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Henry Albers (1925–2009)

Published onDec 01, 2011
Henry Albers (1925–2009)

Henry Albers, professor of astronomy at Vassar College for over thirty years, died March 29, 2009, in Fairhope, Alabama. For his work at Vassar, where he held the Maria Mitchell Chair, Albers received the first Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award for his inspiration of women astronomers. He said "In the final analysis it is the students who bring the joy into teaching." As a professional astronomer, Albers did observational work on Galactic structure in the southern Milky Way, and on the structure of the Magellanic Clouds. In retirement, Albers published Maria Mitchell - A Life in Journals and Letters, the firsthand account of America's first woman astronomer.

Albers’s research was on photographic near-infrared spectroscopy of red giant stars in the southern Milky Way, some proper motion studies, and on the structure of the Magellanic Clouds. A series of seven NSF grants supported his six trips to Chile to make spectroscopic observations, as well as his sabbatical collaborations at Minnesota, Leiden, and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.

Henry Albers arrived at Vassar in 1958, to find an astronomy program that had been recently absorbed by the physics department, and that was suffering neglect after the retirement of Maud Makemson. For the next 31 years, with incredible energy— he sometimes taught seven courses a year—he built the astronomy program into one double in size (from one to two tenure lines), whose 19th century facilities have been replaced with a 21st century observatory. For a remarkable stretch of 20-some-years, Albers and physicist Bob Stearns, with considerable grace, alternated chairmanship of the joint department of physics and astronomy. Henry Albers was a devoted citizen of Vassar College and an enthusiastic participant in the process of faculty governance at that institution. He would have been the first to concede that his enthusiasm was sometimes excessive, and that his contributions at faculty meetings occasionally failed to move the discussion forward. Before more than one meeting, he was known to make a note to himself on his copy of the agenda, which read, in large block letters: “shut up.” Fortunately, Albers was seldom able to repress his concern for the College or his dedication to its improvement. He served on all major committees and most minor ones as well. For example, he chaired a committee that eventually got telephones in faculty offices, another that lobbied for establishment of an academic computing center, and another that constructed Vassar’s system of post-tenure review of senior faculty. It was Henry Albers who introduced the motion on the floor of the faculty, which passed by a vote of 100 to 2, moving that Vassar College accept coeducation. Albers was a caring mentor and although fundamentally compassionate, had a somewhat prankish sense of humor—unfailingly directed at the most pompous targets in sight.

Although deeply dedicated to the College, Albers had an admirable ability to disengage from his life at Vassar. He regularly spent college breaks as the resident astronomer on cruise ships. Every May, he would celebrate his last class by sharing a jug of wine in the faculty commons with his regular lunchtime group. After retiring in 1989, he continued his hobbies of gardening, painting, and choral singing, but also immediately began work as a math and science volunteer in the local public schools on Cape Cod. He completed his final scholarly project, his edition of the Letters and Journals of Maria Mitchell, in 2002.

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