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Thomas Lee Swihart (1929–1995)

Published onDec 01, 2001
Thomas Lee Swihart (1929–1995)

Born in Elkhart, Indiana, on 29 July 1929, Thomas Lee Swihart (Tom) died suddenly of a massive heart attack on 12 May 1995, while on a vacation cruise to Hawaii with his wife, Merna. Appointed Assistant Professor in the University of Arizona (UA) Faculty, in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, on 1 July 1963, and promoted in June 1969 to Full Professor, Tom remained a active member of that faculty until his retirement with the rank of Emeritus Professor on 15 August 1994.

Tom's formal education as an astronomer began upon his graduation from Elkhart High School in 1947. After two years as an undergraduate student at Manchester College at North Manchester, Indiana, in 1949 he transferred to Indiana University (IU), majoring in Astronomy. He received both an AB (1951) and an AM (1952) in Astronomy at IU, followed by his PhD in Astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1955. While at Yerkes Observatory, Tom received one of the first National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowships in 1952-53, followed by a second fellowship in 1954-55. The late Professor Bengt Strömgren supervised his doctoral dissertation, which considered the calibration Strömgren of four-color photoelectric photometry to the physical and numerical modeling of stellar atmospheres.

Prior to his career in Arizona, Tom served on the faculties of the University of Mississippi (1955-57), and the University of Illinois (1962-63), as well as on the research staff (1957-62) of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

When the undergraduate astronomy major program began at the University of Arizona in 1967, Tom was one of the three original undergraduate major advisors (the other two were Walter S. Fitch and Raymond E. White) and served in this capacity throughout his career. Unusually effective as an advisor, and a highly successful and accomplished teacher, Tom has been memorialized by many of his former students and advisees by having a tree planted in his honor on the UA Campus. The tree, an Argentine mesquite, flourishes today in a special place between the Nugent Building (the former Administration Building, but now housing the UA Admissions Office) and "Old Main," the UA's first structure and, now, primarily the Dean of Students' offices.

During the Academic Year 1970-71, Tom was on sabbatical leave to Ege University in Izmir, Turkey, under the auspices of a Fulbright Senior Fellowship. The notes he prepared for his classes at Ege became the basis, for two undergraduate textbooks: one for non-science majors (Journey Through the Universe, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1978), the other for physics and astronomy majors (Astrophysics and Stellar Astronomy, New York: John Wiley and Sons; 1968). Teaching the astrophysical theory courses in the astronomy department's graduate program, Tom produced a number of monographs on stellar atmospheres and interiors. The titles of these books are Basic Physics of Stellar Atmospheres (1971), Physics of Stellar Interiors (1972), Radiation Transfer and Stellar Atmospheres (1981), Lecture Notes on Introduction to Theoretical Physics (ed. R.J. Weymann, 1976), and Quantitative Astronomy: Topics in Astrophysics (1992). Tom wrote over 50 professional articles, including research papers, book reviews, and contributions to encyclopedias.

Tom's happiest and most fulfilling moments were, however, those spent with his family: his wife of 43 years, Merna (née Connelley) Swihart, his daughters Gail (Jerome) Watson and Jennifer (Steven) Stack, his son David Swihart, and his seven grandchildren: Jonathan, Christopher, Stephanie, Mathew, Xandr, Aletheia, and Xanth.

On a personal note, it was Tom who accompanied me on my first visit to the (then) Kitt Peak National Observatory in March 1964; it turned out it was his own "first visit" to the site, as well! Moreover, later the same day, it was through the tripod-mounted refracting telescope belonging to Tom, the Theorists' Theorist, (which he'd set up on the back patio of his home in the northwest suburbs of Tucson, AZ) that I first saw the planet Mercury, in the western sky at sunset. For Tom Swihart, the pursuit and practice of astronomy was a personal journey of inquiry and appreciation, no matter how big or how small the telescope ... if any at all!

Photograph courtesy of Raymond White

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