Albert Edward Whitford

Albert Edward Whitford


Date of Birth
October 22, 1905
Date of Death
March 28, 2002

A 1921 graduate of Milton College in Milton, Wisconsin, Albert Whitford was a graduate student in physics at the University of Wisconsin when he found a job as assistant to astronomy professor Joel Stebbins. As Whitford described it, “One thing led to another: I made a successful device for measuring very small currents from photoelectric cells, with which he was measuring the light from stars and galaxies, and it brought me to Mt. Wilson Observatory helping him, and finally I became an astronomer without ever starting out to study it at all.” Whitford became an expert in photoelectric photometry, which he steadily improved, using vacuum-tube amplification and mounting photoelectric cells in a vacuum tank. Stebbins and Whitford used the new technology to measure the brightnesses of stars and galaxies and their spectra, making most of their observations at Mt. Wilson. Whitford returned to the University of Wisconsin in 1935 and, after work on radar at MIT during World War II, succeeded Stebbins as director of the Washburn Observatory in 1948. He and Stebbins continued to improve photoelectric photometry and extended it into the infrared. Whitford made extensive studies of the brighter galaxies and of interstellar extinction. At Wisconsin he founded the Pine Bluff Observatory and oversaw the construction of its 36-inch telescope.

Whitford was appointed director of the Lick Observatory in 1958. There he put the Shane 3-m telescope into operation, supervised the move of the observatory headquarters to the campus of the new University of California, Santa Cruz, and began a study of stars near the galactic center. Whitford held many major administrative positions and chaired the committee that produced the first decennial volume of the astronomy community’s priorities for new instruments in 1964. He continued his research at UCSC into his nineties. In 1996 he returned to Madison, where he renewed an affiliation with the University of Wisconsin.

Presentation of Bruce medal

Mercury 13, 187 (1996).

Other awards

American Astronomical Society, Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1986.

Some offices held

American Astronomical Society, President, 1967-70.

Biographical materials

Dombrowski, Edmund, Sethanne Howard, & Don Barry, “Profiles in Astronomy: Albert Whitford,” The Electronic Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Atlantic 1, 2 (1989).
Osterbrock, Donald E.Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 85, 336-63 (2004) [pdf].
Rich, R. Michael & D.M. Terndrup, “Bulges of Galaxies: A Celebration of the 90th Birthday of Albert Whitford,” PASP 109, 571-83 (1997).
Rich, R. Michael, Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, 2nd ed. (Springer, NY, 2014).
Whitford, A.E., “A Half-Century of Astronomy,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 24, 1-22 (1986).


Code, Arthur D., PASP 115, 1020-22 (2003).
Hearnshaw, John, Astronomy & Geophysics 43, 5.32-5.33 (2002).
Kraft, Robert P.Bull. Am. Astron. Soc. 34, 1387-90 (2002).
Osterbrock, Donald E.Physics Today 56, 1, 67-68 (2003).
Osterbrock, Donald E.University of California In Memoriam


1968 photo, courtesy Prof. William Whitford
1986 photo, courtesy Lick Observatory
AIP Center for History of Physics (several)

Named after him

Minor planet #2301 Whitford


Papers, etc.

Whitford’s papers are at the Mary Lea Shane Archives of Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz library. There are oral history interviews from 1977 and 1978 with Whitford at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

Other References: Historical

DeVorkin, David H., “Electronics in Astronomy: Early Applications of the Photoelectric Cell and Photomultiplier for Studies of Point-Source Celestial Phenomena.,” Proc. IEEE 73, 1205-20 (1985).

Hearnshaw, J. B., The Measurement of Starlight: Two Centuries of Astronomical Photometry (Cambridge University Press, NY, 1996)

Stebbins, Joel, The Electrical Photometry of Stars,” PASP 52, 235 (1940).

Whitford, A.E., “American Pioneer in Photoelectric Astronomy,” Sky & Telescope 31, 268 (1966). [Stebbins obituary]

Whitford, A.E., “Directorship of Lick Observatory, 1958-1968,” Oral History interview by Randall Jarrell, 1995.

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Other References: Scientific

Whitford, Albert E., “The Zeeman Effect of the K II Spectrum,” Phys. Rev. 39, 898-904 (1932).

Whitford, Albert E., “The Application of a Thermionic Amplifier to the Photometry of Stars,” Ap.J. 76, 213-23 (1932).

Stebbins, Joel & Albert E. Whitford, “The Diameter of the Andromeda Nebula,” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 20, 93-98 (1934).

Whitford, Albert E., “Photoelectric Magnitudes of the Brightest Extra-Galactic Nebulae,” Ap.J. 83, 424-32 (1936).

Stebbins, Joel & A.E. Whitford, “Absorption and Space Reddening in the Galaxy from the Colors of Globular Clusters,” Ap.J. 84, 132-57 (1936).

Stebbins, Joel & Albert E. Whitford, “Photoelectric Magnitudes and Colors of Extragalactic Nebulae,” Ap.J. 86, 247-73 (1937).

Whitford, A.E. & G.E. Kron, “Photoelectric Guiding of Astronomical Telescopes,” Review of Scientific Instruments 8, 78-82 (1937).

Whitford, Albert E., “Photoelectric Observation of Diffraction at the Moon's Limb,” Ap.J. 89, 472-81 (1939).

Stebbins, Joel, C.M. Huffer, & A.E. Whitford, “Space Reddening in the Galaxy,” Ap.J. 90, 209-29 (1939).

Stebbins, Joel, C.M. Huffer, & A.E. Whitford, “The Colors of 1332 B Stars,” Ap.J. 91, 20-50 (1940).

Whitford, Albert E., “Advantages and Limitations of the Photoelectric Cell in Astronomy,” PASP 52, 244-49 (1940).

Stebbins, Joel & A.E. Whitford, “Six-Color Photometry of Stars,” Ap.J. 98, 20-32 (1943)102, 318-46 (1945)106, 235-42 (1947)108, 413-28 (1948).

Whitford, A.E., “An Extension of the Interstellar Absorption-Curve,” Ap.J. 107, 102-06 (1948).

Whitford, A.E., “Infrared Detectors and Their Astronomical Application, ” Harvard College Observatory Monographs 7, 155-68 (1948).

Morgan, W.W., A.E. Whitford, & A.D. Code, “Studies in Galactic Structure. I. A Preliminary Determination of the Space Distribution of the Blue Giants,” Ap.J. 118, 318-22 (1953).

Morgan, W.W., A.D. Code, & A.E. Whitford, “Studies in Galactic Structure. II. Luminosity Classification for 1270 Blue Giant Stars,” Ap.J. Supp. 2, 41-74 (1955).

Whitford, A.E., “The Law of Interstellar Reddening,” Astronomical Journal 63, 201-07 (1958).

Whitford, A.E., “Photoelectric Techniques,” Handbuch der Physik 54, 240-88 (1962).

Whitford, A.E., “Distribution of Luminosity, Color, and Spectral Energy in Bright Galaxies,” in G.C. McVittie, ed., Problems of Extra-Galactic Research, Proceedings from IAU Symposium no. 15 (Macmillan Press, NY, 1962), pp.27-33.

Sears, R.L. & A.E. Whitford, “Six-Color Photometry of Stars. XII. Colors of Hyades and Subdwarf Stars,” Ap.J. 155, 899-912 (1969).

Whitford, A.E., “Spectral Scans of the Nuclear Bulge of the Galaxy: Comparison with Other Galaxies,” Ap.J. 226,777-89 (1978).

Whitford, A.E., “The Stellar Population of the Galactic Nuclear Bulge,” PASP 97, 205-13 (1985).

Frogel, Jay A. & A.E. Whitford, “M Giants in Baade’s Window: Infrared Colors, Luminosities, and Implications for the Stellar Content of E and S0 Galaxies,” Ap.J. 320, 199-237 (1987).

Frogel, Jay A., Terndrup, D. M., V.M. Blanco, & A.E. Whitford, “Galactic Bulge M Giants. II. Content and Structure of the Bulge between b = –3° and –12°, ” Ap.J. 353, 494-523 (1990).

Terndrup, D. M., Jay A. Frogel, & A.E. Whitford, “Galactic Bulge M Giants. III. Near-infrared Spectra and Implications for the Stellar Content of E and S0 Galaxies, ” Ap.J. 357, 453-76 (1990).

Spaenhauer, Andreas, B.F Jones, & A.E. Whitford, “Proper Motions of Bulge Stars,” Astronomical Journal 103, 297-302 (1992).

Whitford, A.E., “Do the OH/JR Stars within 100 pc of the Galactic Center Belong to the Disk Population?” in Herwig DeJonghe & Harm Jan Habing, eds., Galactic Bulges: Proceedings of the 153rd Symposium of the International Astronomical Union Held in Ghent, Belgium, August 17-22, 1992, (Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1993), pp. 339-40.

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Other Works: Popularizations, History, etc.

Whitford, A.E. & J.W. Slowey, “A Model of the Solar Neighborhood,” Sky & Telescope 14, 496 (1955).

Whitford, A.E., “Photoelectric Astronomy,” Smithsonian Contributions to Astrophysics 1, 25-29 (1956).

Whitford, A.E., “The Plan for a New American Observatory,” PASP 68, 115 -17 (1956).

National Research Council, Ground-Based Astronomy, a Ten-Year Program: A Report Prepared by the Panel on Astronomical Facilities for the Committee on Science and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences (National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, Washington, DC, 1964). [popularly known as the Whitford Report; a short version appeared in Science 146, 1641-48 (1964).]

Whitford, A.E., “New Santa Cruz Headquarters for Lick Observatory,” Sky & Telescope 32, 328 (1966).

Whitford, A.E., “Astronomy and Astronomers at the Mountain Observatories,” Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 198, p. 202 - 210 (1972).