Vesto Melvin Slipher

Vesto Melvin Slipher


Date of Birth
November 11, 1875
Date of Death
November 8, 1969

“V.M.” Slipher was born in Indiana and educated at Indiana University. His entire career was spent at the Lowell Observatory, where he started immediately after receiving his A.B. in 1901 and which he directed from 1916 to 1954. His visible and infrared spectroscopic studies of planets led to the determination of rotation periods— he made the first spectroscopic measurement of the rotation period of Uranus, he showed that Venus must rotate very slowly— and he identified molecules in planetary atmospheres. He discovered reflection nebulae and confirmed the existence of interstellar dust and gas. Using exposure times as long as 80 hours, he was the first to measure the enormous radial velocities of spiral nebulae, showing that most were receding from the solar system and providing important support for the then-controversial view that they were far outside our Galaxy. These data were later used and extended by Edwin P. Hubble to begin modern observational cosmology. Slipher discovered and measured the rotations of the spirals. He also made extensive studies of the spectra of the night sky and the aurorae. As director he organized and supervised the successful search for a ninth planet.

Presentation of Bruce medal

Einarsson, S., PASP 47, 5-10 (1935).

Other awards

French Academy of Sciences, Lalande Prize, 1919.
National Academy of Sciences, Henry Draper Medal, 1932.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold medal, 1933, presented by F.J.M. Stratton, MNRAS 93, 476-77 (1933).

Biographical materials

Bitterman, Jay, Lake County Astronomical Society
Giclas, Henry L., Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (Springer, NY, 2007), p. 1066.
Hart, Richard & Richard Berendzen, Dictionary of Scientific Biography 12, 454-56.
Hoyt, William Graves, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Science 52,410-49 (1980).
Smith, Robert W., “Red Shifts and Gold Medals: 1901-1954,” in William Lowell Putnam and others, The Explorers of Mars Hill (Phoenix Publishing, West Kennebunk, Maine, 1994), pp. 43 - 65.
Tenn, Joseph S., “What Else Did V. M. Slipher Do?,” in Origins of the Expanding Universe: 1912-1932, Michael Way and Deidre Hunter, eds. (Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series, vol. 471, 2013), pp. 235-248.


Hall, John S., Sky & Telescope 39, 2, 84-86 (1970).
Hall, John S., Year Book of the American Philosophical Society 1970, 161-66.


AIP Center for History of Physics
Lowell Observatory

Named after him

Lunar crater Slipher*
Martian crater Slipher*
Minor Planet #1766 Slipher*
*with his brother, Lowell Observatory astronomer E.C. Slipher


Papers, etc.

Slipher’s papers are at the Lowell Observatory Archives. There are several published and unpublished items by Slipher on ResearchGate.

Other References: Historical

Berendzen, Richard, Richard Hart, & Daniel Seeley, Man Discovers the Galaxies (Science History Publications, NY, 1976).

Brémond, Alain, Vesto Melvin Slipher (1875-1969) et la naissance de l'astrophysique extragalactique. Université Claude Bernard - Lyon I (2008). [A 300-page doctoral dissertation, in French, with another 600 pages of annotated archives, including reprints of articles and correspondence, mostly in English].

Brémond, Alain, “V.M. Slipher's discovery of the rotation of spiral nebulae and the controversy with Bertil Lindblad,” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 12, 72-80 (2009).

Corwin, Mike & Dale Wachowiak, “Discovering the Expanding Universe,” Astronomy 13, 2, 18-22 (1985).

Fernie, J.D., “The Historical Quest for the Nature of the Spiral Nebulae,” PASP 82, 1189-1230 (1970)

Hetherington, Norriss S., “The Measurement of Radial Velocities of Spiral Nebulae,” Isis 62, 309-13 (1971).

Hoyt, William Graves, Planets X and Pluto (Univ. of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, 1980).

Kirshner, Robert P., “Hubble’s Diagram and Cosmic Expansion,” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 101, 8-13 (2004).

Nemiroff, Robert & Jerry Bonnell, “The Shapley – Curtis Debate in 1920”
This wonderful site offers a great deal of information, including bibliographies.

North, J.D., The Measure of the Universe: A History of Modern Cosmology (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1965; Dover, 1990).

Parker, Barry, “Discovery of the Expanding Universe,” Sky & Telescope 72, 3, 227-31 (1986).

Putnam, Roger Lowell & V.M. Slipher, “Searching out Pluto—Lowell’s Trans-Neptunian Planet X,” Sci. Monthly 34, 5-21 (1932).

Putnam, William Lowell, The Explorers of Mars Hill: A Centennial History of Lowell Observatory, 1894-1994 (Phoenix Pub. Co., West Kennebunk, ME, 1994).

Smith, Robert W., The Expanding Universe: Astronomy’s “Great Debate” 1900–1931 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1982).

Smith, Robert W., “Beyond the Galaxy: The Development of Extragalactic Astronomy 1885–1965, Part 1,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 39, 91-119 (2008).

Strauss, David, Percival Lowell: The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001).

Struve, Otto & Velta Zebergs, Astronomy of the 20th Century (Macmillan, NY, 1962).

Slipher, V.M., “Nebulae,” Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc. 56, 403-09 (1917).

Slipher, V.M., “The Trans-Neptunian Planet Search,” Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc. 79, 435-40 (1938).

Tenn, Joseph S., “Lowell Observatory Enters the Twentieth Century—in the 1950s,” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 10, 65-71 (2007).

Thompson, Laird A., “Vesto Slipher and the First Galaxy Redshifts,” arXiv:1108.4864v2 [physics.hist-ph] (2011).

van den Bergh, Sidney, “Early History of the Distance Scale Problem,” in Mario Livio, Megan Donahue, Nino Panagia, eds., The Extragalactic Distance Scale (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1997), pp. 1-5.

Way, Michael & Deidre Hunter, eds., Origins of the Expanding Universe: 1912-1932, (Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series, vol. 471, 2013).

Search ADS for works about Slipher

Other References: Scientific

Search ADS for works by Slipher

Slipher, V.M., “On the efficiency of the spectograph for investigating planetary rotations and on the accuracy of the inclination method of measurement. Tests on the rotation of the planet Mars,” Lowell Observatory Bulletin 1, 19-23 (1903).

Slipher, V.M., “Peculiar star spectra suggestive of selective absorption of light in space,” Lowell Observatory Bulletin 2, 1-2 (1909).

Slipher, V.M., “The radial velocity of the Andromeda Nebula,” Lowell Observatory Bulletin 2, 56-57 (1913).

Slipher, V.M., “Nebulae,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 56, 403-09 (1913).


Other Works: Popularizations, History, etc.

Slipher, V.M., “The Lowell Observatory,” PASP 39, 143-54 (1927).