Donald Howard Menzel

Donald Howard Menzel
Donald Howard Menzel

Donald Howard Menzel by Babette Whipple
Born April 11, 1901
Florence, Colorado
Died December 14, 1976
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality United states
Fields Astronomy, Astrophysics, Star Formation
Institutions Lick Observatory, Harvard, Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Alma mater University of Colorado, University of Denver, Princeton

Donald Howard Menzel (April 11, 1901 – December 14, 1976) was one of the first theoretical astronomers and astrophysicists in the US. He discovered the physical properties of the solar chromosphere, the chemistry of stars, the atmosphere of Mars, and the nature of gaseous neblulae.[1]



Born in Florence, Colorado in 1901 and raised in Leadville, he learned to read very early, and soon could send and receive messages in Morse code, taught by his father. He loved science and mathematics, collected ore and rock specimens, and as a teenager he built a large (and probably hazardous) chemistry laboratory in the cellar. He made a radio transmitter - no kits in those days - and qualified as a radio ham. He was an Eagle Scout, specializing in Cryptanalysis, as well as an outdoorsman, hiking and fly fishing throughout much of his life.

At 16, he enrolled in the University of Denver to study chemistry. His interest in astronomy was aroused through a boyhood friend (Edgar Kettering), through observing the solar eclipse of June 8, 1918, and through observing the eruption of Nova Aquilae 1918 (V603 Aquilae). He graduated from the University of Denver in 1920 with an A.B. degree in chemistry and an A.M. degree in chemistry and mathematics in 1921. He also found summer positions in 1922, 1923, and 1924 as research assistant to Harlow Shapley at the Harvard College Observatory. At Princeton University he acquired a second A.M. degree in astronomy in 1923, and in 1924 a Ph.D. in astrophysics for which his advisor was Henry Norris Russell, who inspired his interest in theoretical astronomy. He married Florence Elizabeth Kreager on June 17, 1926 and had two daughters (Suzanne Kay and Elizabeth Ina). He received honorary A.M. and Sc.D. degrees from Harvard University in 1942 and the University of Denver in 1954 respectively. In 1965, Menzel was given the John Evans Award of the University of Denver.

After teaching two years at the University of Iowa and Ohio State University, in 1926 he was appointed assistant Professor at Lick Observatory in San Jose CA. where he worked for several years. In 1932 he moved to Harvard, where he remained till his death.

Menzel is renowned for traveling with expeditions to view solar eclipses to obtain scientific data. On 19 June 1936, he led the Harvard-MIT expedition to the steppes of Russia (at Ak Bulak in southwestern Siberia) to observe a total eclipse. For the 9 July 1945 eclipse, he directed the Joint U.S.-Canadian expedition to Saskatchewan, although they were clouded out. Menzel observed many total solar eclipses, often leading the expeditions, including Catalina California (10 September 1923, cloudy), Camptonville California (28 April 1930), Freyburg Maine (31 August 1932), Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota (30 June 1954), the Atlantic coast of Massachusetts (2 October 1959), northern Italy (15 February 1951), Orono Maine (20 July 1963, cloudy), Athens/Sunion Road, Greece (20 May 1966), Arequipa Peru (12 November 1966), Miahuatlan, south of Oaxaca, Mexico (7 March 1970), Prince Edward Island Canada (10 July 1972), and western Mauritania (30 June 1973), in addition to the other three mentioned above.[2]

In the late 1930s he built an observatory for solar research at Climax CO, using a telescope that mimicked a total eclipse of the sun, allowing him and his colleagues to study the sun's corona and to film the spouting flames, called prominences, emitted by the sun. His studies of spectra also added a great deal to the knowledge of the sun and stars.

During World War ll Menzel was asked to join the Navy as Lieut. Commander, to head a division of intelligence, where he used his many-sided talents: deciphering enemy codes, improving radio-wave propagation by tracking the sun's emissions (like auroras) and their effects on long distance radio communications.

From 1946-1948 he was the Vice President of the American Astronomical Society, becoming their President from 1954-1956. From 1964 to his death, Menzel was a U.S. State Department consultant for Latin American affairs. In 1955, Menzel worked with the US Navy with the rank of Commander studying the effect of the aurora on radio propagation for the Department of Defense (Menzel & Boyd, p. 60[3]).

Returning to Harvard after the war, he was appointed acting director of the Harvard Observatory in 1952, and was the full director from 1954 to 1966, when the observatory became an international center of radio astronomy. He retired from Harvard in 1971.

One of Menzel's early acts as the Director was to cause lasting bitterness and feelings of betrayal and shock among a large section of astronomers when he evicted on short notice the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) from their headquarters and appropriated almost all of their endowment. The roughly $100,000 taken from the AAVSO's Pickering Endowment was used to fund Menzel's own solar research. Menzel's stated excuse for ejecting the AAVSO from their longtime (42 years) headquarters was that Building A was to be torn down, so the notice dated December 8, 1953 gave the AAVSO until January 1, 1954 to vacate their 384 square feet (35.7 m2) of office space. (Building A still stands.) When the AAVSO was on the verge of getting a new headquarters at Boston University (BU), on January 6, 1954, the offer was withdrawn after the BU official was called by Menzel.[4] [5] [6]

Menzel initially performed solar research, but later concentrated on studying gaseous nebulae. His work with Lawrence Aller and James Gilbert Baker defined many of the fundamental principles of the study of planetary nebulae.

He wrote the first edition (1964) of A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, part of the Peterson Field Guides.

In one of his last papers,[7] Menzel concluded, based on his analysis of the Schwarzschild equations, that black holes do not exist, and he declared them to be a myth.

In May 2001, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics hosted the "Donald H. Menzel: Scientist, Educator, Builder," a symposium in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Donald H. Menzel.

Menzel and UFOs

In addition to his academic and popular contributions to the field of astronomy, Menzel was a prominent skeptic concerning the reality of UFOs. He authored or co-authored three popular books debunking UFOs: Flying Saucers - Myth - Truth - History (1953),[8] The World of Flying Saucers (1963, co-authored with Lyle G Boyd),[3] and The UFO Enigma (1977, co-authored with Ernest H. Taves).[9] All of Menzel's UFO books argued that UFOs are nothing more than misidentification of prosaic phenomena such as stars, clouds and airplanes; or the result of people seeing unusual atmospheric phenomena they were unfamiliar with. He often suggested that atmospheric hazes or temperature inversions could distort stars or planets, and make them appear to be larger than in reality, unusual in their shape, and in motion. In 1968, Menzel testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics - Symposium on UFOs, stating that he considered all UFO sightings to have natural explanations.

He was perhaps the first prominent scientist to offer his opinion on the matter, and his stature doubtless influenced the mainstream and academic response to the subject. Perhaps Menzel's earliest public involvement in UFO matters was his appearance on a radio documentary directed and narrated by Edward R. Murrow in mid-1950. (Swords, 98)

Menzel had his own UFO experience when he observed a 'flying saucer' while returning on 3 March 1955 from the North Pole on the daily Air Force Weather "Ptarmigan" flight. His account is in both Menzel & Boyd[3] and Menzel & Taves.[9] He later identified it as a mirage of Sirius, but Steuart Campbell claims that it was a mirage of Saturn.[10]


  1. ^ Biographical Memoir of Donald H. Menzel. National Academy of Sciences. 1991. 
  2. ^ Pasachoff, Jay M. (2002). "Menzel and Eclipses". Journal for the History of Astronomy 33: 139-156. Bibcode 2002JHA....33..139P. 
  3. ^ a b c Donald H. Menzel, Lyle G. Boyd (1963). The World Of Flying Saucers: A Scientific Examination of a Major Myth of the Space Age. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 
  4. ^ Sheila Kannappan (April 2001). Border Trading: The Amateur-Professional Partnership in Variable Star Astronomy (Thesis). Harvard University. p. 4. Retrieved August 9, 2011. 
  5. ^ Saladyga, M. (2007). "A History of AAVSO's Headquarters". Journ. AAVSO 35: 390–406. Bibcode 2007JAVSO..35..390S. 
  6. ^ Thomas R. Williams, Michael Saladyga (2011). Advancing Variable Star Astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 143–195.,+Michael+Saladyga#v=onepage&q=Advancing%20Variable%20Star%20Astronomy%3A%20The%20Centennial%20History%20of%20the%20American%20...%20%20By%20Thomas%20R.%20Williams%2C%20Michael%20Saladyga&f=false. 
  7. ^ Menzel, D. H. (1976). "Superstars and the black hole myth". Memoires Societe Royale des Sciences de Liege 9: 343–353. Bibcode 1976MSRSL...9..343M. 
  8. ^ Donald H. Menzel (1953). Flying Saucers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 
  9. ^ a b Donald H. Menzel, Ernest H. Taves (1977). The UFO Enigma: The Definitive Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon. Doubleday. ISBN 0385035969. 
  10. ^ Steuart Campbell (1994). The UFO Mystery Solved. Explicit Books. ISBN 0952151200. pp. 61-64


  • Greenwell, J. Richard (1980). "Menzel, Donald H.". In Story, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of UFOs. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday. pp. 229–230. ISBN 0-385-13677-3. 
  • Pasachoff, Jay (2002). Menzel and Eclipses. "Donald H. Menzel: Scientist, Education, Builder". Journal for the History of Astronomy. Donald H. Menzel Centennial Symposium 33(2) (111): 139–156. 
  • Swords, Michael D. (2000). "UFOs, the Military, and the Early Cold War Era". In Jacobs, David M.. UFOs and Abductions: Challenging the Borders of Knowledge. University Press of Kansas. pp. 82–121. ISBN 0-7006-1032-4 
  • Hockey, Thomas; Elliott, Ian; Joeveer, Mihkel; Bònoli, Fabrizio; Langermann, Y. Tzvi; Casulleras, Josep; Sarma, Ke Ve; Bell, Trudy E. et al. (2007). "The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers". The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. 13. pp. 769–770. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-30400-7_939. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. 
  • Menzel, Donald Howard, 1901-1976 (2005), Papers of Donald Howard Menzel: an inventory, Harvard University Library, 


Menzel published over 270 scientific and other papers.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Donald Howard Menzel — Donald Menzel Donald Howard Menzel (11 avril 1901 – 14 décembre 1976) était un astronome américain. Il étudia à l université de Denver et obtint son doctorat à Princeton. Il alla ensuite au l observatoire Lick mais le quitta… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Donald Howard Menzel — (* 11. April 1901; † 14. Dezember 1976) war ein US amerikanischer Astronom. Menzel studierte an der Universität von Denver und erwarb seinen Ph.D. anschließend an der Princeton University. Er arbeitete am Lick Observatorium bis er 1932 eine… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Donald Menzel — Donald Howard Menzel (11 avril 1901 – 14 décembre 1976) était un astronome américain. Il étudia à l université de Denver et obtint son doctorat à Princeton. Il alla ensuite à l observatoire Lick mais le quitta en 1932 pour un… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Donald Menzel — Donald Howard Menzel (* 11. April 1901; † 14. Dezember 1976) war ein US amerikanischer Astronom. Menzel studierte an der Universität von Denver und erwarb seinen Ph.D. anschließend an der Princeton University. Er arbeitete am Lick Observatorium… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Menzel — is a surname and may refer to: Adolph von Menzel (1815–1905), German artist Donald Howard Menzel (1901–1976), American astronomer Menzel (crater), a lunar crater Menzel 3, a young bipolar planetary nebula 1967 Menzel, an asteroid Idina Menzel… …   Wikipedia

  • Menzel (Asteroid) — Asteroid (1967) Menzel Eigenschaften des Orbits (Simulation) Orbittyp Hauptgürtelasteroid Große Halbachse 2,2331  …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • (1967) Menzel — Menzel. Asteroide nº. 1967 de la seire (A905 VC), descubierto el 1 de noviembre de 1905 desde Heidelberg por Maximilian Franz Josef Cornelius Wolf (1863 1932). Nombrado en honor de Donald Howard Menzel (1901 1976), director del Haward College… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • (1967) Menzel — Elementos orbitales de Menzel Época DJ 2452400.5 Semieje mayor a 2.2330331 u.a Distancia perihélica q 1.92353717 UA Excentricidad e 0.13859890 Anomalía media en la época M 330º24153 Mvto. med …   Wikipedia Español

  • (1967) Menzel — Asteroid (1967) Menzel Eigenschaften des Orbits (Animation) Orbittyp Hauptgürtelasteroid Große Halbachse 2,2331 AE …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • 1967 Menzel — is an asteroid. It was discovered by Max Wolf on November 1, 1905. Its provisional designation was A905 VC. It was named after Donald Howard Menzel, an American astronomer …   Wikipedia

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