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Anne Barbara Underhill (1920–2003)

Published onDec 01, 2003
Anne Barbara Underhill (1920–2003)

Anne was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on 12 June 1920. Her parents were Frederic Clare Underhill, a civil engineer and Irene Anna (née Creery) Underhill. She had a twin brother and three younger brothers. As a young girl she was active in Girl Guides and graduated from high school winning the Lieutenant Governor's medal as one of the top students in the Province. She also excelled in high school sports. Her mother died when Anne was 18 and, while undertaking her university studies, Anne assisted in raising her younger brothers. Her twin brother was killed in Italy during World War II (1944), a loss that Anne felt deeply.

Possibly because of fighting to get ahead in astronomy, a field overwhelming male when she started, she frequently appeared combative. At the University of British Columbia, Anne obtained a BA (honors) in Chemistry (1942), followed by a MA in 1944. After working for the NRC in Montreal for a year, she studied at the University of Toronto prior to entering the University of Chicago in 1946 to obtain her PhD. Her thesis was the first model computed for a multi-layered stellar atmosphere (1948). During this time she worked with Otto Struve, developing a lifetime interest in hot stars and the analysis of their high dispersion spectra. She received two fellowships from the University Women of Canada.

She received a U.S. National Research Fellowship to work at the Copenhagen Observatory, and upon its completion, she returned to British Columbia to work at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory as a research scientist from 1949--1962. During this period she spent a year at Harvard University as a visiting professor and at Princeton where she used their advanced computer to write the first code for modeling stellar atmospheres. Anne was invited to the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) as a full professor in 1962. She was an excellent teacher, well liked by the students in her classes, and by the many individuals that she guided throughout her career. She tried conscientiously to learn Dutch with only moderate success. She started her lectures in Dutch but switched to English when she was excited. For a semester, she talked of black body radiation; the Dutch came out as ``black corpse radiation." The students enjoyed this so much that they never corrected her. While in Utrecht, she served briefly on the editorial board of the Astrophysical Journal.

After Utrecht, Anne returned to North America to work with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland. The senior scientists at Goddard were looking for a competent astronomer who could help raise the scientific standards of the laboratory. Anne was successful in this aim, particularly in guiding and encouraging the younger staff. As project scientist for the International Ultraviolet Explorer, she contributed greatly to the success of that project. In 1969, Anne received an honorary degree from York University.

The period as Goddard Lab Chief was trying for Anne and she was happy to accept a Senior Scientist position. She spent two years in Paris collaborating with Richard Thomas editing a series of books on astronomy. Of these, she wrote "O-Stars and Wolf Rayet Stars" in collaboration with Peter Conti, and "B Stars With and Without Emission Lines" in collaboration with Vera Doazan. Both books were well received. On return from Paris she continued scientific research until she retired in 1985.

Upon retirement, Anne returned to Vancouver and became an honorary professor at the University of British Columbia. She had an office, library facilities and the stimulation of colleagues. She enjoyed helping and mentoring the women students and she was happy to get back to observing at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria. In 1985 she received the D.S. Beals award, given to a Canadian astronomer for outstanding achievement in research. She was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1985. She received a D.Sc. from the University of British Columbia in 1992.

Anne was one of the world experts on hot stars who influenced many students as well as the entire field. Between 1945 and 1996 she published more than 200 papers in refereed journals or symposium proceedings in addition to books. Her legacy will be long lasting.

The following quote from Giusa-Cayrel de Strobel, an acquaintance of 50 years, summarizes the impression she left. ``In writing this brief note, many meetings we attended together are coming in my memory. They evolved almost always in the same way: first, our joy of the encounter, then the appearing of a scientific disagreement between us, and afterwards, before parting, the reconciliation. Anne never held an argument against her opponent; some of the people she admired and liked most were those with whom she argued vehemently."

Anne cared passionately about astronomy and defended her views vigorously both individually and at meetings. She had difficulty making friends but those who got beyond the surface found that she was a kind, generous, and caring person as well as good company.

Anne was deeply committed to her religious faith and sang in choirs as long as she could. She loved hiking, traveling the world, and music. In 2002, her health began deteriorating and was further weakened by several small strokes. Anne died on 3 July 2003 at the age of 83. She is remembered fondly by her family, friends, and former colleagues.

Photo courtesy of H. Lamers

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