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Alice Marguerite Risley (1905–1990)

Published onSep 01, 1992
Alice Marguerite Risley (1905–1990)

Marguerite Risley is remembered as a friendly, dignified and gracious lady, highly capable in both research and teaching. She was born in Wanakena, New York, on September 2, 1905, attended Syracuse University of Jamesville, New York, earning an A.B. in 1926 and A.M. in 1928. In 1942 she was awarded the at Radcliffe College. Meanwhile, in 1926-27, she taught high school at Shortsville, N.Y. Most of her subsequent career she spent at Randolph Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she was instructor in mathematics from 1928 to 1939, Assistant Professor in Mathematics and Astronomy 1939-45, Associate Professor 1945-55, and finally full Professor 1955 until her retirement in 1971.

She had been given leave of absence from Randolph-Macon in 1937-39 in order to work toward her Ph.D. at Radcliffe College. Professor Bart. J. Bok at Harvard College Observatory was her thesis advisor, stimulating and encouraging her research interests.

At the larger universities, the policy of "publish or perish" was sometimes apt to mitigate against first rate teaching of undergraduates. At small colleges, on the other hand, especially at women's colleges, teaching was always stressed significantly above research. Thus, back in Virginia, Miss Risley found little time fot research; in fact, the standard astronomical bibliography, the Jahresbericht of the German Astronomische Gesellschaft, followed by Astronomy and Astrophysics Abstracts, listed only four papers by Risley:

"The Milky Way in Cepheus," Ap.J. 97, 277-299, 1943, based on her Ph.D. thesis.

"A Bright Region in Cepheus," Ap.J. 109,314-320, 1949.

"Space Velocities of Mira Variables," by V. Osvalds and Risley, Ast. Jour., 65, 496, 1960 (Abstract).

"Absolute Proper Motions, Secular Parallaxes, Absolute Magnitudes and Space Velocities of Mira Type Variables," by V. Osvalds and Risley, Pub. Leander McCormick Obs., 11, 147-170, 1961.

All of these papers involved determinations of stellar magnitudes, colors and spectral types. The first two papers show considerable research potential. At a time when relatively little was known about interstellar absorption, her analysis of the space distributions of stars to 15th photographic magnitude in a 750 square degree area in Cepheus was an important pioneering investigation. The other two publications, co-authored with Osvalds, have been highly appreciated by variable-star astronomers. Previous determinations by others of the absolute magnitudes of Mira-type variables had given somewhat discordant results. The new investigation was based on more extensive and more precise observations than the previous determinations.

At Randolph-Macon Risley revealed herself as an expert in celestial mechanics and galactic structure, two fields in astronomy for which mathematics was especially important; and she introduced a course in statistics, realizing its importance in astronomical as well as other science projects. It was through her efforts that the college acquired a 12-inch Cassegrain telescope in 1962. Faculty records noted that "Her efforts brought the astronomy program to its highest level since the founding of the College."

As a member of the AAS Teacher's Committee in 1954, in an article in Sky and Telescope entitled "One Hundred and One Astronomers" Risley reported on the status of teaching in American colleges and universities as indicated by responses to questionnaires she had sent to 101 astronomers. This article is still of current interest.

In August-September 1964, while the Director of the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Observatory attended meetings of the International Astronomical Union, Miss Risley took over as Acting Director. The work there was primarily on variable stars, a program designed for research participation for women undergraduates. The Observatory had been erected as a memorial to the first woman astronomer in the United States, a woman who rose to international fame by her discovery of a telescopic comet. Hence, whenever a comet was discovered the students took photographs of it. That summer Comet Everhard appeared and under Miss Risley's tutelage the students published its positions, derived from their own measurements of the photographs they had taken. While in Nantucket Dr. Risley also gave three public open night lectures: "Changing Views of the Universe", "Exploring the Moon", and "The Sun as a Star", revealing a diversity of her interests, which included properly informing the public about astronomy. She served on the Astronomy Committee of the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association from 1963 until 1981. Two of her own students participated in the Maria Mitchell summer program, one in 1963, the other in 1967.

Professional organizations to which Dr. Risley belonged included the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Statistical Association, the Virginia Academy of Science, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the American Association of University Professors, Phi Beta Kappa, and Sigma Xi. For a time she was the President of the University of Virginia Division of the American Association of University Women. In 1956-57 she served on the astronomy program of the National Science Foundation. She was also active in the League of Women Voters. Finally, after her retirement in 1971, she was appointed Visiting Research Associate at the Leander McCormick Observatory of the University of Virginia.

In a memorial to her, the Faculty of Randolph-Macon Women's College stated, "Professor Risley was a woman of impeccable integrity and outstanding professional competence who spent more than half of her life making important contributions to the life and growth of Randolph-Macon Women's College." A scholar of tremendous research potential, Marguerite Risley nevertheless looked upon teaching as her primary responsibility, a dedication that modem harassed educational administrators would like to see emulated.

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