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Oscar E. Monnig (1902–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Oscar E. Monnig (1902–1999)

Oscar Monnig was born on 4 September 1902 in Fort Worth, Texas, where he lived his entire life. His father and an uncle were co-founders of Monnig's department stores there. In 1925 the young Monnig earned an LLB at the University of Texas. He practiced law in Fort Worth for a few years before joining the family business in 1928. He held a number of positions in the business and was president from 1974 to 1981, when the firm was sold.

Monnig had a long-standing interest in astronomy. In the mid-1920s he began observing and sharing methods and results with a small group of amateur astronomers in Dallas and Fort Worth. Because the group focused on variable stars and meteors, both the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) and the American Meteor Society (AMS) soon came to appreciate them. In the 1930s Monnig and his associates were solid contributors to both organizations. The AAVSO loaned the group several telescopes and an astrographic camera that provided the foundation for their Las Estrellas Observatory. Charles Pollard Olivier, the director of AMS, frequently acknowledged their meteor contributions in his monthly reports in Popular Astronomy, where he referred to them collectively as the "Texas Observers."

In 1931, Monnig began publishing a monthly regional newsletter that he called the Texas Observers Bulletin (TOB). As Monnig later described it, if " Texas Observers was good enough for Olivier, it was good enough for their informal group." Monnig made little effort to promote TOB. However, its reasonable price of only one dollar per year, its regular monthly appearance, and the content of the bulletin were attractive to amateur astronomers. Although the newsletter was mimeographed, Monnig would occasionally leave space for a photograph on a page. He would then include the photographic print in the envelope with the copy of TOB, to be glued on the appropriate page by the subscriber. Copies of TOB were mailed to amateur and professional astronomers and observatories all over the United States.

Monnig emphasized the areas in which amateurs could contribute to science, including variable stars, meteors, comets, and the planets. Anyone who described his or her own scientific work in a letter to Monnig was sure to find that work discussed in TOB. Accordingly, TOB became a popular national scientific newsletter for amateur astronomy. Monnig's subscription list and contributors included many of the best-known amateur astronomers in the country, including D.F. Brocchi, Walter H. Haas, Walter Scott Houston, Hugh M. Johnson, Leslie C. Peltier, J. Russell Smith, Frank R. Vaughn, and Latimer J. Wilson.

The quality of the readership and contributors to TOB was well regarded by the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac staff. For a number of years, US Naval Observatory astronomers provided special predictions of lunar occultations for publication in TOB. In his report on astronomy for 1939, Bart Bok noted that of the several amateur groups that issued regular bulletins, the Texas Observers Bulletin was one of the best.

In the late 1920s, Monnig also became intrigued by the messages borne by meteorites about the origins of the solar system and began an informal collection of meteorites. On his way to observe the total solar eclipse in Canada in August 1932, Monnig visited the major meteorite collections at the Smithsonian Institution, Field Museum and American Museum of Natural History. The curators at these leading institutions were not cooperative and refused to allow Monnig to examine specimens. Irritated at what he regarded as a snub, Monnig aggressively expanded his effort to collect meteorites for his private collection. Taking advantage of a large network of business associates and newspaper editors in addition to friendly amateur astronomers scattered across the states of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, Monnig learned how to question those who observed a bolide or detonating meteor to narrow the zone of the likely fall. He occasionally traveled as part of a search party, but more often Monnig coordinated the analysis of observations and acted as the financial backer for a search party. Fort Worth surveyor and amateur astronomer Robert Brown often served as leader of search parties, communicating with Monnig by telephone from the search scene.

Monnig acquired meteorites at a standard rate of one dollar per pound. This was more than could be offered by the museums during the depression. Monnig therefore enjoyed a reputation as a generous buyer of meteorites. Harvey H. Nininger was frequently a competitor in these field searches. When they arrived at the fall-zone simultaneously, Monnig and Nininger would cooperate in the search and became friends.

The most important of Monnig's finds, according to meteorite specialist Carleton Moore of Arizona State University, were the fresh carbonaceous chondrites recovered shortly after falls at Crescent, Oklahoma in 1936, and at Bells, Texas, in 1961. However, Monnig himself took greater pleasure in describing the recovery of the rare Pea Blanca Springs enstatite achondrite, or aubrite, that fell in Brewster County, Texas in 1946. Over his lifetime, by purchasing and trading specimens as well as finding them, Monnig assembled one of the world's largest private collections of meteorites. Well known for its breadth in meteorite types, the Monnig collection is now located at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

Monnig was a founding member of the Society for Research on Meteorites, later the Meteoritic Society, along with Frederick C. Leonard, Nininger and other noteworthy meteoriticists of the 1930s. Monnig served on the Society council (1941-1950) and was elected secretary (1946-1950).

Business pressures as well as Monnig's election as the Meteoritic Society's secretary prompted him to finally stop publication of TOB in late 1947, after a run of nearly 200 issues. It is a measure of TOB 's importance to serious amateur astronomers that in 1955, Walter Scott Houston dedicated his new publication for amateur astronomers, The Great Plains Observer, to meeting the high standards of content and utility that had been maintained by Monnig and the Texas Observers Bulletin.

In addition to Monnig's recognition by the Meteoritic Society, asteroid number 2780 was named Monnig in recognition of his many contributions to astronomy. In 1984, amateur astronomers in the Astronomical League's Southwestern Region honored Monnig by naming him as the first recipient of their Texas Lone Stargazer's award for his services to amateur astronomy.

Monnig married Wanita Mickle in 1941, but they had no children. Wanita preceded him in death in 1996. Thus, Monnig's last years must have been painful, for this gregarious and well-informed individual had gradually become both deaf and blind before she passed away. In his last years, Monnig was thus isolated from both the individuals he loved and those who in the past had continued to slake his ever-present thirst for astronomical knowledge. Monnig died on 4 May 1999.

Photo courtesy of Tom Williams

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