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Irene Osterbrock (1926–2019)

Osterbrock worked as a “computer” at Yerkes Observatory and contributed significant time and effort to a variety of historical projects and archives, especially the Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory.

Published onSep 16, 2020
Irene Osterbrock (1926–2019)

Courtesy of the Osterbrock family.

Irene Osterbrock died on Saturday the 2nd of February, 2019.

Irene Lenore Hansen Osterbrock was born on August 7, 1926, in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. After graduating from Williams Bay High School and business school, she worked as an assistant, computer (i.e., data analyst), and secretary at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay. This is the site of the world’s largest refracting telescope. Yerkes Observatory was run by the University of Chicago, and until the 1980’s or so the astronomers were based at the observatory, rather than at the university, on the South Side of Chicago. From 1932 to 1962 the director of Yerkes Observatory was also the director of McDonald Observatory, which is situated at Mt. Locke in West Texas. From 1939 to 1959 the 82-inch reflector at McDonald was the world’s second largest reflecting telescope. Irene worked as a computer for Yerkes astronomer William W. Morgan, best known for his work on the classification of stellar spectra. She also became familiar with the archives of the observatory, which are an invaluable repository of the correspondence of many of the most significant astronomers of the twentieth century.

Future husband Donald Osterbrock was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago who went on to earn a master’s degree in physics and, in 1952, a PhD in astronomy. Irene and Don met in Williams Bay and married in 1952. His career brought him to Caltech (through 1958), then (in 1959) a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1973 the family moved to Santa Cruz, California, where Don was a professor at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and served as Director of Lick Observatory. Irene accompanied Don on sabbatical semesters or academic years at a number of locations: Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (3 times), University College London, University of Minnesota, University of Chicago, and Ohio State University.

Irene volunteered significant time and effort at the Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory. She helped edit and indexed many of Don’s history of astronomy books, and also indexed volumes of the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Let me mention my involvement in one of these historical efforts. In 1987 Don recruited me to write a biographical memoir on Otto Struve for the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences (1992, vol. 61, pp. 350–387). Struve was Director of Yerkes Observatory from 1932 to 1947. This endeavor involved recorded interviews with Don’s thesis advisor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Irene’s one-time boss at Yerkes, W. W. Morgan. I could not have written my memoir without the primary documents in the Yerkes archives and at the Bancroft Library of University of California, Berkeley. Don dug much deeper and wrote the monograph Yerkes Observatory, 1892-1950: The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Research Institution (Univ. Chicago Press, 1997). Irene typed the whole manuscript into a word processor, proofed and corrected every chapter several times, and prepared the index. As we know, a good book with a bad index or no index is a less-than-good book, and a good book with a great index can be a great book. This particular volume is the definitive work on the first half-century of one of the most significant astronomical institutions of that era.

In addition to her work at the Lick archives, Irene volunteered at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, and the Volunteer Center Transportation Bureau. She recorded many mathematical and scientific textbooks for the visually impaired.

Irene endowed a number of gifts in honor of her husband: a study room named in his honor at the McHenry Library at UCSC; the Osterbrock Book Prize of the Historical Astronomy Division of the AAS; and, with Sandra Faber, she began the Osterbrock Leadership Program at UCSC.

Irene Osterbrock died of natural causes at age 92. She is survived by two daughters, one son, and three grandchildren. She was a kind person and supportive spouse, as well as a wonderful mother and grandmother.

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