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Otto Struve: The Last of the Mohicans

Life Dates: August 12, 1897, Kharkiv, Russian Empire — April 6 1963, Berkeley, CA, USA

Otto Struve (Отто Людвигович Струве), a Russian-American astronomer, one of the greatest astrophysicists of the 20-th century, was born in Russian Empire. Born in Kharkiv (now Ukraine), he belonged to a famous Struve dynasty of scientists. He was the son of an astronomer Ludwig Struve (1858—1920), grandson of Otto Wilhelm von Struve (1819-1905) and the nephew of Hermann Struve (1854—1920). His great-grandfather Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve (1793 — 1864) was also a famous astronomer, who founded and directed the Pulkovo observatory near St. Petersburg.

Otto Struve graduated with distinction from Kharkiv Gymnasium № 3 and was admitted to the physico-mathematical college at Kharkiv University in 1915. However, he interrupted his studies in less than a year and, after a brief training in the Artillery school in St. Petersburg, joined the battlefields of the WW1. He commanded an artillery battery and was injured. When the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty was signed, he returned to his studies at Kharkiv University. There, he passed the tests for the entire course of studies in just one year and stated preparation for professorship at the department of astronomy and geodesics. However, the Civil War broke and that again changed Struve’s life course. In 1919 Otto Struve joined the Russian White Army under the command of General Denikin. In 1920 he was evacuated by sea from Crimea with the remains of the Army that lost the cause to Bolsheviks.

In 1921 Otto Struve moved to United States and began working as a stellar spectroscopy assistant at Yerkes. He soon defended his PhD thesis at the University of Chicago. He later served as director of Yerkes, McDonald, Leuschner and National Radio Astronomy Observatories and is credited with establishing a stellar international reputation and mentoring talented scientists at these institutions. Two of his mentees Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Gerhard Herzberg later became the Nobel Prize winners. The exceptional achievements of Otto Struve were widely recognized by numerous major awards. He was elected a member of many academies and learners societies including the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society and held honorary degrees from institutions in the United States and abroad. He was the president of the American Astronomical Society (1952-1955). A small planet, a Lunar crater and a telescope at McDonald observatory were named after him.

In memory of this exceptional scientist and Russian patriot we present a biographical article about him written by Kevin Krisciunas and first published by the National Academies Press.

(National Academies Press: Biographical Memoirs: V.61 (1992) Chapter: Otto Struve)

“WORK WAS THE MOTTO of the whole of life. In a letter [we find] the following passage: The Struves cannot live happily without unceasing work, since from the earliest youth we have been persuaded that it is the most useful and best seasoning of human life.” Easily counted as one of the prominent astronomers of his century, Struve left a standard that many sought to emulate but few achieved.

“WORK WAS THE MOTTO of the whole of life. In a letter [we find] the following passage: The Struves cannot live happily without unceasing work, since from the earliest youth we have been persuaded that it is the most useful and best seasoning of human life.” -Kevin Krisciunas

The Struve I have just described is not the Otto Struve of this memoir, but his great-grandfather Wilhelm Struve (1793-1864). Yet the words apply equally well. The first of seven Struves in five generations to obtain a Ph.D. (or its equivalent) in astronomy, in 1839 Wilhelm Struve founded Pulkovo Observatory near St. Petersburg, which has played a major role in positional astronomy ever since. Wilhelm was one of the first three astronomers to measure the trigonometric parallax of a star—the final proof of Copernicanism. He published 272 works4 and had eighteen children.

Of the six Struves who pursued a career in astronomy, four won the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society: great-grandfather Wilhelm in 1826, grandfather Otto Wilhelm in 1850, uncle Hermann in 1903, and our Otto in 1944…”

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