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The Great War, IV

May 12, 2016

Otto Struve was destined to be an astronomer. His great-grandfather had established Pulkovo Observatory in Russia, and his grandfather and father were astronomers as well. And Struve enrolled in a Russian university to study astronomy and mathematics. But thanks to World War I, he became an astronomer not in his native Russia, but in the United States.

Struve enlisted in the Russian army in 1916. He was an artillery officer, and served on the Turkish front. Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany in early 1918, and Struve returned to his studies. But the war had ravaged Russia’s economy. That led to a civil war. Struve enlisted again — on the losing side.

Struve was forced to flee Russia. He spent time in Turkey, living in refugee camps and finding occasional work as a lumberjack. He had no money, no home — and no prospects.

But thanks to a series of letters, Struve was offered a job with the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. He began work there in 1921, and quickly became an expert in spectroscopy — a technique that reveals an object’s motion, composition, and much more.

Struve was tireless, and in 1932 he became director of Yerkes. That year, he also helped work out an agreement with the University of Texas to operate its new observatory. So Struve became the founding director of McDonald Observatory — a facility that owes the details of its birth, at least in part, to World War I.

More about astronomy and the war tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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