Crew, Henry, 1859-1953

Alternative names
Birth 1859-06-04
Death 1953-02-17

Biographical notes:

Physicist (spectroscopy). Astronomer, Lick Observatory, 1891-1892; professor of physics, Northwestern University, 1892-1931; and chief, Division of Basic Sciences, A Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, 1931-1933.

From the description of Papers [microform], 1833-1967, (bulk 1880-1940) (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 84584808

Henry Crew was born June 4, 1859 in Richmond, Ohio, the first son of William Henry and Deborah Ann Hargrave Crew. He had one brother, Charles, who died in childhood, and two sisters, Carolyn and Winona. In 1882 Crew received his A.B. from Princeton University, where he had been enrolled in the classical course.

Crew's training in physics began with a one year graduate fellowship at Princeton, commencing in 1682. In 1883 he obtained a fellowship to study in Berlin under Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholz. At that time all Americans who were interested in experimental physics were obliged to study abroad, and if possible in Germany. In 1884 Crew returned to the United States and entered the new experimental physics doctoral program begun by Professor Henry Rowland at The Johns Hopkins University. Crew received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1887. His dissertation topic was the “Doppler Determination of the Rotation Period of the Sun for Various Heliocentric Latitudes.”

Crew spent 1887 and 1888 as an Assistant in Physics at Johns Hopkins. From 1888 to 1891 he was an Instructor in Physics at Haverford College. In 1891 he accepted a position as an astrophysicist at the Lick Observatory in California.

In 1890 Crew married Helen C. Coale. They had three children: Alice, born in 1892; Mildred, born in 1894; and William Henry, born in 1899. Helen Crew died in 1941 at the age of 74.

In the fall of 1892 Crew took the position of Fayerweather Professor of Physics at Northwestern. He held that position, as well as the chairmanship of the physics department, until 1930, when he took a leave of absence to become the Chief of the Division of Basic Sciences at the Century of Progress Inter- national Exposition in Chicago. He was in charge of all scientific exhibits at the fair. On September 1, 1933 Crew's leave expired and he retired from the University.

Crew's academic career had two phases. Upon the receipt of his Ph.D. he began work in the relatively new field of spectroscopy, and especially its applications to astrophysics. At the turn of the twentieth century physicists were just beginning to develop instruments sufficiently sophisticated to make the creation and analysis of spectra worthwhile. Crew contributed to the growth of the new field by constructing a number of new instruments for the creation and elucidation of solar spectra.

Crew continued to be an active research physicist during the first two decades of the twentieth century. However, his primary interest began to shift to the history of physics. In 1914 he published a translation of Galileo's Two New Sciences with Albert De Salvio and in 1928 he published The Rise of Modern Physics.

Crew also devoted a great deal of time to his classroom work. Throughout his career at Northwestern he taught the introductory physics course. In addition, he published a number of widely used textbooks; including A Laboratory Manual of Physics (1902), General Physics (1908), and The Elements of Physics (1909).

After his wife's death in 1941 Crew abandoned his post-retirement research. He did write several articles for encyclopedaea and worked on a number of translation projects. He continued to live in his home on Library Place in Evanston until his death at the age of 93 on February 17, 1953.

In 1941 Crew was awarded the Oersted Medal for his contributions to teaching by the American Association of Physics Teachers. He was made a Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Italy for his many translations. Crew also received honorary degrees from the University of Michigan (1914), Princeton (1922), and Northwestern (1937).

Crew held memberships in numerous scientific and intellectual organizations. He was president of the American Physical Society (1909-l0), the History of Science Society (1930), the American Association of University Professors (1929), and the Illinois State Academy of Science (1913). He was a member of the Optical Society of America, American Astronomical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Academy of Arts and Science, the American Philosophical Society, and the Padua Club. He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Science in 1909. Crew served as the Associate editor of the Astrophysical Journal for over thirty years. He published one hundred twenty three articles and twelve books during his career.

From the guide to the Henry Crew (1859-1953) Papers, 1833-1975, (Northwestern University Archives)


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  • Physics--Study and teaching
  • Spectrum analysis
  • Physics--Experiments
  • Physics--Study and teaching (Higher)--United States
  • Physical instruments
  • Optics--Early works to 1800


  • Astronomers
  • Physicists


  • Sun (as recorded)