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John Gray Wolbach (1917–2000)

Published onDec 01, 2001
John Gray Wolbach (1917–2000)

John Wolbach was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 27 February 1917. He loved astronomy and wanted to go to Harvard to study the stars. With the help of a young graduate student named Leo Goldberg, John began to fulfil his dream at Harvard College Observatory in the late 1930s. The development of World War II, however, interrupted his studies and he left college to serve in the Air Force as an instructor in chemical warfare. After the war, John resumed his studies and earned his BA in 1948. He spent the rest of his life at Harvard College Observatory, where his research interests centered on solar activity, climatic change, and atmospheric conditions.

John was also an exceedingly generous benefactor. His gifts included funds to support Harvard College Observatory and its astronomical library named in his honor. He also supported faculty research there and was a key contributor to the construction of the Richard S. Perkin Laboratory for Astrophysics there, dedicated in 1972. When John died on 16 April 2000, many of his friends at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics wrote their memories of him. The personal tributes were collected into a booklet that was presented to his family at a memorial service in Sudbury on Sunday, 7 May 2000. Extracts from some of those tributes are included below.

Irwin Shapiro: "John was a stalwart friend of the Observatory during more than a half century. He was someone I could always rely on for help when we needed it. His role in projecting slides at our Thursday colloquia was legendary; he never missed a colloquium. I enjoyed my frequent lunches with John at Pulcinella's, learning from him about his early life and the Observatory's middle age. His memory of past events was truly remarkable and his stories were unfailingly knowledgeable and entertaining."

George Field: "I was privileged to know John when I served as Director of the Harvard Observatory. Not only was he a friendly presence for me and many others, but he was moved to help in ways that went far beyond his scientific duties. We counted on him to manage the arrangements for the weekly colloquia, and from time to time he volunteered funds to accomplish much needed projects around the Observatory."

Martha L. Hazen: "Over the years, John has been one of the 'constants' of HCO-always around, always with a warm greeting, and always busy helping out. HCO will never seem quite the same without him. John made his mark in the library and in the recently refurbished auditorium that he helped to provide."

Jay Pasachoff: "I remember John Wolbach very fondly from my first year at Harvard when I was in Donald Menzel's freshman seminar. That was a time when HCO was much smaller and more personal, and when the undergraduates had free run of the Great Refractor and other facilities. John is indelibly part of the fond memories I have of my early days as an astronomer."

Julie Shaw: "I worked for John for many years on the analysis of sunspot and climate data. My most memorable moment with him, however, happened at Mt. Auburn Hospital. The day after my second daughter was born, John came to visit me, carrying a little pink giraffe for her. We kept that little giraffe for many years. It always reminded me of this particular side of his complex personality."

Sallie Baliunas: "Wolbach Library is one of the finest astronomy libraries in the world—a tribute to John's love of scholarship and generosity in making so many volumes of knowledge available to the community. I always enjoyed our discussions about solar research. I also enjoyed talking with him about Cadillacs, and how well he cared for his Eldorado. He'll always remain very much alive in the memories of those who respected and treasured him."

Bijoy Misra: "John enjoyed discussing his research on trends in rainfall and analysis of climate variations. He was also interested in the metaphysical inquiries that connected image shapes to ideas. His interest in patterns and their projections prompted him to establish the Wolbach Image Processing Laboratory at HCO. He would say that the patterns were a 'spirit's call.' Let John's spirit continue to prevail through his work and his contributions."

Margaret Egleston: "John loved mathematics, Harvard Graduation Day, hurricanes, good gossip, and a stiff drink at the end of the day. He disliked boring conversations, sycophants, the 'Big Bang' theory of the origin of the universe, and Christmas shopping. He was often misunderstood. He had theorized about the world to which he might travel after dying, his 'Unobstructed Universe.' Until he signals me from there, I will miss him and continue to look for him in the stars."

Barbara Welther: "In the 1950s one of John's pet projects was the restoration of The Great Refractor. He took great pride in showing off 'his telescope' whenever local school children or visitors from afar stopped by for a tour. In the 1970s he was involved in the development of the Perkin Building, especially the library that bears his name. He was an avid reader who also enjoyed a good catnap there in the afternoon. John was a character who etched his lovable individuality upon the hearts of those who stopped to talk to him and listen to his stories."

James Cornell: "On one memorable-and bitter cold winter day, when the always creaky dome mechanism froze solid, John and I were pressed into service as human drive motors, slowly turning the dome for the benefit of a film crew outside. The resultant film became an award-winning documentary, making John and myself unseen, uncredited, and unpaid video stars."

Donna Coletti: "In 1998 John became the center of attention at the grand reopening of the library of the New England College of Optometry in Boston's Back Bay. The library had moved into a renovated historic residence at 420 Beacon Street that had been the home of the Wolbach family from 1910 to 1936. John gave a spontaneous tour of the entire house, telling stories the whole time. 'This was where the Christmas tree stood every year' and 'This is the room where grandfather died.' John told how he and his brothers played in the back yard that at that time extended all the way down to the Charles River. He led us up an unrestored stairway to a wonderful glassed in room on the roof that he had shared with his brother—the room where he could lie in bed and watch the stars before falling asleep. It was a magical afternoon as we watched John transform into a little boy, reminiscing about his incredible childhood and telling stories of child-hood pranks, sadness, and life in the city long ago."

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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