Previous Article Next Article Table of Contents


Nicholas U. Mayall (1906-1993) (1Mar93) (from the Director's Office, NOAO Newsletter No. 33, 1 March 1993) Nicholas U. Mayall, Director of KPNO from October 1960 to September 1971, died on 5 January after gradually becoming weakened by diabetes. We remember him as an outstanding astronomer who gave up research to become Director just after KPNO's dedication, who helped initiate the 4-m telescope later named in his honor, and who took over from the University of Chicago the establishment of a sister observatory in Chile later named Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. We also remember him as a kind and considerate Director who was interested in and knew each member of the Observatory as a friend. He was cautious but reasonable in every decision that he made. Mayall was born and raised in California and graduated with degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. He worked as an assistant at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and that led to papers with Seth Nicholson and others about Pluto shortly after its discovery, and about other solar system objects. He taught in Berkeley and became an astronomer at the Lick Observatory. During World War II he did defense research at MIT; that was his only residence outside of California and Arizona during his lifetime. Mayall's research at the Lick Observatory was mainly with the 36-inch Crossley Reflector, a difficult telescope to use at its prime focus. He shared with Milton Humason the responsibility for obtaining the redshifts of all the northern galaxies brighter than V = 13 mag. Humason observed the fainter ones with the Mt. Wilson 100-inch while Mayall observed the brighter ones with the Crossley. That culminated in the 1956 Humason, Mayall, and Sandage study of the expansion of the universe. He is also known for observing the rotational motions in M31, M33, and other galaxies, showing the inner solid-body rotation and the outer Keplerian motion. Gerry Kron was amazed at the sensitivity of Mayall's eyes, an important need before the days of measured blind offsets: he could see to V = 17 mag with the 36-inch. (It is ironic that in recent years his eyesight failed to the point where he could not even read.) He was also the first to determine spectroscopically the radial velocities of several dozen knots in the Crab Nebula (the supernova remnant from the explosion in 1054 AD). He determined the galactic rotation, lack of a K-term, and the local solar motion from the radial velocities of 50 globular clusters, observed in integrated light. In 1960 he was asked to become the second Director of KPNO without having had previous administrative experience. It was still a time of decision about whether KPNO should be primarily an observatory for American astronomers having little or no access to telescopes in a good climate, or also a major observatory that would spearhead in innovative instruments and large telescopes. Also at that time the southern skies beckoned with no large telescopes in Chile. The University of Chicago felt unable to continue with the large observatory proposed by Gerard Kuiper, so that project was turned over toAURA and KPNO. During Mayall's tenure and with Jurgen Stock doing the field work, CTIO became a reality with a 1.5-m reflector funded by the Air Force through Albert Hiltner's initiative and later a copy of the Mayall 4-m at Kitt Peak. Astronomers honored Mayall's retirement with a symposium held in 1971. Thereafter he was active in several organizations, such as the overview committee for Fermilab. He lived with his charming wife Kay for 58 years of marriage; their two children Bruce and Pamela live in Mission Viejo, California and Snowflake, Arizona, respectively. At Mayall's retirement Frank Edmondson called him the finest gentleman he had ever known, and that summarizes the feelings of all of us. He was always calm, reasonable, and interested in everyone and what they were doing. He loved KPNO and CTIO and was a strong but reasonable defender of their needs, working with others rather than forcing his wishes. Those observatories have been lucky to have such a friend and leader at a crucial time in their history. Helmut A. Abt
Previous Article Next Article Table of Contents