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Edith Alice Müller (1918–1995)

Published onSep 01, 1996
Edith Alice Müller (1918–1995)

Edith Müller, since 1983 honorary professor of astrophysics at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, died of heart failure at the age of 77 on 24 July 1995 while on holiday in Spain. She was born in Madrid on 5 February 1918 of Swiss parents, and grew up there, training in physics and mathematics. She obtained her PhD in 1943 in Zurich concentrating on solar physics, which would be her lifelong specialty.

Edith remained at Zurich until 1950, first as an assistant and then research associate. In 1951 she was in Cambridge (U.K.) and then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, staying there until 1962. She returned to Switzerland as associate professor first at Neuchatel, until 1965, and then as extraordinary professor at Geneva, rising to full professor in 1972. She spent her last years in Basel where she took loving care of her aged mother and then of her sister.

Edith will be remembered by her colleagues for two major achievements: her work in solar spectroscopy and her contributions to international scientific collaboration and education. She was a student of the "quiet sun" working both in the observation and theory of the solar atmosphere. At Ann Arbor, she collaborated with Leo Goldberg and Lawrence H. Aller in a monumental paper (1960) on the solar abundance that remained a standard for years. She continued abundance work, concentrating on the rarer elements. She devoted special attention to the systematic use of the physical information contained in high-accuracy observations of center-to-limb variations.

Edith had an extraordinary command of language. She was fluent in Spanish, English, French and German, which not only made her a highly esteemed lecturer almost anywhere in the world but thrust her into a central role in the international astronomical community. She displayed a deep understanding of international relations which led to appointments to many prominent posts, the most influential being the office of General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) from September 1976 to September 1979, preceded by three years (1973-1976) as Assistant General Secretary and followed by three years as advisory member of the IAU Executive Committee. From 1967 to 1973 she was the president of IAU Commission 46 on Teaching of Astronomy and from 1965 to 1988 she was president of IAU Commission 38 for the Exchange of Astronomers. During her term as General Secretary the IAU succeeded in establishing a permanent office for its Secretariat at the Paris Observatory. She was also the President of the Swiss National Committee for the IAU (1979-1985) and the president of the Henri Chretien Fund (1964 to 1986). Attendants of the 1994 session of the IAU Commission for the History of Astronomy in The Hague will remember her vivid account of the whereabouts of the IAU Archives in the early years.

Those who have enjoyed Edith's company, either in scientific or social circles, remember not only the highly esteemed scientist, but equally dearly her warm, cheerful personality. I recall nothing but admiration and gratitude for the years of collaboration with Edith as IAU General Secretary, but my earliest recollection of her comes from the fall of 1948. Freshly released from her organizational duties ("as a baby astronomer" she used to say) at the Zurich IAU Assembly, Edith visited Leiden during a tour of European observatories and made an indelible impression on everyone. An obituary has been published by A. Maeder, Quarterly Journal of the RAS 37:267-268 (1996).

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