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Thornton L. Page (1913–1996)

Published onSep 01, 1996
Thornton L. Page (1913–1996)

Thornton Leigh Page died at his home at Nassau Bay, Houston on 2 January 1996, at the age of 82. Born in New Haven, Connecticut on 13 August 1913, he was the son of Leigh Page, then an instructor in physics at Yale, and Mary Thornton Page, who had trained as a nurse before their marriage. Leigh Page taught theoretical physics and wrote two well-known textbooks.

Page grew up in an academic atmosphere, attended public grammar and high schools in New Haven, and then Yale where he received his BS in physics with highest honors in 1934. He developed an interest in astronomy taking courses under Dirk Brouwer, and was also inspired by Princeton astronomy professor John Q. Stewart and Harvard physicist Percy W. Bridgman, whose families summered in the same area in New Hampshire. Page enjoyed hiking and the outdoor life, sang in the Glee Club and Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and was a student leader. After Yale he became a Rhodes scholar and studied astrophysics at Oxford for three years under Harry H. Plaskett.

Page learned astrophysical theory from Edward A. Milne and did a thesis on planetary nebulae using spectrograms Plaskett had obtained at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. In 1937-8 Page remained at Oxford as chief assistant, and received a D. Phil. in 1938. He married Helen Ashbee, of Sevenoaks, Kent in June 1938, and they moved to the University of Chicago, where he had been appointed instructor in astronomy. They had one daughter, Tanya.

Page proved to be an outstanding undergraduate astrophysics teacher, as I can testify from my own experience soon after World War II. He was demanding, inspiring, and possessed a vivid personality, exemplified by his beard (uncommon in those days) and the brilliant red sailor's rain hat he wore on many occasions. In Page's time the bulk of the astronomy department was stationed at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. Under Otto Struve it was in its glory years, with a star-studded faculty. Page was expected to spend part of his time there doing research, and did, but Struve put no value at all on teaching performance, and the young instructor suffered in his estimation.

Along with many other Rhodes scholars, Page spoke out in favor of America joining the Allied cause during World War II. In the summer of 1941 he left for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington to work on magnetic mines and countermeasures, joining physicists like John Bardeen and Scott Forbush who pioneered in operations research. Page traveled to England to observe countermeasures there, and in 1942 received a naval commission and training at Dartmouth before he was sent to Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor with the minelaying operations-research group. He served on Guam, Tinian, and at sea, and was with the fleet in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender. After a year helping to clear mines in the Inland Sea, just before he retired as a lieutenant commander, he observed and reported on the atomic bomb tests at Bikini.

Back in Chicago in the autumn of 1946, Page taught astronomy and the Hutchins-era general course in physical sciences, based on the "Great Books." His wife had left him during the war and divorced him in 1945. Page met Lou Williams, a Chicago-trained geologist who was a fellow instructor in the physical sciences survey course, and they were married in 1948. In addition to teaching, Page had some time for research. With the 82-inch McDonald Observatory reflector he initiated a program of obtaining spectra of double galaxies and measuring their relative radial velocities. The results, which he published in 1952, showed that the masses of galaxies are considerably higher than was then believed. This was the third early indication of what we now call "dark matter" in the universe, confirming the previous results of Fritz Zwicky and Sinclair Smith.

Page was promoted to assistant professor in 1947 but knew he had little chance to go higher under Struve. In 1951 he left Chicago for government service as deputy director of the Operations Research Office in the Department of the Army. Much of his work was classified, and included a six-month tour in Korea during the war and two years in Heidelberg at U.S. Army Headquarters as chief science adviser.

In 1958 Page returned to academe as professor and head of the astronomy department at Wesleyan University. Its Van Vleck Observatory had been strictly an astrometric research center, but Page moved it into astrophysics, hiring Frank Zabriskie, Emery Fletcher, and Herbert J. Rood, as well as Arthur R. Upgren, who modernized and continued the astrometric program. Besides specialized astronomy courses, Page taught in a required freshman humanities course, and soon organized a similar general physical science course. He, Lou, and their two children, Mary Anne and Leigh II, lived in a large, picturesque, university house which dated back to 1783. He used a picture of it as the illustration on the labels of the bottles of beer which he brewed under the name of "Pagerbr'áu," and presented to faculty friends as Christmas gifts. Before leaving Germany he had located and bought a 1938 Mercedes touring car which had once belonged to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel; back in Middletown with Connecticut vanity license plates bearing a short version of the Panzer leader's name it established Page as a colorful, respected campus character.

In late 1961, Page was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He broke several bones and lost the sight of his right eye; his recovery was long and painful. After five months in a hospital and infirmary he took leave to recuperate in Berkeley, where with Jerzy Neyman and Elizabeth Scott he organized a conference on the instability of systems of galaxies. In the introduction to the proceedings (published in the Astronomical Journal), probably written by Page, and in the paper by D. N. Limber, there are strong (at least in retrospect) arguments that "invisible" or "unseen" matter must make up the greater part of the mass of the universe. At this time Page and his wife began their jointly edited eight-volume popular series, the Sky and Telescope Library of Astronomy, each devoted to a specific topic and published from 1965 through 1969. In 1964 Page taught astronomy as a visiting professor at UCLA, and in 1966 was a volunteer adjunct professor at Yale, in place of Brouwer, who had died earlier that year.

The Space Age gave Page new opportunities to combine his research interests with his military background. In 1965-7 he was on leave at the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory, working on its space-tracking programs. During this period he obtained funds to help modernize and upgrade the 61-inch reflector of the Cordoba Observatory in Argentina. He made several trips there and in 1969 received an honorary degree from Cordoba University. In 1968 Page went on leave again to the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, where he lectured on astronomy to astronauts and planned various space-astronomy missions. He became co-investigator in the Apollo S20 1 experiment, with George R. Carruthers (the PI) of the Naval Research Laboratory, who had designed and built a far-ultraviolet electronographic Schmidt camera. During the Apollo 16 mission (in 1972), astronaut John Young placed the camera on the surface of the moon and carried out a pre-programmed series of direct and spectrographic exposures. Carruthers and Page also collaborated on similar far-ultraviolet observations of Comet Kohoutek from Skylab in 1973-4. They published more than a dozen research papers based on the data they obtained on these missions.

Following his two-year leave at NASA, Page resigned from Wesleyan in 1971. The lure of space research kept him in Houston where he remained as a member of the Naval Research Laboratory staff until his retirement in 1976. After that Page carried out several writing projects for NASA, some of them in collaboration with Lou, producing study materials for public education in space science and astronomy. Between 1981 and 1987 he taught astronomy at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, near the Johnson Space Center. He organized a Brown Bag (luncheon) Seminar at the Center which is still going on, an inspiration to many who have attended it. Page is survived by his wife and by his three children. He was a productive research worker and an outstanding teacher in the Socratic mode. He left thousands of former students more interested and knowledgeable about astronomy, science and the universe than he had found them.

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