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Victor E. Thoren (1935–1991)

Published onSep 01, 1992
Victor E. Thoren (1935–1991)

Victor E. Thoren died on 9 March 1991 in Los Angeles, California of complications of Hodgkin's disease. He was one of the world's foremost historians of astronomy and the preeminent authority on the life and work of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601).

He was born on 13 May 1935 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Victor E. and Helen (Ling) Thoren. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1956, he earned an A.A. degree from Los Angeles City College in 1958 and a B.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1960. He became interested in the history of science at U.C.L.A., where he studied under A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, whom he followed to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, Bloomington in 1961. He earned his Ph.D. there in 1965, writing his dissertation under the direction of Richard S. Westfall with Michael A. Hoskin as external examiner. He began teaching in the department before finishing his doctorate and remained on the faculty there until his death, becoming a full professor in 1978 and serving as department chairman from 1979 to 1985.

His dissertation "Tycho Brahe on the Lunar Theory" (largely published in three articles in 1967) was conceived as the beginning of a history of lunar theory, but after perceiving the need for a study to replace J.L.E. Dreyer's now century-old biography of Tycho, Thoren redirected his research toward this goal. His 1973 article "New Light on Tycho's Instruments," Journal for the History of Astronomy, 4 (1973), 25-45, set the tone for his meticulous and insightful research into Tycho's life and work. He continued this work steadily his entire professional career, seeing the first copy of his definitive Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) only days before his death.

I knew Dr. Thoren as a thesis student and have the unhappy distinction of being his last. His work as an advisor was exemplary. He honored graduate students' commitment to the field with his careful attention to their work and well-being. He had little use for pretense or dissimulation, and his sometimes disconcerting candor was greatly prized by the students who knew him.

Outside of his academic work, Thoren was devoted to his family above all. He was also an avid bridge and volleyball player.

Readers should also consult these tributes by his colleagues: Owen Gingerich, Isis, 82 (1991), 693-694; Edward Grant (with personal recollections by A Rupert Hall), British Journal for the History of Science, 25 (1992), 255-257; and Richard S. Westfall, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 22 (1991), 253-254.

In a fitting tribute to Thoren's contribution to the history of astronomy, Commission 41 of the I.A.U. has endorsed the proposal of Prof. Frank Edmondson of the astronomy department at Indiana University that minor planet 3731 be named Thorenia.

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