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Francis J. Heyden, S.J. (1907–1991)

Published onSep 01, 1992
Francis J. Heyden, S.J. (1907–1991)

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives,

John Irwin Slide Collection

Father Francis J. Heyden was born May 3, 1907, in Buffalo, New York. His father was a pharmacist, who suffered an untimely death due to a baseball injury. His mother was left with two teenage sons; Francis was the younger of the two. His family remembers him as an avid reader even as a child. His other major interest was radio. In the third-floor attic of his home, he spent much of his time "fooling around with electronics." At age sixteen he graduated from Canisius High School in Buffalo and immediately joined the Jesuit order.

Heyden subsequently went to Woodstock College in Maryland, where he earned an A.B. degree in 1930 and a Master's in 1931. He then accepted an appointment in the Astronomical Division of the Manila Observatory in the Philippines, where he served until 1934. Returning to Woodstock, he completed his theological studies (STL degree in 1938) and was ordained as a Jesuit priest. He then entered Harvard University, where he completed his Master's in Astronomy in 1942 and his Ph.D. in 1944. From 1942 to 1944 he was a teaching fellow there and did post-doctoral work with Professors Bart Bok and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Although Fr. Heyden had planned to return to the Manila Observatory after finishing his studies at Harvard, the onset of World War II made this impossible. He went instead to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1945 as an assistant professor of astronomy, working with the Observatory Director Fr. Paul A. McNally S.J. In 1948 Fr. Heyden was appointed Observatory Director.

At Georgetown Fr. Heyden initiated a program of courses in graduate astronomy. He enlisted the services of a large number of part-time faculty from among physicists and astronomers at various governmental institutions in the Washington area to teach evening classes, a situation which worked out well in accommodating the students who were already professionals at many of these same agencies, but who wished to undertake advanced work in physics and astronomy after their regular work day. Fr. Heyden taught stellar statistics and galactic structure at the graduate level and a course for undergraduates in descriptive astronomy — the forerunner of today's well known popular astronomy courses. At that time Georgetown had the only astronomy graduate program in the greater Washington area.

Among Fr. Heyden's earliest doctoral candidates was Professor John P. Hagen, who was awarded the first Ph.D. in the new science of radio astronomy in the United States. Dr. Hagen subsequently was tapped to lead Project Vanguard, which resulted in the launch of the first American satellite.

In addition to obtaining the participation of local scientists in teaching classes at Georgetown, Fr. Heyden occasionally involved faculty members from other institutions in directing student theses. For example, Professor George Gamow of George Washington University directed the cosmological thesis of Dr. Vera Rubin, who is currently a member of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, but who was for many years an astronomy faculty member at Georgetown.

Fr. Heyden's earliest research was performed in the fields of galactic structure and variable stars. He collaborated. with Fr. L.C. McHugh S.J. in photographing star fields in the Southern Milky Way. These images were combined into an Atlas, which has become a basic reference tool for students of galactic structure.

The major field of scientific research for Fr. Heyden was solar physics, with particular emphasis on solar eclipses. From 1947 to 1963 he organized seven solar eclipse expeditions to various parts of the world, supported primarily by the U.S. Air Force. He trained observers to go to different locations along the eclipse path, including several graduate students who obtained material for their theses at Georgetown and other institutions.

Fr. Heyden also enjoyed building astronomical instruments, such as large-scale spectrographs, which he used to observe solar and planetary spectra. He was interested in applying computers to astronomical data reduction, particularly in spectroscopy.

In addition to his research and teaching interests, Fr. Heyden had at least two other interests which were extremely dear to him: his radio broadcasts and his work with young people. From Dahlgren Chapel in the middle of the Georgetown University campus, Fr. Heyden conducted a Mass for Shut-Ins, which was broadcast every Sunday. He was also Moderator of the Campus Radio Station WGTB. With the late Fr. Daniel Power S.J. he organized and produced the Georgetown University Forum, a network radio broadcast heard nationally for many years. Fr. Heyden moderated the show much in the manner of modem "talk shows" and selected guests with differing points of view which often resulted in a lively debate of controversial topics.

Fr. Heyden's outreach and interest in young people was widely recognized. He taught an astronomy course on local television aimed at school children; he organized and worked with high schools on Science Fairs; and he actively supported projects of the Washington Academy of Science. One of his dreams which never materialized was to have a Washington planetarium down by the Potomac waterfront.

When the Directors of Georgetown decided to close the observatory in 1972, Fr. Heyden returned to the Philippines to continue his work in solar spectroscopy and to teach at the Ateneo de Manila. Although he had always enjoyed good health, in his later years he developed a heart condition which required the installation of a pacemaker. Further health problems forced some curtailment of his activities. He died on February 8, 1991, and was buried in the Jesuit cemetery in Manila.

Fr. Heyden was a member of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, Sigma Xi, Phi Beta Kappa, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a Founding Member of the Society of Photographic Scientists and Engineers. In 1950 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Stories about Fr. Heyden are many and vary with the persons narrating them. His outgoing love for people impelled him to give generously to help anyone in need, to be patient with those laboring under special difficulties and to comfort all afflicted ones who came within his care and attention. He shared his radio station, his "classy car", and his dogs with everyone who came to Georgetown's highest hilltop. His happy spirit came from his strong family background in Buffalo, from his early exposure to realities facing the underprivileged in the Philippines, and from lessons on sharing and giving which he learned during his Jesuit training.

On November 28, 1942, Fr. Heyden, after working late at the Harvard College Observatory, returned to the Jesuit residence at St. Mary's Parish near Boston's North Station. He was one of the first to hear and to answer the call for priestly assistance at the tragic Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in which 491 people perished.

For a more detailed obituary of Fr. Heyden, see M.F. McCarthy S.J., Quart. Journ Royal Astron. Soc. (1992) 33, 265-267, from which some of the above material was drawn.

Photo (available in PDF version): Father Francis J. Heyden at the 12 in. telescope of Georgetown University about 1970.

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