SANTA CRUZ, CA–Albert E. Whitford, an acclaimed astronomer, former
director of the University of California’s Lick Observatory, and a
professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz,
died on Thursday, March 28. He was 96.

Whitford died at Meriter Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, after a
short illness.

“He was a very important figure in American astronomy and at Lick
Observatory,” said Donald Osterbrock, professor emeritus of astronomy
and astrophysics at UCSC and a close friend of Whitford. “He did a
tremendous amount of excellent observational research, chiefly on the
structure of our Galaxy, and was a leader of American astronomy for
many years.”

Born in 1905 in Milton, Wisconsin, Whitford received a B.A. from
Milton College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from the University
of Wisconsin. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Mt. Wilson
Observatory in California, he joined the astronomy faculty at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked at Wisconsin’s Washburn
Observatory for 23 years, serving as its director from 1948 through

As director of the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton from 1958 to
1968, Whitford oversaw the completion of the 3-meter (120-inch) Shane
Telescope in 1959, the observatory’s premier research instrument. At
the time, it was the second largest telescope in the world, and it is
still a highly productive instrument. He was also director when the
observatory moved its headquarters to the newly established UC Santa
Cruz campus in 1966. The Mt. Hamilton astronomers formed the core of
UCSC’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“He planned and led that move, and his leadership and diplomacy made
the other astronomers willing to go along, so the move was
accomplished without disrupting the observatory,” Osterbrock said.

Whitford is best known for his pioneering work in photoelectric
photometry, which began with Joel Stebbins at the University of
Wisconsin. Trained in laboratory physics, Whitford greatly improved
the sensitivity of photometers. This led to the first precise
measurements of the magnitudes and colors of many faint stars,
clusters, and galaxies. The “Whitford Reddening Curve,” which
quantifies the interstellar absorption of light, proved vital in
mapping the distribution of stars within our Milky Way Galaxy.
Whitford also studied the structures and dynamics of the spherical
blobs of stars at the centers of galaxies, known as nuclear bulges.

Whitford played a key role in the growth of U.S. astronomy, presiding
over several national commissions on astronomical research. He
chaired a 1953 conference that led to the national observatory
system, and he presided over a 1964 report from the National Academy
of Sciences, known as the Whitford report, that laid out the first of
a series of 10-year plans for the field.

After resigning from the Lick Observatory directorship in 1968,
Whitford returned to full-time research and teaching. He continued to
collaborate actively and publish papers with other astronomers at
UCSC even after formally retiring from the active faculty when he
reached mandatory retirement age in 1973. Whitford lived in Santa
Cruz until 1996, when he returned to Madison, Wisconsin. There he
continued his active interest in research from an office in the
university’s Astronomy Department until October 2001.

Whitford received many honors for his work in astronomy. The American
Astronomical Society named him the Henry Norris Russell Lecturer in
1986, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific awarded him its
Catherine Wolfe Bruce Medal in 1996, the highest honors given by each
of those societies. Whitford served as president of the American
Astronomical Society from 1967 to 1970, and he was a member of the
National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences. He received honorary doctorate degrees from Milton College
and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Whitford married Eleanor Bell Whitelaw in 1937. They remained married
until her death in 1986. He is survived by three children–William C.
Whitford of Madison, WI, Mary Graves of San Francisco, CA, and Martha
Barss of Baltimore, MD–and nine grandchildren, plus many nieces and

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, April 14, at 1 p.m. in the
auditorium of the Meriter Health Center in Madison. Contributions in
Whitford’s memory may be sent to Lick Observatory at: Office of the
Director, UCO/Lick Observatory, University of California, 1156 High
Street, Santa Cruz, CA, 95064.