Distinguished Service Professor Alex G. Smith joined the faculty of the University of Florida in 1948. By the time he retired as a full time professor in 1998 he had completed 50 years of service to the university. Smith was responsible for the initiation and development of the entire University of Florida astronomy program, both teaching and research, which resulted in our current status as a nationally ranked department of astronomy.
Smith was born on 12 August 1919 in Clarksburg, West Virginia to Helen Eleanor née Reitz, a homemaker, and Edgel Orr Smith, a coal mining safety inspection engineer. Alex Smith received his SB in Applied Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1943, and was a member of the staff of the M.I.T. Radiation Lab from 1942 to 1946. Smith received his PhD in Physics from Duke University in 1948. His dissertation research was in the area of microwave spectroscopy.
Becoming involved in astronomical activities shortly after his arrival on campus in 1948, Smith and another member of the faculty obtained funding by 1951 for the University of Florida’s planetarium projector, a Spitz Model-A. The funds available did not extend to the purchase of a projection surface, so Smith constructed the sixteen-foot dome himself. While still in the Department of Physics, by 1952 Smith had begun the publication of papers on astronomical observations and atmospheric optics.
The arrival of Thomas D. Carr (now Professor Emeritus) as a graduate student initiated a collaboration on radio astronomy that would last for many decades. Smith and Carr established the first UF radio observatory in 1956. Based on their work at this observatory and its successors including a site at Maipu, Chile, Smith and his students published more than thirty papers on radio astronomy. By 1962, Smith had supervised five of the total of nineteen PhDs granted by the Department of Physics, four of these in the areas of astronomy or atmospheric optics. An additional five candidates received their PhDs under the supervision of Smith and Carr within the next three years. This productivity in the area of astronomy led to the renaming of the department as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1962. Appointed Chairman for Astronomy, Smith held that position from 1962 to 1971. In 1970, the department received the right to grant a PhD in Astronomy (in addition to the PhD in Physics). By 1970 Professor Smith and his students who joined the faculty after their own graduation had already supervised fifteen of the total of eighty-six PhDs granted by the department.
During this time Smith was the primary author of an NSF “Center of Excellence” proposal that brought more than one million dollars to the department. The astronomy portion of this grant included the establishment of the Rosemary Hill Observatory (including its 30–inch research telescope), and expansion of the new Dixie County Radio Observatory. The internationally recognized Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) observational program carried out by Smith and his students at Rosemary Hill resulted in 45 papers and eight book chapters on AGN and related objects. Their efforts established Florida as a preeminent AGN monitoring site.
In another area, Smith’s program of photographic photometry led to more than twenty papers and seven book chapters on photographic emulsions and techniques. These publications discussed numerous innovations including hyper-sensitization of astronomical emulsions. Smith served from 1975 to 1987 as the editor of the AAS Photo-Bulletin.
A few years after the NSF grant, Smith was again a major participant in writing a proposal of significance to UF, this time a proposal to NASA. The result was construction of the Bryant Space Science Center that now houses the Department of Astronomy.
During his more than fifty years at UF, Smith served in many other posts and received many honors. He served as a director for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy from 1960 to 1963; Acting Director of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in1966; Acting Dean of the UF Graduate School from 1971 to 1973; and as UF representative on the Southeastern Universities Research Association Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1991. He also served on the Space Sciences Panel of the National Research Council’s Postdoctoral Research Associateship Program from 1982 to 2001. Smith held the rank of UF Distinguished Service Professor each year from 1982 to 1998. His faculty appointment was as both Professor of Physics and Professor of Astronomy.
Smith finally retired from the University of Florida in May 2001. Up to that time, he continued an active research program, including several nights each month at the Rosemary Hill Observatory. He led the effort to design a new teaching observatory and outreach center planned for an isolated spot on campus, and continued to teach at both the undergraduate and graduate level. His most recent teaching achievements included an outstanding teaching award in 1994 and the complete development of a new undergraduate “hands-on” astronomy laboratory course.
Smith was an outstanding member of the university faculty with a record of distinction and dedication to astronomical research, teaching and administration that very few will ever equal. He will be deeply missed.
Smith is survived by his wife Mary née Ellsworth Smith whom he married in 1942, a son, Alex G. Smith III, and daughter, Sally Geil.