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Helen Dodson Prince (1905–2002)

Published onJan 01, 2009
Helen Dodson Prince (1905–2002)

Helen Dodson Prince, a pioneer in the observation of solar flares, a pioneer in women's rise in the profession of astronomy, and a respected and revered educator of future astronomers, died on 4 February 2002 in Arlington, Virginia.

Helen Dodson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 31 December 1905. Her parents were Helen Walter and Henry Clay Dodson. Helen went to Goucher College in nearby Towson with a full scholarship in mathematics. She turned to astronomy under the influence of a legendary teacher, Professor Florence P. Lewis, and she graduated in 1927. Funded by grants and private charity, she earned the Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Michigan under the direction of Heber Doust Curtis in 1933. Dodson taught at Wellesley College from 1933 until 1943, when she went on leave to spend the last three years of World War II at the MIT Radiation Laboratory. She returned to Goucher after the war as professor of astronomy and mathematics, and in 1947 she came back to Michigan both as professor of astronomy and staff member of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory, of which she became associate director. In 1976 she retired from Michigan and spent her later years in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1932 Dodson held the Dean Van Meter fellowship from Goucher; in 1954 she received the Annie Jump Cannon Prize from the AAS; and in 1974 the University of Michigan honored her with its Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award. She published over 130 articles, mostly on her research specialty, solar flares.

Dodson's interest in the Sun began at Michigan, although her dissertation was, like so many Michigan dissertations of the era, on stellar spectroscopy, "A Study of the Spectrum of 25 Orionis." She came to Michigan during the establishment and growth of the solar observatory at Lake Angelus, the creation of three gifted and industrious amateurs. Heber Curtis fostered the growth of the McMath-Hulbert enterprise and brought it into the University. Dodson's solar activity grew as a result of a number of summers spent, during her Wellesley years, at the solar observatory at Meudon, near Paris.

When she returned to Michigan, Dodson became involved in the study of solar flares, based upon the long series of daily observations made with the tower telescopes at Lake Angelus and the improved spectroscopic equipment developed by Robert McMath, Orren Mohler, Leo Goldberg, Keith Pierce, and others. Her colleague during most of these years was Emma Ruth Hedeman, who co-authored many articles with her. Among her great accomplishments was the Comprehensive Flare Index, a widely used measure of flare activity. A "real live wire" and "a marvelous woman," in the words of students and colleagues, Dodson was also a kind and effective teacher, not at all vain about her accomplishments: She held that solar behavior has a way of making people humble.

Dodoson was married to Edmund L. Prince and lived across Lake Angelus from the McMath-Hulbert Observatory; often she sailed to work, a joy denied to almost all other astronomers. During her years at McMath-Hulbert, The University of Michigan was the sole major American research university to have two women holding professorial positions in astronomy: Helen Dodson Prince and Hazel Marie Losh. One of the founding members of the Solar Physics Division, Professor Prince was a major factor in the rise and success of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory, even when, after the 1950s, urban growth and upper Midwestern weather conditions conspired to cripple the advantages the observatory's technologies had once conferred. Her colleagues and students recall her with great respect and affection.

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