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James Cuffey (1911–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
James Cuffey (1911–1999)

James Cuffey, one of the early developers of stellar photoelectric and photographic photometry, died May 30, 1999, in Bloomington, Indiana. He was a faculty member in the Departments of Astronomy at Indiana University (IU) and at New Mexico State University (NMSU) and the Seamanship and Navigation Department of the US Naval Academy. Born on October 8, 1911 in Chicago, Illinois, he became a graduate of Northwestern University in 1934 and received a PhD from Harvard in 1938. It was in early 1938 that Frank Edmondson, himself a recent Harvard graduate, at the urging of Harlow Shapley persuaded the president of IU to add an additional faculty member. Professor W.A. Cogshall, the department head, was brought into the picture by Edmondson and Jim Cuffey started the first part of his career at IU.

While at Northwestern University Jim Cuffey joined the Navy ROTC and upon graduation received a commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. He was called to active duty in June 1941, and was sent to Boston Navy Yard assigned to be Navigator on the cruiser, Juneau. A letter from Cuffey to Admiral Chester A. Nimitz outlining his background in astronomy led to his immediate transfer to the US Naval Academy where he taught navigation. He left the Navy in 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and returned to Bloomington. The cruiser Juneau was sunk at Guadalcanal, November 13, 1942.

At Harvard and IU Jim became an early worker in the field of photoelectric photometry and among the first to teach the art and science of that astronomical technique. In the early 1950s Jim designed and constructed for his own use an iris photometer, an instrument made to carry out stellar photographic photometry. Applying both techniques to a variety of clusters, he analyzed color magnitude relations of galactic and globular clusters and provided light curves of many cluster variables. His photometric atlas of M53, for example, demonstrated significant extension of the photometric data for that cluster and has been frequently cited. Jim's successful application of the iris photometer led to a patent on that instrument. The Cuffey Iris Photometer was then marketed by Astro Mechanics as an off-the-shelf instrument, but it was his original set-up that became dear to the hearts of his students at IU and New Mexico State University (NMSU).

As a dedicated teacher and researcher, Jim effectively taught and charmed students and colleagues and trained them to be orderly and careful in darkrooms and with equipment. Paul Mutschlechner and Bob Brownlee recall that, for reasons lost to them, Jim was referred to as "Trapper Jim." Perhaps, they say, this came out of his rough and tumble style. They and others of us agree that there is no doubt that Jim frequently had a different way of looking at things and had a habit of raising questions about results the rest of us were accepting. We learned to depend on Jim to make visiting colloquia speakers think twice before answering his questions, but were less enthusiastic about this specialty of his when we were planning our own talks.

In 1966 Clyde Tombaugh at New Mexico State University sent out an appeal for experienced observational astronomers to astronomy centers around the country. They were committed to starting a department of astronomy and needed help in site testing and equipment design for a new observatory. Cuffey met the challenge and joined Tombaugh at NMSU. Cuffey and Tombaugh carted site testing and camping equipment to various locations, often using mules for the last miles to mountaintops. They finally selected Blue Mesa, about 30 miles northwest of Las Cruces. Jim had a strong influence in the choice of additional staff over the next several years and, in addition to helping establish the observatory, he played a significant role in curriculum development, building toward the doctoral program.

As several of his students and colleagues point out, Jim's equipment was very likely to be made from parts found in the hardware store. This is not to say that he eschewed automation. At NMSU he constructed self-operating meteor observatories with sliding roofs, bicycle chains, darkroom timers and surplus camera equipment. The project led to dozens of meteor trajectories and supported three graduate students in lean times. However assembled, Jim's equipment worked. Cuffey's lectures and discussions with faculty and students crackled with intelligence, humor, and nonconformity. His attitude about sticking to the basics led him to comment about a screen display too many at a recently refurbished observing station: "I would prefer concentrating on astronomical results and doing without improvements of this sort. In fact there is a real danger that one could spend all his efforts improving the telescope and then find he had no time left for astronomical efforts."

James Cuffey died at the age of 87. He left his published work, many enlightened students and friends, and his family. Jim Cuffey and his wife, Rita (Paraboschi) raised two sons and two daughters, all excellent scholars. Jim and Rita imparted strong desires for learning to all of them and they continue productive lives in the sciences and arts. When she was a senior at Wellesley, a graduate student at NMSU had spent a summer at Maria Mitchell Observatory. While there she published her first paper, a study of variable star V1828 SAG, having used the Cuffey Iris Photometer for analysis. A recent inquiry indicates that the instrument is still in use.

In about 1990, several federal administrative units became interested in Blue Mesa for a border observation post. A deal for new equipment was made with them, and the 24-inch telescope designed by Cuffey and Tombaugh became available. Purchased by Pittsburgh State University, Kansas, at the urging of another NMSU student, the telescope is now part of the Education Science Center in Greenbush, Kansas. Ideal for modem CCD photometry, the telescope is also used for spectroscopic and photometric studies. Although disappointed with its move from the original site, Cuffey said about the 24-inch: "University level students can carry out definitive research with it and young students will be introduced to the wonders of the universe by way of the study of astronomy."

Photo courtesy of New Mexico State University

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