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NOAO < NEWS < Frank K. Edmondson, 1912-2008

Frank Kelley Edmondson • August 1, 1912—December 8, 2008

Indiana University Emeritus Professor Frank Kelley Edmondson passed away on Monday, December 8. He was 96.

Frank Edmondson file photo - inset with Dr. Caty  Pilachowski

Professor Edmondson at a telescope in his younger years. Inset with Dr. Caty Pilachowski.

The memorial service will be held at 2:30 PM on Saturday, Jan. 24, in the Frangipani Room at the Indiana Memorial Union in Bloomington. Friends and colleagues who wish to send thoughts to be shared at the memorial service should send them to Caty Pilachowski,

Professor Edmondson joined the Indiana University faculty in the Department of Astronomy in 1937, and served as chair of the department from 1944 until 1978. Under his leadership, the University acquired the Goethe Link Observatory in Brooklyn, IN, established a graduate program in Astronomy, and increased from two faculty members to eight, beginning in 1937 with a bet over a chocolate ice cream cone. In one of his favorite stories, Edmondson bet the Astronomy Department Chair W. Cogshall an ice cream cone that President Herman B Wells would fund a graduate fellowship for the Department, knowing that Wells had already agreed to fund the position. Edmondson also established the Indiana University Asteroid Program in 1949, determining orbits for 119 asteroids that had been lost during World War II.

Edmondson is survived by his two children, Margaret Edmondson Olson and Frank K. Edmondson, Jr. He was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Margaret Russell Edmondson, the youngest daughter of the prominent astronomer Henry Norris Russell.

Edmondson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1912, and grew up in Seymour, Indiana. An IU alumnus, Professor Edmondson received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1933 and a Master of Arts degree in 1934 for work at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. He received his Ph.D from Harvard University in 1937, studying under astronomer Bart Bok. In 1937 he joined the IU faculty as the second member of the Astronomy Department, working with Professor W. A. Cogshall in Kirkwood Observatory. He retired from IU in 1983, but continued his work in the department until just a few years ago.

Professor Edmondson is best known in Bloomington for his remarkable skill as an educator. He taught the subject of astronomy to literally thousands of students, often taking advantage of his knowledge of music to introduce astronomical topics with appropriate musical selections. His popular, award-winning, televised astronomy course was broadcast to students throughout the state and is widely remembered even today.

Professor Edmondson began his research career in 1934 working at the Lowell Observatory as an observing assistant to Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. Despite his close association with Lowell, Tombaugh, and Pluto, Professor Edmondson approved of the decision of the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to change Pluto’s status to a dwarf planet, arguing that Pluto, one of many similar bodies in the outer Solar System, was a different type of object than the Solar System’s other planets.

When many asteroids were lost during World War II due to disruption of observatories’ observing programs, Professor Edmondson and Professor James Cuffey, in 1949, established the Indiana University Asteroid Program, which continued until 1978. Edmondson is credited with determining the orbits of 119 asteroids from 7000 photographic plates taken with a 10" astrographic telescope at the Goethe Link Observatory. Edmondson selected names for each of these asteroids, honoring IU Presidents, prominent scholars, and important Hoosier and astronomical landmarks. Asteroid 4300 Marg Edmondson he named for his wife Margaret.

In the astronomical community, Edmondson is best remembered for his contributions to American astronomy through the founding of both the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the 1950’s. These institutions transformed astronomy in the U.S. by providing access to major research telescopes to astronomers from all institutions based on the merit of their research ideas. Following the formation of AURA, Professor Edmondson served as a Program Director for Astronomy at the National Science Foundation, helping to assure funding for the new national observatory. He served as President of AURA from 1962 until 1965, and served on the Board of Directors of AURA from 1957 until he retired in 1983. Following his retirement, Professor Edmondson wrote a book on the history of AURA, AURA and its US National Observatories, published in 1997. In 2007, he commemorated the founding of AURA by naming one of the remaining Indiana asteroids, Aurapenenta, in honor of the 50th anniversary of AURA.

Following in the tradition of IU’s legendary President Herman B Wells, whom he greatly admired, Edmondson devoted his career to service. In addition to his work with AURA and the founding of the national observatories, Edmondson served as the Treasurer of the American Astronomical Society for 21 years, from 1954 until 1975, and was also a leader of the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union, serving as its President from 1970-1973, and chairing the U.S. National Committee of the International Astronomical Union in 1963-1964. Closer to home, he advised Dr. Alfred Kinsey on statistical techniques for his studies of human sexuality, and assisted the campus in many ways as it continued to grow during the 20th century. His commitment to service is a hallmark of our campus, and one that the Department of Astronomy is proud to continue.

Edmondson enjoyed the many coincidences that sparked new connections and initiatives in his career. He liked to say that he was the right person in the right place at the right time. That was almost always true, and often because Professor Edmondson himself understood and anticipated what would be needed, and made sure to be ready with an answer or guidance.

He has been an inspiration to generations of students and colleagues and his spirit will remain with us.