Donald Edward Osterbrock

Donald Edward Osterbrock


Date of Birth
July 13, 1924
Date of Death
January 11, 2007

Don Osterbrock was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and received all of his education at the University of Chicago. He worked at Princeton University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin, where he directed the Washburn Observatory, and, from 1973 to 2007, the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he directed the Lick Observatory from 1973 to 1981, formally retiring in 1992. Starting out as a theorist, he computed one of the first successful models of red dwarf stars, introducing convective envelopes. For most of his career he was an observer. While still a student of S. Chandrasekhar at the Yerkes Observatory, he joined with William W. Morgan and Stewart Sharpless to demonstrate the existence of spiral arms in our Galaxy. His work on the physics of ionized gases greatly improved our understanding of planetary nebulae and emission nebulae, and he published influential books on physical processes in nebulae and active galactic nuclei. He and his students and colleagues observed Seyfert and other active galaxies and quasars and investigated the physical processes in them. He also had a third career, as a historian of astronomy in the “big telescope era,” writing five books and numerous articles on 19th and 20th century astronomers and observatories. The mentor of many influential astronomers, he also served in a number of administrative positions in national and international organizations in both astronomy and history of astronomy.

Personal Web Page

At UCO/Lick Observatory

Presentation of Bruce medal

Morrison, Nancy, Mercury 20, 182 (1991).

Other awards

American Astronomical Society, Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1991.
American Astronomical Society, Historical Astronomy Division, LeRoy E. Doggett Prize, 2002.
Antique Telescope Society, Hans Lippershey Award, 1998.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold medal, 1997.

Some offices held

American Astronomical Society, President, 1988-90.

Biographical materials

Osterbrock, Donald E., “A Fortunate Life in Astronomy,” Ann. Revs. Astron. Astrophys. 38, 1-33 (2000).
Shields, Gregory A., Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013


Krieger, Lisa M., San Jose Mercury News, 13 January 2007.
Miller, Joseph S. & Gary J. Ferland, PASP 119, 831-35 (2007).
O’Dell, C. Robert & William P. Sheehan, Physics Today 60, 4, 79-80 (2007).
Sheehan, William & C. Robert O’Dell, Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage 10, 151-6 (2007).
Stephens, Tim, University of California, Santa Cruz, 12 January 2007.
Tenn, Joseph S., HAD News #70, May 2007, pp. 6-7.
Veilleux, Sylvain, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society 39, 1075-77 (2007).


University of California, Santa Cruz
AIP Center for History of Physics (several)

Named after him

Minor Planet #6107 Osterbrock
University of California, Santa Cruz Department of Astronomy, Donald and Irene Osterbrock Leadership Program
American Astronomical Society, Historical Astronomy Division, Donald E. Osterbrock Book Prize


Papers, etc.

Papers from 1949 to 1973 are at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, and many later papers are at the Mary Lea Shane Archives of Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz. There is a 1982 oral history interview at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and another, from 2003, at Caltech.

Other References: Historical

Gingerich, Owen, “The Discovery of the Spiral Arms of the Milky Way,” The Milky Way Galaxy, IAU Symposium 106, ed. by Hugo van Woerden, Ronald J. Allen, and W. Butler Burton (E. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1985), pp. 59-70.

Analysis of Emission Lines: A Meeting in Honor of the 70th Birthdays of D. E. Osterbrock & M. J. Seaton, proceedings of the Space Telescope Science Institute Symposium, held in Baltimore, Maryland May 16 -18, 1994, Eds.: Robert Williams and Mario Livio (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

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Other References: Scientific

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Stewart Sharpless, “Photographs with the Henyey-Greenstein Wide-Angle Camera,” Ap.J. 113, 222-222F (1951).

Osterbrock, Donald E. “Transition Probabilities of Forbidden Lines,” Ap.J. 114, 469-72 (1951).

Morgan, William W., Stewart Sharpless, & Donald Osterbrock, “Some Features of Galactic Structure in the Neighborhood of the Sun,” Astron. Journal 57, 3 (1951) and Sky & Telescope 11, 138 (1952), [ partly reprinted, with commentary, in Lang, Kenneth R. & Owen Gingerich, eds., A Source Book in Astronomy & Astrophysics, 1900-1975 (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1979), 638-42]

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The Time of Relaxation for Stars in a Fluctuating Density Field,” Ap.J. 116, 164-75 (1952).

Naur, Peter & Donald E. Osterbrock, “Convective Cores in Stars,” Ap.J. 117, 306 (1953).

Osterbrock, Donald E. “The Internal Structure of Red Dwarf Stars” Ap.J. 118, 529-46 (1953).

Osterbrock, Donald E. “Electron Densities in the Orion Nebula,” Ap.J. 122, 235-39 (1955).

Osterbrock, Donald E. “A Study of Two Comet Tails,” Ap.J. 128, 95-105 (1955).

Osterbrock, D.E., “Electron Densities in the Filaments of the Crab Nebula,” PASP 69, 227-30 (1957).

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Edith Flather, “Electron Densities in the Orion Nebula II,” Ap.J. 129, 26-43 (1959).

Minkowski, R. & D. Osterbrock, “Interstellar Matter in Elliptical Nebulae,” Ap.J. 129, 583-95 (1959).

Osterbrock, D.E. & J.B. Rogerson, Jr., “The Helium and Heavy-Element Content of Gaseous-Nebulae and the Sun,” PASP 73, 129-34 (1961).

Osterbrock, Donald E., E.R. Capriotti, & L.P. Bautz, “Balmer-Line Ratios in Planetary Nebulae,” Ap.J. 138, 662 (1963).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Planetary Nebulae,” Ann. Revs. Astron. Astrophys. 2, 95-120 (1964).

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Robert A. R. Parker, “Physical Conditions in the Nucleus of the Seyfert Galaxy NGC 1068,” Ap.J. 141, 892-911 (1965).

Osterbrock, Donald E. “Temperature in H II Regions and Planetary Nebulae.,” Ap.J. 142, 1423-30 (1965).

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Robert A. R. Parker, “Excitation of the Optical Emission Lines in Quasi-Stellar Radio Sources,” Ap.J. 143, 268-70 (1966).

Osterbrock, D. E., J.S. Miller., & D.W. Weedman, “Emission-Line Profiles in Planetary Nebulae,” Ap.J. 145, 697-706 (1966).

Osterbrock, Donald E. & C. Robert O’Dell, eds., Planetary Nebulae (Reidel, Dordrecht, 1968).

Morgan, W.W. & D.E. Osterbrock, “ On the Classification of the Forms and the Stellar Content of Galaxies,” Astron. Journal 74, 515-24 (1969).

Osterbrock, Donald E. “The Heating of the Solar Chromosphere, Plages, and Corona by Magnetohydrodynamic Waves,” Ap.J. 134, 347-88 (1961).

Osterbrock, D. E., “Abundances of the Elements in Gaseous Nebulae,” QJRAS 11, 199-213 (1970).

Osterbrock, D. E., “Excitation of C III] λ1909 and Other Semiforbidden Emission Lines in QSOs and Nebulae,” Ap.J. 160, 25-30 (1970).

Osterbrock, Donald E., Astrophysics of Gaseous Nebulae (W.H. Freeman, San Francisco, CA, 1974).

Osterbrock, D.E., A.T. Koski, & M.M. Phillips, “Broad Balmer Emission Lines in Radio Galaxies,” Ap.J. 197, L41-L44 (1975).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Optical Spectra of Radio and Seyfert Galaxies,” PASP 88, 589-90 (1976).

Osterbrock, D.E., “Spectrophotometry of Seyfert 1 Galaxies,” Ap.J. 215, 733-45 (1977).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Optical Emission-Line Spectra of Seyfert Galaxies and Radio Galaxies,” Physica Scripta 17, 137 (1978).

Grandi, S.A. & D.E. Osterbrock, “Optical Spectra of Radio Galaxies,” Ap.J. 220, 783-89 (1978).

Osterbrock, D.E. & S.A. Grandi, “Optical Spectra of N Galaxies,” Ap.J. 228, L59-L62 (1979).

Miley, George K. & Donald E. Osterbrock, “Optical Spectra of the Nuclei of Radio Galaxies with Radio Jets,” PASP 91, 257-59 (1979).

Osterbrock, D.E., “Seyfert Galaxies with Weak Broad H Alpha Emission Lines,” Ap.J. 249, 462-70 (1981).

Shuder, James M. & Donald E. Osterbrock, “Empirical Results from a Study of Active Galactic Nuclei,” Ap.J. 250, 55-65 (1981).

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Oved Dahari, “Spectra of Seyfert Galaxies and Seyfert Galaxy Candidates,” Ap.J. 273, 478-88 (1983).

Ferland, Gary J. & Donald E. Osterbrock, “IUE Spectra and a Resulting Model of Seyfert 2 Galaxies,” Ap.J. 300, 658-68 (1986).

Osterbrock, D.E. & W.G. Mathews, “Emission-Line Regions of Active Galaxies and QSOs,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 24, 171-203 (1986).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Emission-Line Spectra and the Nature of Active Galactic Nuclei,” Active Galactic Nuclei, eds. H. R. Miller and P. J. Wiita, 1988.

Osterbrock, Donald E., Astrophysics of Gaseous Nebulae and Active Galactic Nuclei (University Science Books, Mill Valley, CA, 1989).

Osterbrock, D.E., “Active Galactic Nuclei,” Reports on Progress in Physics 54, 4, 579-633 (1991).

Osterbrock, Donald E., Hien D. Tran, & Sylvain Veilleux, “Faint Emission Lines in the Spectrum of the Orion Nebula and the Abundances of Some of the Rarer Elements,” Ap.J. 389, 305-24 (1992).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Precision Wavelengths for Expected Emission Lines in High-Redshift Galaxies and Quasars, ” in Reginald J. Dufour & Silvia Torres- Peimbert, eds., The Sixth Texas-Mexico Conference on Astrophysics : Astrophysical Plasmas — Near and Far (Revista Mexicana de Astronomia y Astrofisica.; v. 7 Serie de Conferencias), pp. 180-85 (1998).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Obituary: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar : (19 October 1910 - 21 August 1995),” Proc. Am. Phil. Soc. 142, 658-65 (1998).

Slanger, T.G., P.C. Cosby, D.E. Osterbrock, R.P.S. Stone, & A.A. Misch, “The High-Resolution Light-polluted Night-Sky Spectrum at Mount Hamilton, California,” PASP 115, 869 (2003)].

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Gary J. Ferland, Astrophysics of Gaseous Nebulae and Active Galactic Nuclei, 2nd Ed. (University Science Books, Sausalito, CA, 2006).

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Other Works: History of Astronomy, Popularizations, etc.

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Dale P. Cruikshank, “Keeler’s Gap in Saturn’s A Ring,” Sky & Telescope 64, 123 (1982).

Osterbrock, Donald E. & Dale P. Cruikshank, “J. E. Keeler’s Discovery of a Gap in the Outer Part of the A Ring, ” Icarus 53, 165-73 (1983).

Osterbrock, Donald E., James E. Keeler, Pioneer American Astrophysicist, and the Early Development of American Astrophysics (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1984).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The Rise and Fall of Edward S. Holden,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 15, 81 (1984) and 15, 151-76 (1984).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The Quest for More Photons – How Reflectors Supplanted Refractors as the Monster Telescopes of the Future at the End of the Last Century,” Astronomical Quarterly 5, 87 (1985).

Osterbrock, Donald E., John R. Gustafson, & W.J. Shiloh Unruh, Eye on the Sky : Lick Observatory's First Century (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1988).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The Physics of Gaseous Nebulae,” PASP 100, 412-426 (1988).

Osterbrock, Donald E., J. A. Gwinn, & R.S. Brashear,“ “Self-Made Cosmologist: The Education of Edwin Hubble,” in Evolution of the Universe of Galaxies, ed. R. Kron (Astron. Soc. Pac., San Francisco, 1990).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The Appointment of a Physicist as Director of the Astronomical Center of the World,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 23, 155-65 (1992).

Osterbrock, Donald E., Pauper & Prince: Ritchey, Hale & Big American Telescopes (Univ. of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1993).

Osterbrock, Donald E., J. A. Gwinn, & R.S. Brashear, “Edwin Hubble and the Expanding Universe,” Scientific American 269, 1, 84-89 (1993).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Fifty Years Ago: Astronomy; Yerkes Observatory; Morgan, Keenan, Kellman,” in The MK Process at 50 Years, C.J. Corbally, R. O. Gray, & R.F. Garrison, eds. (ASP Conference Series, vol. 60, 1994), pp. 199-214.

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Founded in 1895 by George E. Hale and James E. Keeler: The Astrophysical Journal Centennial,” Ap.J. 438, 1 (1995).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Walter Baade’s Discovery of the Two Stellar Populations,” in Stellar Populations: proceedings of the 164th symposium of the International Astronomical Union, held in the Hague, the Netherlands, August 15 -19, 1994. Pieter C. van der Kruit, Gerry Gilmore, eds.. International Astronomical Union. Symposium no. 164, (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 1995), pp. 21-30.

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Walter Baade, Observational Astrophysicist”
   (1): “The Preparation 1893-1931,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 26, 1-32 (1995).
   (2): “Mount Wilson 1931-1947,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 27, 301-348 (1996).
   (3): “Palomar and Göttingen 1948-1960 (Part A),” Journal for the History of Astronomy 28, 283-316 (1997).
   (3): “Palomar and Göttingen 1948-1960 (Part B),” Journal for the History of Astronomy 29, 345-77 (1998).

Osterbrock, Donald E., Yerkes Observatory, 1892-1950 : The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Research Institution (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “A View of the Future as Seen from the Past,” PASP 112, 869 (2000).

Osterbrock, Donald E., Walter Baade: A Life in Astrophysics (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2001).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The View from the Observatory: History is Too Important to be Left to the Historians,” in Organizations and Strategies in Astronomy III , ed. by André Heck (Kluwer, Dordrecht, 2002), pp. 201-15 [Abstract].

Osterbrock, D.E., “Pioneer Nebular Theorists from Zanstra to Seaton: and Beyond,” Revista Mexicana de Astronomía y Astrofísica (Serie de Conferencias) 12, 1-7 (2002).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Young Don Menzel’s Amazing Adventures at Lick Observatory,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 33, 95-118 (2002).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The California-Michigan Axis in American Astronomy, ” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 6, 120-36 (2003).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Early Photographs of the Distant Sierra Nevada Mountains Taken from Lick Observatory,” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 9, 181-84 (2006).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “Frank Ross, his Ross Lens Design, and the Lick Observatory 20-inch Astrograph,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 38, 31-73 (2007).