Winslow Upton (1853-1914), professor of astronomy, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on October 12, 1853. His father was a musician and young Winslow sang and took music lessons. After his graduation from the Phillips School in 1869 at an age his father considered too young for college, he continued his study of music and other academic subjects in Boston for two years before entering Brown in 1871. There he indulged his musical bent by setting the class roll call to music and composing a setting for Chaucer’s Prologue to be sung at the junior burial of books. He shared his education with his sister Lucy by providing her with the books and outlines of the lectures for Professor Diman’s history course, which he then discussed with her in his letters. At Commencement in 1875 he delivered the valedictory address, “Sympathy Essential to True Criticism.” He was employed for a short time at the Harvard College Observatory, going from there to the observatory of the University of Cincinnati, and earning a master’s degree in 1877. From May 1878 to September 1879 he was a member of the staff of the Harvard Observatory, which experience was the inspiration for a skit, The Observatory Pinafore, (obviously a parody on a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta), which included such lines as:
I’m called an astronomer, skillful astronomer,Fifty years later this work came to light and was performed on December 31, 1929 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Association, to the delight of its audience.
Though I could never tell why;
But yet an astronomer, happy astronomer,
Modest astronomer, I.
I read the thermometers, break the photometers,
Mend them with paper and wax;
I often lament that so seldom is spent
A fair evening on star parallax.
After a short stint in Detroit with the Army Engineer Corps’ Lake Survey, Upton became a computer at the Naval Observatory in Washington in 1880. He worked with the United States Signal Office from 1881 to 1883. In May of 1883 he accompanied a group of scientists to Carolina Island in the Pacific to view a solar eclipse, an event which resulted in his writing The Carolina Island Opera. In September of the same year he came to Brown, having been encouraged by President Robinson’s assurance of an observatory in the near future, to take a position which included teaching mathematics and logic. A few years later he was inclined to leave when the promised observatory had not materialized, but the welcome gift of Governor Herbert Ladd made it possible for Ladd Observatory to be built under Upton’s supervision in 1891. Upton took a leave of absence in the academic year 1886-87, during which he spent six months in Germany, two months in England, and visited leading European observatories. He observed the total solar eclipse of August 19, 1887 from the interior of Russia. He was away again in 1896-97 at the southern station of the Harvard College Observatory in Arequipa, Peru. During this time he conducted a special series of observations from Arica, Chile, and made four ascents of the volcano El Misti, which was the site of recording instruments maintained by Harvard and the highest meteorological station in the world.
He was appointed the first dean of the University in 1900, but resigned that position a year later. President Faunce, speaking of this time, said, “For one year he was Dean, and I was brought into contact with him more than ever. But his nervous system was too delicately organized for the position and at the end of the year he wished to give it up. The burden of every man was his burden, the disappointments of others were his disappointments. The tenderness of his heart was something which only those who came into close touch with him can know.” In December 1913, after directing the Christmas music performed by his church choir, he became ill with pneumonia and died on January 8, 1914.