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William F. M. Buscombe (1918–2003)

Published onDec 01, 2003
William F. M. Buscombe (1918–2003)

William Buscombe, an emeritus professor at Northwestern University, died from a massive stroke on 13 March 2003. He was a stellar spectroscopist and was working on the 16th edition of his catalog, entitled ``MK Spectral Classifications" at the time of his death.

Bill was born on 12 February 1918 in Hamilton, Canada to Ethel Minett Buscombe and William Henry Buscombe. His mother was a business woman prior to marriage and his father was an executive secretary to a fire insurance company. His interest in astronomy was stimulated by a mathematics teacher in grade school and this interest carried over to his undergraduate years at the University of Toronto where he worked as a research assistant measuring stellar spectra at the David Dunlop Observatory. He earned a BA degree in Mathematics and Physics in 1940. Upon graduation he entered the graduate program in meteorology under the Department of Transport of the Government of Canada and worked as a meteorologist for the Canadian government until 1945. His studies and service eventually led to a MA degree in Meteorology from the University of Toronto in 1948. From the period 1945 to 1948, Bill was an instructor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Saskatchewan. During the summer of 1947 Bill resumed his research in astronomy working with Andew McKellar in a study of the intensities of molecular bands in R-type stars at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Subsequently, Bill entered into the graduate program in the Department of Astronomy at Princeton University where he worked with Martin Schwarzschild and Lyman Spitzer, Jr. In 1950, he was awarded a PhD in Astronomy for his thesis entitled, ``Spectrophotometry of Early A-Type Stars."

Bill joined the staff at the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories as a Fellow of the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1950--1952. During this period he spent a significant amount of time observing at Mount Wilson studying the variations of atomic absorption lines in the spectra of long period variable stars with Paul Merrill. In 1952 Bill took an astronomer staff position at the Commonwealth Observatory (later called the Mount Stromlo Observatory). When it became part of the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, he became a professor of astronomy. Until 1968, Bill observed the stars in the southern hemisphere measuring their radial velocities and classifying them spectroscopically. His research spanned over several directions including studies of the atmospheres of cool giant stars, the Magellanic clouds, novae, and galactic structure. His work led him to become one of the first astronomers to undertake spectral classifications of stars in the southern hemisphere.

Bill briefly returned to the US as a visiting professor in astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania from 1964--1965 and permanently relocated to the US in 1968. Bill was persuaded to leave Australia to join the faculty at Northwestern University as Professor of Astronomy by J. Allen Hynek, the then chair of the department. At that time, the Lindheimer Observatory had been constructed on the Evanston campus and the installation of a new Coudé spectrograph for the 1-meter reflector was planned. However, due to budgetary constraints the Coudé project (estimated at the time to be on the order of 1 million dollars) had to be scrapped and a more modest Cassegrain spectrograph was installed instead. Having lost an opportunity to carry on his favorite research field of high dispersion spectroscopy, Bill settled down to concentrate on teaching the art of astronomical spectroscopy and supervising several PhD students in their research. During the subsequent years he continued and expanded his earlier efforts with Pamela Kennedy in Australia of compiling a photometric and spectroscopic database forming the early basis for his spectral catalogs. He was appointed emeritus professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy upon his retirement in 1988.

Bill very much loved to teach and to talk to young people about astronomy. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he was a welcome visitor in primary school classes on Chicago's North Shore. His interests in the young students led him to be involved as a faculty associate in the residential colleges of the University. Bill's interest in teaching extended beyond the Northwestern boundaries as he also lectured at other colleges and universities under the auspices of the Harlow Shapley Visiting Lectureship program of the American Astronomical Society and to gatherings of amateur astronomers. He was a member of the American Astronomical Society, Royal Astronomical Society, International Astronomical Union and Sigma Xi. Professionally, Bill was very meticulous in his approach and execution. His desire for perfection was reflected in his teaching as well. Some students felt that he was too demanding, but he had no sympathy for anyone who did not strive to go past mediocrity. He read extensively and made it a point to attend and participate in seminars and colloquia even late in his life. Since he made a very conscious effort to keep up with the latest developments in astronomy, he was very well versed in astronomical literature going back to many years.

He is survived by his wife, Royal, along with three sons (Peter, Martin, and Timothy), four daughters (Dawn, Eve, Lucy, and Katherine), 11 grandchildren, and a great grand child. His family remembers his smile, his wit, his integrity, his knowledge and his helpfulness.

Bill was a man of conviction and an active member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). He was firmly against violence and wars and was quite outspoken, expressing his opinions in public, forcefully and very directly. In private, he was more reserved and showed a good sense of humor. Bill was generous with his time for the cause of ``Reading for the Blind," regularly spending an afternoon at a taping session to record books on astronomy. He enjoyed listening to classical music. Bill was a loyal and generous friend.

Photo courtesy of Ronald Taam

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