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Amelia F. Wehlau (1930–2021)

Wehlau was a trail-blazer, earning her Ph.D. at age 23 in an era when few doctorates were awarded to women. She is best known for her studies of variable stars in globular clusters.

Published onOct 02, 2022
Amelia F. Wehlau (1930–2021)

Photo credit: Western University.

Astronomer Amelia Fay Wehlau died on Sunday, March 21, 2021 from complications due to COVID. She was 91.

“When I was nine, I just thought, I’m going to be an astronomer,” recalled Dr. Amelia Wehlau during an interview 13 years after her retirement in 1995. Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Western University, Wehlau carried out that prediction, citing both a trip to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California in 1939 at the age of 9, and the assistance of her high school English teacher in Kansas City, Missouri, Alma Betz, as instrumental in encouraging her fascination with the stars. Alma, whose brother in law was Harlow Shapley, Director of the Harvard College Observatory at that time, would bring in copies of Sky and Telescope magazine for Wehlau, and later when Wehlau attended junior college, Alma’s sister Annette, continued to offer assistance. Wehlau gave recognition to the Betz sisters with “I had these two women who were very helpful”. Her family though provided mixed approval. “My father was always very supportive... My mother wasn’t. She said you can always be a high school teacher”.

Wehlau’s study of astronomy eventually brought her to the University of California Berkeley. There she met her future husband William, and after receiving her B.A. in 1949 in astronomy, they married in 1950. They successfully defended their Ph.D.’s in astronomy in 1953; Amelia was 23 at the time. Shortly thereafter, William accepted an offer at the Warner and Swasey Observatory in Cleveland. It was only two years later in May of 1955 that a post-doctoral position was offered to William at Western. After visiting the campus he returned to Cleveland with words of praise. “That is the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen”. The house they rented on the outskirts of London is the same one that Amelia continued to reside in well past her retirement.

During the first part of their stay in Cleveland, Wehlau continued her research in astronomy. Her astronomical pursuits took brief pauses through the years as four children were born; Ruth, Jeanne, Alice and David. In 1962, when her fourth child was only two months old, an opportunity arose which changed the course of her life. Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg, a well-known astronomer at the University of Toronto, and first president of the Canadian Astronomical Society, offered Wehlau a position as a research assistant working out of Western. This opportunity involved estimating the brightness, or magnitude, of variable stars in the cluster Messier 14 captured on Dr. Hogg’s photographic plates.

Amelia Wehlau (left) of Hume Cronyn Observatory, London, Ontario (left) and Helen Sawyer Hogg (right) of the University of Toronto’s David Dunlap Observatory, c. 1938. Photo credit: Western University.

Defined as stars demonstrating variations in their luminosity within a period of time, variable stars provide important information about the evolution of the stars. “And all these stars are important because these clusters are very old; they are much older than the sun. They are the oldest things in the universe sorta, and so they are about 13 billion years old.” Wehlau remembers “It was fun to do because you had a lot of data and you had to figure out the periodicity of the change.” Although initially plotted on graph paper, the introduction of the computer permitted magnitude curves to be generated based on data derived from both visual interpretations and CCD’s, or charge-coupled devices.

Based out of what was then the Department of Pure and Applied Mathematics and Astronomy, Wehlau made perhaps the most significant contribution of her career. “The one exciting thing that happened is one day we were looking at her (Dr. Hogg’s) plates and I see a star I’ve never seen before, and so that turned out to be what you call a nova, but it was on her plates from 1938. It’s there in the one picture and not in the other one. They hadn’t found a nova in a cluster photograph ever before. There had been one seen in 1860 before photography. This was a big deal.” The findings were featured in a 1964 issue of Sky and Telescope.

In 1965 Wehlau was asked to lecture on her husband’s behalf as he was seriously ill with hepatitis. She enjoyed lecturing, and after his return she continued to lecture part-time in the years 1965 to 1970. She was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1970 and Associate Professor in 1978 with “An Investigation of Period Changes in Cluster BL Herculis Stars” perhaps her most referenced paper published in The Astronomical Journal in 1982.

Wehlau declined the offer of a full time position, opting instead to continue her variable stars research on a part-time basis due to her family. In 2008, the Western News stated that women have long been under-represented in the astronomy field, but Wehlau commented; “Never occurred to me, ever, that I should have any problem. I just went to school, didn’t expect any problems with it. I probably had somewhat thick skin so that if I was being discriminated against, I didn’t even notice it.”

During her 30 years at Western, Wehlau frequently attended international conferences at sites where Western had formed collaborations. She held Mauna Kea Hawaii in high regard. This is where the 3.6 meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope or CFHT is located at 4000 meters above sea level. “It was very nice. We got to go to France every summer, and Hawaii every winter for meetings,...just before the Christmas vacation so you were not overwhelmed with people or anything.”

The year 1995 brought a series of life altering changes. William suffered a stroke that took his life and Amelia retired. Immediately following her retirement, Wehlau lectured off campus at the Oxford Street 3M plant. “I used a lot of transparencies.... but that was a good thing at 3M because they made transparencies and they gave you as many as you needed.” Wehlau was actively involved in research after retiring, coauthoring a paper in The Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, where Wehlau assisted in compiling data contributed from amateur astronomers and their many nights studying the stars.

The only child of Samuel and Pearl White, Amelia Wehlau is survived by her children Ruth (John Corbett), Jeanne, David (Charlene), Alice (Michael Leutheusser), grandchildren, Ariel (Danielle), Samuel (Hanne), Tristan, Francisco, Abel and Megan, and great-grandson, Luca.

Adapted and reproduced with permission from A Part of Our History, a publication of The Western University.

See also Wehlau’s AstroGen entry.

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