years. “The impact of what he’s done to the discipline just cannot be overstated. He allowed astronomy to flourish at colleges and universities all over the country.”

Edmondson graduated from IU in 1933, and after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard, returned to IU as a faculty member.

In 1934, Edmondson went on a friendly double-date. Somehow, partners switched, and Edmondson was paired with Margaret Russell instead of her sister.

“Margaret said she maneuvered that. We got engaged the next day,” Edmondson recalled, adding that they married that fall. The date of their wedding coincidentally fell on the anniversaries of both Margaret’s and Frank’s parents.

Famed astronomer Henry Norris Russell, Margaret Edmondson’s father, took her to American Philosophical Society meetings when she was a teen.

“It was nice to be married to a woman who had a better mind than I did,” Edmondson said, adding that she accompanied him to most of his astronomical conferences.
Margaret Edmondson died in 1999.

Edmondson was deeply devoted to his wife, but he said he was busy juggling his marriage, raising two children, teaching and traveling.

Through involvement with numerous science and astronomy organizations, Edmondson traveled all over the globe. Articles in the IU Archives document his trips to Russia, Dublin, Rome and countless places in the United States.

Back in Indiana, Edmondson’s job suddenly took on a new role, making him a bit of a celebrity, articles in the IU Archives from the Indiana Daily Student explained. At one point, Purdue had no astronomy classes, so Edmondson began broadcasting his lectures through closed-circuit television. These continued for 20 years.

“When I learned I had to go to a studio to talk into a camera, I said, ‘No way,’” Edmondson remembered, adding he required at least one student at each televised course.

From 1985 to 1999, the Edmondsons contributed to a fund for a Kirkwood professorship in astronomy. One of Edmondson’s former students donated $2 million to raise the professorship to a chair, he said.

Edmondson said Pilachowski, the first person to fill this position, was originally on staff at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz., which Edmondson founded through his work with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

Pilachowski affectionately recalls the days when the Edmondsons visited Kitt Peak.
“When he’d come up to the mountain for lunch or dinner, they would always fix him chocolate pie,” she said.

During summer vacation in Arizona before World War II, Edmondson grew a beard. When the IDS found out, an article was published saying he planned to shave it soon.

“The Daily Student said I was going to shave it off,” Edmondson said, proudly displaying his beard. “The Daily Student is not going to tell me what to do.”

Edmondson has been known to tell people how he feels, Pilachowski said.

“He doesn’t hold back,” she said.

After all he’s accomplished, Edmondson still doesn’t boast.  He was an instrumental figure in international astronomy, but he does realize the unique opportunities he’s been given.

“My successor at NSF said I‘d done more different things than any astronomer he knew,” Edmondson recalled. “I’d never looked at my life that way, but by golly, I have.”

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