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