Morgan, W. W. (William Wilson), 1906-1994

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Received his B.S. (1927) and Ph.D. (1931) from the University of Chicago. Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the University of Chicago, 1974-1994. Director of Yerkes and McDonald Observatories, 1960-63. Died in 1994.

From the description of Oral history interview with William Wilson Morgan, 1987 October 07. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 81865422

William Wilson Morgan was born on January 3, 1906, in Bethesda, Tennessee. His father and his mother were both home missionaries in the Southern Methodist Church, and Morgan's childhood was spent moving around following his father's lecture itinerary. His basic education came from his parents. In 1923, Morgan entered Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He was an excellent student in English and planned to become a teacher of literature. However, he was also a particularly good student in Physics and Mathematics. He impressed Professor of Physics and Astronomy Benjamin A. Wooten. Wooten had obtained a small, professional-quality refracting telescope for the university and Morgan soon began observing the sky.

In 1926, on Wooten's recommendation, Morgan started his graduate work at the Yerkes Observatory. Two years later he married Helen Barrett, daughter of astronomer Storrs B. Barrett, who was the secretary of the observatory. In June 1930, under the supervision of Otto Struve, he began a Ph.D. thesis on the spectra of A stars. Morgan completed his thesis and received his doctoral degree in December 1931. Despite the onset of the Great Depression and dark economic times, he was kept on the staff at Yerkes Observatory, though he remained in the same assistantship he had held as a graduate student. In the summer of 1932 he was promoted to instructor and in 1936 to assistant professor.

Morgan lived and worked at Yerkes Observatory for almost seventy years. An accomplished teacher and, for a period, editor of The Astrophysical Journal, Morgan's greatest achievements came from research. From the beginning of his work at Yerkes, Morgan's methods were grounded in the systematic organization of concrete data. Eschewing the then new field of theoretical astrophysics, he built his reputation as one of the greatest astronomers of the twentieth century with the morphological classification of stars based on stellar spectra. With Phillip Keenan and Edith Kellman, he created the MKK system for stellar classification, later refined to the MK system that remains in use today.

Morgan's work, though rigorous, was eclectic and improvisational, relying on his ability to wring significance from spectra that others could not interpret. In 1951, Morgan proved that the Milky Way Galaxy had spiral arms - a hypothesis proposed one hundred years before by Alexander. For this he received an unprecedented standing ovation from a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. His work was celebrated with many awards and honorary degrees, including membership in the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters and the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences.

In late 1951 or early 1952, Morgan suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for several months. Soon afterwards, he began to keep a journal recording his private thoughts and experiences. The collection contains almost 250 volumes of this journal, which Morgan wrote in regularly until 1990, when he seems to have begun to experience the effects of Alzheimer's Disease. In these journals, Morgan tries to psychoanalyze himself by following closely Freud's works as well as the works of other psychoanalysts and philosophers of the twentieth century. Also, the reader can find Morgan's own reflections, critiques and foundations to his corpus of work. For the astronomer the dividing line between science and art was blurry, and as proof of this he gives his own research.

In 1963, his wife Helen died. Morgan, his son and daughter, survived her. The emotional and professional implications for Morgan's life were devastating. In 1966, he married Jean Morgan, a teacher at the Rochester College in Chicago. He remained with Jean until his death in 1994. Jean strongly encouraged Morgan's artistic endeavors. In addition to his scientific work, Morgan never stopped taking photographs or writing about art in his journals. In one of his writings, Morgan states that his most important life works were his photography and journal. Morgan died in Chicago in 1994.

From the guide to the Morgan, W. W. Papers, circa 1905-1990, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Van de Kamp, Peter, 1901-. Three conferences on astronomy and cosmology [motion picture] / photographed by Peter Van de Kamp. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Osterbrock, Donald E. Oral history interview with Donald E. Osterbrock, 1982 January 21. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
creatorOf Mayall Symposium : (1971). Symposium honoring the retirement of N. V. Mayall as director of Kitt Peak National Observatory [sound recording] American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Nassau, Jason John, 1893-1965. Papers, 1919-1977. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Münch Galindo, Guido. Oral history interview with Guido Münch, 1977 July 7. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Astrophysical journal records, 1894-1951 (inclusive) University of Chicago Library
referencedIn Roman, Nancy Grace, 1925-. Oral history interview with Nancy Grace Roman, 1980 August 19. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Chandrasekhar, S. (Subrahmanyan), 1910-. Oral history interview with S. Chandrasekhar, 1977 May 17 to October 31. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Strömgren, Bengt, 1908-. Oral history interview with Bengt Georg Daniel Strömgren, 1976 May 6 and 13. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Greenstein, Jesse L. (Jesse Leonard), 1909-2002. Oral history interview with Jesse Leonard Greenstein, 1974 July 31. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Struve, Otto, 1897-1963. Otto Struve papers, 1837-1966 (bulk 1953-1956). UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Morgan, W. W. (William Wilson), 1906-1994. Oral history interview with William Wilson Morgan, 1987 October 07. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
creatorOf Morgan, W. W. Papers, circa 1905-1990 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
creatorOf Morgan, W. W. (William Wilson), 1906-1994. Oral history interview with W.W. Morgan, 1978 August 8 and 9. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
creatorOf Edmondson, Frank K. (Frank Kelley), 1912-. History of AURA : interviews and documentation, 1978-1991. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Astrophysical Journal. Records, 1894-1951 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. corporateBody
associatedWith Astrophysical journal corporateBody
associatedWith Baade, Walter, 1893-1960. person
associatedWith Burbidge, Geoffrey R. person
associatedWith Chandrasekhar, S. 1910- person
associatedWith Chandrasekhar, S. (Subrahmanyan), 1910- person
associatedWith DeVorkin, David H., 1944- person
associatedWith Edmondson, Frank K. (Frank Kelley), 1912- person
associatedWith Greenstein, Jesse L. (Jesse Leonard), 1909-2002. person
associatedWith Hubble, Edwin Powell, 1889-1953. person
associatedWith Kitt Peak National Observatory. corporateBody
associatedWith Kriscuanas, Kevin, person
associatedWith Kuiper, Gerard Peter, 1905- ed. person
associatedWith Lick Observatory. corporateBody
associatedWith Mayall Symposium : (1971) corporateBody
associatedWith McDonald Observatory. corporateBody
associatedWith Mount Wilson Solar Observatory. corporateBody
associatedWith Münch Galindo, Guido. person
associatedWith Nassau, Jason John, 1893-1965. person
associatedWith National Radio Astronomy Observatory (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Osterbrock, Donald E. person
associatedWith Roman, Nancy Grace, 1925- person
associatedWith Russell, Henry Norris, 1877-1957. person
associatedWith Strömgren, Bengt, 1908- person
associatedWith Struve, Otto, 1897-1963. person
associatedWith University of Chicago. corporateBody
associatedWith University of Texas at Austin. corporateBody
associatedWith Van de Kamp, Peter, 1901- person
associatedWith Washington and Lee University. corporateBody
associatedWith Yerkes Observatory. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
Subject
Galaxies
Spectrum analysis
Stars
Stars
Stars
Sunspots
Telescopes
World War, 1939-1945
Astronomical observatories
Astronomical spectroscopy
Astronomy
Astronomy
Astronomy
Astrophysics
Occupation
Physicists
Activity

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Birth 1906

Death 1994-06-21

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