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Australian Academy of Science
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

Richard van der Riet Woolley 1906-1986

[Photo of R van der Riet Woolley]

By Sir William McCrea

For the almost three centuries from the appointment of John Flamsteed in 1675 to the retirement of Richard Woolley in 1971, the office of Director of the Royal Observatory and the title Astronomer Royal were deemed inseparable (although just at the outset there had been slight variability in the title's wording). Flamsteed and his successors were all among Britain's most distinguished scientists. They included Edmond Halley, in office 1720-42, probably the greatest scientist of the generation after Newton; James Bradley 1742-62, discoverer of optical aberration giving the first direct empirical evidence for the Copernican system; Nevil Maskelyne 1765-1811, who was the first scientist to weigh the Earth; Sir George Airy 1835-81, who personally performed most of the functions nowadays requiring a string of research councils; and Sir Frank Dyson 1910-33, who organised the observations at the 1919 solar eclipse that led to the acceptance of the modification of Newton's law of gravitation proposed by Einstein.

On l January 1955 Woolley took office as the eleventh Astronomer Royal. Because of the changes that followed his retirement it is hard for the present generation to appreciate the former prestige, in the eyes of the people of Britain, of the Astronomer Royal as the custodian at Greenwich of the most famous observatory in the world which was also by far their most senior national scientific institution. It was all a peculiarly British phenomenon. But it was good for British science, and British astronomy in particular. Young astronomers were proud of 'working with the Astronomer Royal'; foreign astronomers found the phenomenon intriguing. Woolley worthily upheld the formidable tradition to which he was heir, and of which the most important part had always been, with the best techniques of the time, to direct the Observatory to the scientific requirements of the time. In his career as a whole, Woolley played main parts in leading great extensions of optical astronomy in three of the world's continents.

Family and early life

Richard Woolley was both born and bred to the manner of career he came to follow. This was not obvious at the outset. But as the demands of that career upon personality and intellect unfolded, it became more and more manifest how well - perhaps uniquely well - his birth and upbringing had equipped him to meet these demands.

Richard van der Riet Woolley was born on 24 April 1906 at Weymouth, Dorset, England. He was the fourth of five children of Paymaster Rear Admiral Charles Edward Allen Woolley, C.M.G., R.N. (1863-1940) and his wife Julia Marian Marguerite van der Riet. To Woolley, his parents' families appeared to be 'professional, with some contact with University circles'. To us now, however, the 'contact' adds up to rather a lot.

His great-grandfather Woolley he believed to have been in the employment of the East India Company. His grandfather was Benjamin Woolley, Lieutenant R.N., born 24 April 1825, so that Richard Woolley happened to have the same birthday. Benjamin had a brother, Dr John Woolley (1816-66), who had been Professor of Classics and later the first Principal of the University of Sydney. Dr Joseph Woolley (1817-89), another brother, had been 3rd Wrangler in the Tripos of 1840 at Cambridge. Of particular interest is the fact that as a Fellow and Lecturer of St John's College in Cambridge he had as a pupil John Couch Adams, later famous as joint 'mathematical' discoverer of the planet Neptune. During 1937-39 in Cambridge as Chief Assistant in the University Observatory Richard Woolley held the title 'John Couch Adams Astronomer'. Subsequently Joseph Woolley had been prominent in the Institute of Naval Architects, and he became Director of Naval Education. Benjamin himself died while his son Charles was still a child. In 1878 Charles went to sea - in a sailing ship - as a cadet paymaster in the Royal Navy. He met Julia van der Riet while serving at the Cape.

Julia's father, Frederic J. van der Riet, was Resident magistrate and Civil Commissioner in Simons Town, the naval base. Julia was his thirteenth surviving child. A forbear had gone from Holland to the Cape in 1756. Right down to Woolley's generation, and I presume to the present day, the family has had 'a long and honourable connexion with the law in South Africa', as Woolley has recorded. For instance, Julia's brother Fred became a Judge of the Supreme Court, and a cousin Dick Barry became Master of the Rolls in South Africa.

Coming to the more academic side, Julia's brother Bernhault de St Jean van der Riet was professor of organic chemistry in the University of Stellenbosch. He had been a friend of J.C. Smuts; evidently he was popular with the students - and with Woolley himself. Also two of his and Julia's sisters married scientists. A sister Anne married William Thomson, professor of mathematics at Stellenbosch, who later became Sir William Thomson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand; he had taught J.C. Smuts. Another married Dr Arthur W. Rogers, F.R.S., the Union Geologist. Although Woolley would comment that his father and mother and their other children were not scientific, it is seen that there was considerable scientific influence amongst his close relatives. Incidentally, he said himself that the family regarded his Uncle Arthur's F.R.S. as far greater than his Uncle Willy's knighthood. It should be added that friends in South Africa seem to believe that his mother's genes were dominant in Richard.

Early education

Everything about Woolley's family shows how he always had a stable background and abundance of potential family support. Manifestly, however, there was no affluence. In particular, in Woolley's young days his father's pay as a naval officer would have been small, and his family was quite large. Also, having been in the Service from boyhood onwards, his knowledge of the world outside the Service was very restricted. Woolley realised afterwards, for example, that his father knew nothing about scholarships at public schools. The father had to acknowledge that to get his sons into the Navy would be beyond his means. The rather limited amount of schooling that young Richard got was selected on grounds of affordability.

Up to 1921, Woolley's parents lived nearly all the time that he could remember in Alverstone, near Portsmouth. He said that they never stayed very long in any one house - maybe the Woolley family rented houses belonging to other naval families while their owners were overseas. Until he was 13 years of age, Woolley was a day boy at a preparatory school in Alverstone. Then he was sent as a boarder to Allhallows School at Honiton in Devon. He was there only until just after his fifteenth birthday. The only favourable recollection he left on record was that of his mathematics master. During those two short years he managed to pass the old 'Cambridge Senior' school examination, doing well in Latin and mathematics; but he did no science.

Undergraduate education

In 1921 Wooley's father retired and took his household to South Africa. His other considerably older sons were there already, managing a farm in the Drakenstein valley, and the rest of the family stayed with them for several months. During that time Richard ran wild in the country, for which he developed a deep devotion. I realised this devotion when I travelled with him through much of South Africa more than forty years later, even though at the time I did not know how it all started.

Early in 1922 the parents moved to a suburb of Cape Town and decided that Richard, while living there, should enter the University of Cape Town in March of that year, some weeks before reaching the age of 16.

He started with no idea of where this might lead. The University was then quite small and at entry he was interviewed by Alexander Brown, professor of applied mathematics, who had been Senior Wrangler in Cambridge in 1901. Brown had become a leading personality in the University of Cape Town, after playing a prominent part in its obtaining its charter. He came to be a major influence in the development of Woolley's career. At the interview, however, the young Woolley confronted him with the proposition of doing an Arts course in Latin and pure mathematics, simply because these were the subjects in which he happened to do well at school.

A minor complication changed the whole course of Woolley's life. For the first year's work to count towards a degree, he was required to matriculate as soon as possible. For some reason the simplest way for him to supplement his 'Cambridge Senior' results, so that they would qualify him for matriculation, was for him to pass an examination in physics. Apparently he was able to arrange to have coaching for this. As an extra insurance, he had the bright idea of also attending the first-year course in physics at the University. This fascinated him. The Arts proposal went by the board. His problem then became if possible to decide between mathematics and physics; this defeated him so that he proceeded to take a combination of these. Undoubtedly he had top-class teaching in physics from Alexander Ogg and B.F.J. Schonland and in applied mathematics from Alexander Brown.

Woolley graduated B.Sc. in December 1924 and M.Sc. in December 1925, when he was only 19. He obtained first class honours in both. Later he was given to understand that his performance had been better than those of any other student in the physical sciences for some years both before and after his own. Then for some months of 1926 he served as some sort of junior demonstrator in physics while awaiting the outcome of negotiations for the next step in his scientific progress. Professor R.L. Rosenberg of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was a student to whom he demonstrated. He told me that Woolley would sit opposite him and write out the solution to a problem so that it was the right way up for him, Rosenberg, to read - which was one way to impress students!

Woolley spent altogether four and a half years in the University of Cape Town. Everything there proved to be just right for him at the time, and for preparing him for later developments. For instance he got an excellent introduction to relativity theory from Alexander Brown. This gave him an introduction to Eddington's writings so that he had developed supreme admiration for Eddington before he went to Cambridge. Also it led to his going to look up a reference about relativity in the Cape Observatory where he thus became known to H.M. Astronomer at the Cape, H.S. Jones, afterwards Sir Harold Spencer Jones, whom he was to succeed thirty years later as Astronomer Royal. He came to deplore the fact that this had been his only contact with astronomy before he left the Cape.

While at the University, being so much younger than his academic contemporaries, he had not shared much in their sporting activities. But he was enthusiastic about exploring the surrounding country and doing some rock-climbing on Table Mountain. His companions were other young scientists from whom he seems to have picked up a good deal of knowledge of local natural history and geology. A result of such scientific intercourse, as he confided to an autobiographical note, was to form an ambition to become a Fellow of the Royal Society - at a time when he still had no idea about his future career. I am sure he would never have written this down had he not been, at the time of doing so already elected.

It was, Woolley believed, largely Professor L. Crawford, professor of pure mathematics in the University, who convinced Arthur Rogers that his nephew, Richard, had considerable promise. In consequence he made Richard an allowance of £200 a year for three years; the University awarded him a studentship of £150 a year also for three years, both awards being intended to enable him to pursue his studies at Cambridge. These sums should be multiplied by at least twenty to estimate their value at present rates, and they would be tax free. Gonville and Caius College was glad to accept Woolley, no doubt on the recommendations of Alexander Brown and Basil Schonland, both Caius men.

Cambridge and Mt. Wilson 1926-33

Gonville and Caius College 1926-29

The situation of men like Woolley going to Cambridge (or presumably Oxford) was rather special - and unrepeatable - just about the time with which we are concerned. A brief digression on the topic may be of interest. In Britain and all over the British Empire, new universities were springing up. They were still small. But they held much promise and they were attracting as professors and lecturers first-class men from the older British universities. So an able student in one of these new places was assured of first-class individual attention from these first-class teachers, who were there to attract such students. And the sciences were multiplying and expanding in the older universities, so that the supply of potential university teachers of science was on the increase. All such teachers tended to want their best students to proceed to their own old universities - to do what? The general idea seemed to be for them to capture some of the glittering prizes in the way of studentships and fellowships. But how? If they became graduate students at Cambridge without first doing a tripos they felt themselves at a disadvantage compared with the 'home products'. If they took a tripos, even though in general as graduates of other universities they were permitted to complete the course in two years instead of three, they could become bored by a prolongation of undergraduate life, while in afterwards going on to research, in terms of age they would again be disadvantaged relative to 'home products'.

Undergraduates like myself coming up straight from school had just a vague idea that such people were around and that they were apt to collect a few more prizes than seemed quite fair. In fact many of them became greatly distinguished and I am convinced that the very special attention they had had early in life in the pioneering days of their first universities had given them a uniquely valuable start.

Coming back to the dilemma facing such entrants in Cambridge, each individual had to resolve it as best he could. Woolley came up in the Michaelmas term of 1926 and chose to do so as an undergraduate. In his case, however, the dilemma had been compounded by his uncertainty as to even the subject he wanted to pursue. At first he believed it should be physics and for his first term he went to lectures and practicals in Tripos Part II Physics. But he did what probably no undergraduate had ever done before by getting to discuss his course with the professor of physics - the mighty Rutherford! After consulting a colleague, Rutherford suggested that Woolley should get started on research at the end of his first year in Cambridge provided he could reach first class standard in the Part II examination that year. This strikes one as having been a wonderful offer for a young man who already had a first class master's degree in physical science. However, Woolley thought that the consequence of failing to reach the standard would be intolerable. The upshot was that at the end of his first term he transferred to working for the Mathematical Tripos to be taken at the end of his second year. He declared later that he never regretted the change. Probably this was because it led ultimately to his becoming an astronomer rather than a physicist. By his own account he did not learn much mathematics that he did not know before, but he believed he had gained confidence and style in using it. He became a Wrangler in 1928.

In these two belated undergraduate years, Woolley must have matured enormously in personality and intellect; he discovered unexpected joys in literature and music and became a keen, if unskilled, member of the Caius boat club. In the summer of 1927 he joined the Cambridge University expedition to Spitzbergen led by Gino Watkins. Woolley's contribution was to make some geomagnetic observations on Edge Island. Their publication constituted his first 'papers'. He used a magnetometer that he had borrowed from the Royal Observatory and this led to his first meeting with Sir Frank Dyson and other astronomers at Greenwich. The Royal Geographical Society backed the expedition and Woolley met A.R. Hinks, its secretary. This had a sequel in the next summer, when Woolley visited his parents in South Africa and made some gravimetric measurements for Hinks. In fact in Cambridge it had been arranged that, if he got a first in his Tripos examination he would start research with Eddington, but if he got a second he would take up geodesy.

Returning to Cambridge in the Michaelmas term of 1928, Woolley started theoretical research with Eddington as his official supervisor. Because he was a Caius man intending to work in astronomy, however, F.J.M. Stratton, who was then both Senior Tutor of the College and deputy director of the Solar Physics Observatory (SPO), came to take a special interest in Woolley. This interest played a determining part in most of Woolley's career as an astronomer.

I used to credit Stratton with almost occult powers in foreseeing how that career would develop. But I am now more inclined to think that it was a case rather of quiet calculation that a man of the right temperament becoming an astronomer at that date had a good prospect of being Astronomer Royal about thirty years later. I am positive that Stratton never said this to Woolley or anyone else. Anyhow, Stratton and his younger colleague J.A. Carroll (afterwards Sir John Carroll) tried to get Woolley involved in observational work in SPO. He did not get far with this because he was starting research with the notion that one had to think up some epoch-making discovery and then make a few observations just to check it. It was some years before he tended to go to the other extreme of organizing as many observations as possible of some phenomenon in which he became interested.

It was Stratton who during this first postgraduate year suggested that Woolley apply for a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship with a view to working for two years at Mt Wilson Observatory in California, after which he could return to complete his Ph.D. work in Cambridge. At the interview, just because he himself was not desperately anxious to do this, he succeeded in creating a far better impression than he could have done had everything depended upon his getting the Fellowship; he did actually get one and go to Pasadena and Mt Wilson for the next two years.

California: Commonwealth Fund Fellow, 1929-31

Then came an unforseen development that has to be mentioned here and borne in mind as naturally influencing the course of his career thenceforth. In the summer of 1929, shortly before Woolley sailed to America for his two-year absence, he became engaged to Gwyneth Meyler, who was then finishing her first year at Girton College. The ensuing separation caused him much unhappiness, it was one factor in making his stay what he looked back upon as 'something of a failure'.

Another factor was his hosts' evidently crediting him with experience that he did not possess at the time. When he declared his wish to measure linewidths in the solar spectrum, they allowed him to proceed almost on his own. He ought to have started 'on the shop-floor' as an apprentice in some major observing programme in progress at Mt Wilson. Then in 1930 he was unsettled by Alexander Brown's offer of a senior lectureship in applied mathematics in Cape Town, presumably to start on the expiry of his Commonwealth Fellowship. Woolley wanted to accept, but his fiancée could not agree and this evidently caused him to lose heart in his Mt Wilson work.

Actually it seems that in California Woolley made more and better impressions than he gave himself credit for. He met most of the well-known American astronomers of the time - if they were not working in California they seem to have made visits during Woolley's stay. Curiously, however, he did not then meet Edwin Hubble, for Woolley happened to be associated with some astronomers who at the time were unable to accept Hubble's ideas about the remoteness of the 'spiral nebulae', there being some consequent temporary rift. Also Woolley made lasting friendships with some of his own contemporaries among the younger astronomers.

Cambridge: Isaac Newton Student, 1931-33

Woolley had to think of his future support and while at Mt Wilson he applied for, and was awarded, an Isaac Newton Studentship at Cambridge. This he took up as soon as he returned there in the summer of 1931. He then soon completed his Ph.D. work. But he was greviously disappointed at not gaining a Fellowship of Caius; the competition, always intense, was specially so in the years when he competed.

Richard and Gwyneth were married in March 1932. Apparently it was a runaway wedding, with only one friend as a witness. At the time her father, who was rather well-to-do, disapproved of her marrying a penniless scientist without prospect of any assured position in life. Happily, in due course Woolley became a favourite of the family. Then, however, he had nothing except Gwyneth's faith in him, his £250-a-year studentship, and - it has to be added - a good measure of self-confidence.

Harold Spencer Jones became Astronomer Royal in 1933. He was succeeded at the Cape by John Jackson, one of Dyson's two Chief Assistants at Greenwich, the other being W.M.H. Greaves. So one of Spencer Jones' first tasks was to find a successor to Jackson. Somehow Stratton contrived a meeting between Spencer Jones and Woolley; soon afterwards he appointed Woolley. On paper, Woolley's academic record was perhaps less outstanding than that of any of the eight or so then living predecessors in the post. So it was wonderful recognition for Woolley, and at that juncture in his career, it sent him into transports of delight. Actually, Spencer Jones had, it seems, resolved to divert more of his Observatory's research effort into modern observational astrophysics and he saw in Woolley probably the best-qualified young astronomer to help him.

Greenwich, 1933-37

At Greenwich, Woolley took to nightly transit observing with enthusiasm. Likewise he came to enjoy making measurements on double stars and reducing the observations. In these and other ways he was qualifying himself as a professional astronomer. Also he was happy in his collaboration with Sir Frank Dyson, to be described below. He discovered a new joy, too, in taking up hockey with the Observatory team.

Fairly soon, however, he and his wife became unsettled. He felt that the work gave him little scope for the exercise of responsibility and initiative. Domestically, neither he nor his wife liked living in what they regarded as the isolation of Blackheath.

Since l919 W.M. Smart had been John Couch Adams Astronomer and Chief Assistant at the University Observatory in Cambridge under the direction of Eddington. In 1937 he became Regius Professor of Astronomy in Glasgow, and Eddington was to appoint a successor. On impulse, Woolley rushed to Cambridge and asked Eddington to give him the post. Both Eddington and Stratton were surprised at his wanting to leave Greenwich for this position, and thus maybe sacrificing the prospect of preferment to the top of his profession. However when Eddington saw that Woolley appreciated such implications, he made the formal offer and Woolley accepted.

As things turned out, this was but one of several cases of Spencer Jones being put to considerable inconvenience by the departure of Chief Assistants - his whole tenure as Astronomer Royal was troubled also by a variety of setbacks, which he bore with stoicism. He and Woolley remained on friendly terms, and he helped Woolley quite a lot some years later.

Cambridge: J. C. Adams Astronomer, 1937-39

So Woolley was back with Eddington. A word about their relationship: some friends of Woolley tell of his 'veneration' for Eddington, others profess not to have noticed it. I think this had purely to do with Eddington's intellect. Woolley had profound admiration for Eddington's combination of astrophysical insight and mathematical mastery. I doubt whether Woolley had any particular view about Eddington as a person -no one would want to say that he 'venerated' Eddington as such. For his part, Eddington appeared to approve of Woolley. But when anything practical had to be done for Woolley, the initiative had usually to be taken by Stratton.

The two years for which Woolley stayed seemed to be a quietly happy period for him, but rather uneventful. He gave a graduate course on atomic spectra and the formation of absorption lines in stellar spectra, and successfully helped with three graduate students. As holder of a university appointment but not a college fellowship, he was for those times rather an odd man out.

About all the discontinuities in the externals of Woolley's life in those years, it has to be said that he throughout maintained his central research interest in the astrophysics of the outer layers of a star. Until that came to be understood, little could be known empirically about most of the material Universe. Also he continued to accumulate professional experience. Nevertheless it is hard to see what that spell in Cambridge could have led to, had a totally unforeseen opening not presented itself at the other end of the Earth.

At that time Australia's only national astronomical institution was the small, isolated and neglected Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO) on Mt Stromlo, about ten miles from Canberra. It had even lacked a director for a decade. Nevertheless it was fairly well equipped for the solar and certain geophysical work for which it was designed, and the four youngish scientists stationed there had been doing good work. The Department of the Interior was at last acting upon a recommendation from a panel it had consulted 'that the Empire be searched for a suitable Director': it advertised the post accordingly. It asked a committee in London composed of A. Fowler, E.A. Milne and H.H. Plaskett to advise the committee it set up in Canberra to consider applications. In June 1939 the latter reported 'very great satisfaction in being able to commend...such an admirable appointment as that of Dr Woolley'. Until I recollected how in those days candidates were normally expected themselves to procure testimonials - not as now simply to name referees - I was at a loss to understand how Woolley came to possess copies I have seen of what had been written about him. The writers were the Astronomer Royal, Eddington and Stratton. In view of what they said about him, it would have been astonishing had the Committee reported otherwise.

What Woolley had been in need of, all his life, had been for responsibility to be thrust upon him. We are about to note how, because of the outbreak of World War II, the responsibility far exceeded anything that could have been foreseen - and how it was the making of Woolley the man. And after six moves in scarcely more than twice as many years he was about to work in one place for the next sixteen years.

It should be mentioned that the runner-up for the post was the eminent ionospheric physicist, D.F. Martyn (1906-70). Their subsequent interaction in Australia makes quite a saga. Here there is space only to say that these two, whom many people found not invariably the easiest individuals to deal with, came to have considerable cordial mutual respect. After the war they co-operated in various ways, to their mutual scientific advantage and to the advantage of Australian science generally.

Australia: Commonwealth Astronomer, 1939-55

Wartime Australia, 1939-45

The Woolleys arrived in Australia on 4 December 1939 and Woolley forthwith took office at Mt Stromlo as Commonwealth Astronomer. World War II had started in September, but it had not yet had great effect within Australia. The CSO carried on normally for about the first half of 1940, it was able even to send a two-man expedition to South Africa to observe the exceptionally favourable solar eclipse of that year. Then everything changed dramatically after the British evacuation from Dunkirk.

Britain needed all the arms it could get to re-equip its own forces; it had to stop supplying Australia. That country was already able to manufacture certain armaments, but it was devoid of means to produce some of the refined components like telescopic gunsights and their mechanical parts; it had few optical technicians and no supply of optical glass. Australia remedied the situation at a speed that no one elsewhere had believed to be possible.

The first move was to convert CSO into an optical munitions factory. Woolley became Director and other astronomers took appropriate appointments there. Then the workforce had to be built up. About that time there arrived from England a shipload of internees, mostly refugees from Nazi oppression in Europe. Woolley had the inspiration of having all 1500 screened to discover any optical technicians among them. He discovered seven, who then formed the nucleus of this force. I believe that all these proved bright and that several had excellent careers in Australia after the war. The strength was built up to a maximum of about seventy. It was then manufacturing about a dozen different entire items, that is optical plus mechanical parts, in production runs of up to a hundred at a time. Also by 1942 they had ample supplies of optical glass, for the lenses and prisms, made from suitable sand discovered in Australia by the chemist E.J. Hartung.

Later in the war, Woolley was put in charge of the Army Inventions Directorate (AID) in Melbourne. His group had to sift thousands of suggestions 'for winning a war'. This took him away a good deal from Mt Stromlo, where, however, he remained in overall control and made himself available for consultation. Much of the running of the work there was then supervised by C.W. Allen and S.C.B. Gascoigne. Allen (1904-88) had been at Mt Stromlo since before Woolley's arrival: he was later Perren Professor of Astronomy in the University of London at University College, 1951-72. Gascoigne is a New Zealander who did a Ph.D. in optics in Bristol under the inventive genius C.R. Burch. He was a wonderful find for Woolley for the work then in hand, and since those days he has had a distinguished career in Australian astronomy.

In all this wartime activity Woolley learned above all how to take responsibility and to make decisions. Once he started, it all came naturally to him, but it seems that he needed the push of something like a world war to get him properly going. Also he learned his ways around the corridors of power. They were of course Australian corridors, but apparently such corridors look much the same north and south of the Equator. I think the verdict upon Woolley's activity will be that he was a good director, though not himself a particularly good administrator. But he learned much about how the administrative mind operates. Then too he came to know personally many of the leaders in scientific and public life in Australia and the leading administrators who came to the fore after the war.

Postwar Australia, 1945-55

It was undoubtedly a great time for Australian science, both for its own advancement and also for its status in the community. For one who had arrived after the outbreak of war as a not very well known young scientist, Woolley came to play a surprisingly prominent part.

Woolley developed a deep attachment to Australia. In the 1950s he and his wife bought a 'retirement' property on the coast, having apparently come to believe that they would be there for the rest of their lives. It was only with uncharacteristic indecision that in 1955 Woolley allowed himself to be regarded as a candidate for the position of Astronomer Royal. His wife, although more thoroughly British than himself, was even more reluctant to leave Australia. Indeed, I have been told that he made a last-minute signal to the Admiralty in London asking for his name to be withdrawn, but that this arrived only after the Admiralty had submitted his name to the Queen. Although Woolley retained unimpaired vigour throughout his subsequent working careers in England and South Africa, probably a majority of his friends would agree that his most widely effective period was his time in Australia.

For instance he became deeply involved in the affairs of the Australian National University (ANU), the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS). In England and in South Africa he was indeed involved in the activities of analogous bodies, but he seemed never to become anything like so much committed. The burgeoning of Australian science after the war, including of course that in optical astronomy being led by Woolley himself, made such involvement almost inevitable, but it is a tribute to Woolley's personality and intellect that it became so influential on the national level. The whole story would take much too long to tell here; fortunately much of it is well documented.

A few items are mentioned elsewhere in this memoir. Here one may add briefly that ANU was founded in 1946 and Woolley was made honorary professor of astronomy in 1950. From an early stage he was much involved in discussions about the structure of the new university. At the outset it was intended for only researchers and the training of researchers. Woolley pressed strongly for the inclusion of undergraduate teaching, but this did not come until 1960, after he had left. The first research students entered in 1951; in 1953 A. Przybylski became the University's first Ph.D. and not long afterwards G. de Vaucouleurs gained its first 'earned' D.Sc., both these being Mt Stromlo astronomers. Then Woolley also pressed very hard for the Observatory to become part of ANU instead of the Commonwealth Department of the Interior on the ground that its main occupation had become research in astrophysics. This met with opposition from unexpected quarters before it was finally agreed and put into effect, again very soon after Woolley's departure.

Regarding the AAS, in the early 1950s Woolley was one of those to join D.F. Martyn in working for its establishment - evidently a far more delicate and intricate operation than one might have supposed. The Academy came into being in 1954, with Sir Mark Oliphant as President and Martyn as Secretary (he was elected President in 1969). Woolley was one of the 23 Foundation Fellows and for a short period he served as Treasurer.

As to ANZAAS, in 1947 Woolley was President of Section A, in Perth, and in 1955 he was President of the Association in Melbourne.

A word has to be said about Woolley's attitude towards radio astronomy, in which Australia, along with Britain, led the world for more than a decade after the war. Unkind things have been said about his 'conservatism'. Looked at as dispassionately as possible, however, Woolley took the reasonable view, and the radio people were just unreasonably lucky. For, in the early days, the only star giving detectable radio emission was the Sun and this was so feeble that there was little chance of observing a similar source any further away; while the only Galaxy as such giving detectable emission was the Milky Way Galaxy and this was so weak that there was almost no chance of observing any other such source. And if, as was then thought, naturally occurring radio radiation was bound to be mostly temperature radiation, this situation was precisely what any astronomer would predict for himself of course it was interesting that the Earth's atmosphere should be transparent in these wavelengths, and of course one should see what they could tell about Sun and Galaxy. But it would be a waste of resources to do any more about it. I am not sure whether Woolley said it in so many words, but I do feel sure that this was his instinctive and wholly reasonable reaction. It would have been somewhat on a par with his own later reaction to space travel, and Rutherford's famous reaction to any possible 'use' of nuclear energy. At the time, the radio astronomers had to thank their lucky stars - in more senses than one - that Nature does not always behave as reasonable people think it should. It was not long, of course, before Woolley himself recognised this as much as anybody. But then he saw also very clearly the urgency for procuring more and bigger optical telescopes to look at the Universe that was being revealed to the radio astronomers.

Mt Stromlo, 1945-55

We return now to Woolley's postwar decade at Mt Stromlo [although the Observatory's official title was modified more than once, in this narrative it will be simplest to call it this throughout]. It had emerged from the war years with a slightly enlarged scientific staff and with good workshop facilities but no new telescopes. A fuller record should list the staff members as they came and went. Some will be named in the account of the scientific work, and in the bibliography, as co-authors with Woolley. Here it can just be said that Woolley showed talent for picking young or unlikely recruits and inspiring them with his own enthusiasm. Two examples must suffice here, both happening to have celestial objects named after them: A. Pryzbylski, already mentioned, who has his star, whom Woolley came across as a Polish refugee employed in laying cables but possessing an impressive academic background; and C. S. Gum, who has his nebula, who was one of the first intake of ANU research students.

Woolley took it to be his mission mainly to steer the observatory away from solar astronomy and into observational astrophysics. The Sun could be studied from anywhere on Earth, whereas the southern stars offered vast scope for new astrophysical observations. So the observatory had to be re-equipped for such work, by adapting telescopes, acquiring the right spectrographs and photometric instruments, and so forth. Woolley and his team went ahead with vigour and resourcefulness, while also pursuing full-time observing programs using whatever equipment might be on hand at the moment. For most of Woolley's time, the faithful standby was the 30-inch reflector presented many years earlier by the great British amateur astronomer, J.H. Reynolds. Then in 1944 the Melbourne Observatory had closed, and Mt Stromlo had acquired its 48-inch reflector - which had been offered for disposal as scrap! Woolley's team set about making it into a 50-inch telescope with a new mirror that proved a useful instrument for many years. Another consequence of the Melbourne closure was the transfer to Mt Stromlo of responsibility, which it retained until 1968, for the Australian Time Service. In this context, in 1946 Woolley started negotiations for a photographic zenith tube (PZT); it was delivered only in 1956, and so was not available in Woolley's time.

Much the most ambitious project was that for a 74-inch reflector. At the time the only comparable telescopes in the entire British Commonwealth were the 74-inch Radcliffe at Pretoria and the 72-inch at Victoria, B.C. Apparently the Australian government had given some informal indication that it was prepared to do something in recognition of the Mt Stromlo contribution to Australia's war effort. Before formulating an application, in 1946 Woolley invited Sir Harold Spencer Jones, as Astronomer Royal, to visit Mt Stromlo and to report to the Minister concerned. Spencer Jones recommended the acquisition of a 74-inch telescope. Thereupon Woolley went to the Prime Minister, who readily approved the expenditure. The telescope, constructed in Britain by the firm of Grubb Parsons in Newcastle upon Tyne, took a regrettably long time to complete. On 8 November 1955 the Governor General, Sir William Slim, performed the opening ceremony. Before Woolley's resignation took effect a month later, he was able to take part in the final tests; sadly he never had the opportunity to do astronomy with this telescope, for the next twenty years the largest in Australia.

A sensation on 5 February 1952 was a devastating bush fire that, owing to a sudden change of wind, took everyone on Mt Stromlo somewhat unawares. Under alarming handicaps, Woolley and his staff fought it with skill, courage and resolution. They lost their forest, and their cherished workshop was gutted; fortunately, however, offices and houses suffered no serious damage, and nobody suffered serious injury. The firefighters were, of course exhausted, but when the fire had passed, the Hotel Canberra sent them up a barrel of beer and sandwiches. But then came the fire brigade, and drank the beer. Finally came the Minister of the Interior to give instructions to the firefighters. This is the story as Woolley liked to tell it, concluding by saying that within the year they had a better workshop, and he reckoned that in the end there had been no setback.

Over the years the Observatory received a succession of greatly valued visitors, including, besides Spencer Jones, Sir Harrie Massey, Sydney Chapman and Oslo Struve. For longer working visits there were G. E. Kron (for much of 1951) and O. J. Eggen (1951-52 and 1955), who came from the Lick Observatory in California bringing equipment for the then quite new photoelectric photometry. Their co-operation with Mt Stromlo astronomers was remarkably productive. Then there were other 'visitors' in a different category: astronomers from the Yale-Columbia Observatory near Johannesburg at Woolley's invitation transferred their telescopes to Mt Stromlo, and astronomers from Uppsala brought their new 20-inch Schmidt telescope for installation there. The astronomical community there was becoming rather formidable.

The freedom of life on Mt Stromlo, where Woolley could keep a horse, or horses, and ride anywhere over the countryside, appealed to him tremendously. Also in his last year or two there he developed another interest, University House, which was in effect the 'University College' of ANU. He had been chairman of the House Committee that had seen to its detailed planning and had become one of its Fellows and, from 1954 Deputy Master. He and his wife had a flat in the college and took a leading part in its social and musical activities; I do not know how they then divided their time between there and Mt Stromlo.

Astronomer Royal, 1956-71

Richard Woolley took office as eleventh Astronomer Royal, and Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO), from the beginning of 1956. For the youth who 35 years earlier had made his first encounter with science simply as a handy way to complete his matriculation qualification in Cape Town, this should have been a splendidly happy attainment. Actually it was all very muted for him. His wife was in poor health and had not yet left Australia. Sir Harold and Lady Spencer Jones had encountered some difficulty about moving into their new home near London and had asked to remain for the time being in what was intended to be the Woolleys' new home in part of Herstmonceux Castle. These matters got sorted out before long, but they meant at the time that Woolley could not throw himself into his new responsibilities with not another care in the world.

Matters of conduct and policy

Woolley inherited two major overriding responsibilities; before he could initiate much in the way of new plans for the Observatory, these had to be discharged. The first was to complete the move from Greenwich to Herstmonceux in Sussex. This had been begun in 1946. By 1956, when Woolley took over, some departments had for several years been operating in full vigour at Herstmonceux; these included the Nautical Almanac Office (NAO), the time department and the solar department.

However, most of the equatorial telescopes and some others were not yet in operation at their new sites. In working to accomplish the removal, Spencer Jones had met with frustrations ranging from cuts in the Admiralty vote to farcical objections from conservationists in Sussex, and some people had just lost heart. Woolley tackled the situation with energy and succeeded in getting a good response all round. As one example, on 23 April 1957 the last transit observation with the small transit instrument was made at Greenwich at 0309, the instrument was taken to Herstmonceux, installed on its new mounting, adjusted, and the first transit observation was made at Herstmonceux at 2000 on the same day.

By 1958 Woolley was able to announce that all equipment was in operation on the new sites. This culmination was saluted by a visit by H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh. He spent the day, 14 November 1958, going round every department and seeing it at work. This was a very heartening occasion for all concerned, and far more appropriate than a formal Royal 'opening'.

In passing, it should be said that Woolley was not much involved in the destiny of the historic site of what had thus become the 'Old Royal Observatory' at Greenwich. In pursuance of arrangements made before he took office, the grounds and buildings were in process of being transferred to the adjoining National Maritime Museum. In 1960 Her Majesty The Queen opened the Observatory's famous original Wren building, Flamsteed House, as having become part of the Museum.

The second of Woolley's initial responsibilities was the completion of the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT). This, too, went back to 1946. At the Royal Society's war-delayed celebrations of the tercentenary of the birth of Isaac Newton, its President had that year announced the British government's agreement to pay for a 100-inch reflecting telescope for British astronomers. As Newton had invented this sort of telescope and had presented the first description of it to the Royal Society, along with a specimen made by himself, this was the most appropriate way imaginable to mark the occasion. The name was, of course, to be the Isaac Newton Telescope. The original inspiration for the proposal had been a notable presidential address to the Royal Astronomical Soeiety earlier in 1946 in which H.H. Plaskett had powerfully demonstrated the requirement by British astronomers for such a telescope - without himself having thought of associating this with the forthcoming Newton celebration. After the announcement, the Royal Society set up a committee to advise on the project; in effect, to get the INT made.

By 1955, when Woolley became Astronomer Royal designate, no progress had been achieved. There had been an abundance of ideas and a famine of leadership. Spencer Jones had done all he could, but he was restricted by the fact that the INT was not intended to be part of the RGO, so he had to take care not to give the impression that he was behaving as though it would be. In fact there was nobody in a position really to take charge. In addition, many of the proposals for telescope design and operation were ahead of their time, being dependent upon high technology that did not yet exist.

In the summer of 1955 the International Astronomical Union had its General Assembly in Dublin. Woolley attended, along with several current members of the INT committee. He invited them to an informal meeting and convinced them that they must get on with making the telescope and that the only way to do this was to agree to follow the orthodox classical design for such an instrument. This was what the committee soon formally agreed to. The telescope was made by Grubb Parsons. In 1962, by then chairman of the Board of Management of the INT, appointed by the Royal Society, Woolley published a progress report. But the telescope was not ready to be inaugurated by Her Majesty The Queen until December 1967. Why it took so long is hard to comprehend. Again it must, I think, have been because for most of the time it 'belonged' to nobody in particular. As will shortly be recounted, it found an owner after the Science Research Council (SRC) was set up in 1965.

To come back, for the moment, to Woolley's plans for RGO: as he had done earlier at Mt Stromlo he conceived it to be his role to divert more of the RGO effort into observational astrophysical research. To this end, in the manner described below, he proceeded to phase out almost everything on the 'geophysical' side. Also he reduced the Observatory's emphasis on 'fundamental' astronomy, the work of the Nautical Almanac Office and the Astrometry Department. The main effort was directed into programmes of observation designed to solve astrophysical or astrodynamical problems of the day, some jointly with the Cape and Radcliffe Observatories in South Africa. Woolley himself worked with ardent devotion upon such programmes and led groups of young colleagues to become similarly devoted.

All this looked to be moving with the times. Also it was the sort of astronomy that called for ever-increasing telescope power, and Woolley was always making every effort to procure this. But Woolley was in the process of curtailing and discarding just the sorts of astronomy that made the RGO essential for all the rest of astronomy. If the RGO were needed for only the sort of astronomy that Woolley wanted to do, it was not needed to do even that. All that the RGO would be needed for would be to look after the telescopes for other astronomers - university astronomers in fact - who could equally well do the actual astronomy and also other work.

This is overstating the case. Woolley can scarcely have foreseen the full consequences of his policy. But from his time onwards, this is the direction in which things have been moving. Unfortunately the policy weakened the position of 'fundamental astronomy' without which all the rest must fall apart. The RGO had been pre-eminent in the field; university groups are not geared to such work.

In running the Observatory, Woolley's attitude towards new ideas tended to be ambiguous and dependent on fortuitous circumstances. For instance, he was not attracted by electronic computers, but in 1964 he had to agree to instal one for NAO. In his own work he used a hand-cranked 'Brunsviga'. Then one afternoon he was struggling with the numerical solution of an intractable differential equation. In desperation, he telephoned D.H. Sadler, Superintendent of the NAO, for assistance. Sadler was delighted that his machine might be of use to Woolley, but unfortunately he was unfamiliar with the particular type of differential equation. Fortunately the astronomer M.V. Penston, who had recently joined the RGO and who did have some familiarity with the type of problem, chanced to hear what was going on and volunteered his help to Sadler. These two then dropped everything else they were doing, and after a superhuman effort of concentration, presented Woolley with the solution before the afternoon was out. Woolley was completely won over to that sort of employment of a computer. In fact, he then began to take pride in the hours he spent with it during evenings and weekends, instead of in the no. of hours it saved him. But apparently he was never won over to the use of an on-line computer on a telescope. Rather similarly, he had been pleased to employ photoelectric photometry at Mt Stromlo, but his own electronics group at RGO considered that he never fully exploited their capabilities.

Then there was space research. His 'utter bilge' comment that was provoked as he stepped out of an aeroplane after a delayed 36-hour flight from Australia should be forgotten. But sadly his subsequently rather obstinate attitude is reckoned to have held Britain back from playing an adequate role in 'space science'. Of course his attitude was understandable. For year after year he saw money going into 'space' in Europe without much scientific return, money that could have transformed ground-based astronomy. Much of the fault was with the way, most calculated to antagonise the astronomers, in which the finance was administered.

All the matters mentioned in this section arose under the old (Admiralty) regime and were much affected by the change of regime resulting from the passage on 1 April 1965 of the Act setting up the Research Councils under the Secretary of State for Education and Science and other Ministries. The administration of RGO passed from the Admiralty advised by the Board of Visitors, to the SRC (which became the present Science and Engineering Research Council [SERC] only much after Woolley's time). In each of his first nine years in office Woolley made his annual report to the Visitors, almost always presided over by the President of the Royal Society, at their annual visitation in June. The Visitors then forwarded the report to the Admiralty along with any comments, resolutions and recommendations that they saw fit to make. The Visitors were not involved in any budgeting, but their report was the recommendation of provision for specific operations, equipment and accommodation. After the SRC took over, the Board of Visitors was dissolved by Royal Warrant. The direct link between the Royal Society and the Royal Observatory, unbroken since the time when they shared the same royal founder, was thus severed. The SRC set up an elaborate committee structure that seemed to be dedicated entirely to deciding - or at any rate talking about, or being told about - how money should be spent. It was difficult to detect where scientific policywas settled. The RGO Committee was one of the bottom grade. It met two or three times a year; its recommendations had to percolate up through all the other grades; whether anything recognizably like them reached the top was hard to tell.

Merging and publication

In 1960 it was announced that, 'The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have approved an administrative merger between the observatories at Herstmonceux and the Cape. Joint programmes embracing observations in both hemispheres are planned, and staff are already being exchanged between the two establishments.' On a visit by Woolley to South Africa in 1958 he and R.H. Stoy Her Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape, had discussed the possibility of a closer relationship between their observatories. This was the outcome.

The merger had consequences for vehicles of publication. Up to then most research papers from RGO appeared in the journals of the Royal Astronomical Society as 'communicated by the Astronomer Royal'. Papers that mainly recorded observations appeared in the Observatory's own publications. Then in 1960 Woolley decreed that those publications should be renamed Royal Observatory Bulletins and Royal Observatory Annals, and 'in future most of the work done at the Cape and at Herstmonceux will be published in these'. Somebody - I know not who - must have represented to Woolley that overwhelming advantages were going to be reaped from such an arrangement. It was in fact an unfortunate policy for the Observatory and for the individual authors, since astronomers and others in universities at home and abroad do not normally read observatory publications. So for some years they got the impression that these particular observatories were not producing research, and they learned nothing of the authors who were working in them.


At the start of Woolley's time in charge of RGO, the general pattern of staffing was still about the same as it had been since early this century, although numbers had grown at a fairly modest rate. In particular, the key members under the Astronomer Royal were his two Chief Assistants. These were at first R.d'E. Atkinson, in office 1937-64, and T. Gold, 1952-56. Gold left in Woolley's first year, to be succeeded by O.J. Eggen, in office 1956-61 and 1964-65, who a few years earlier had so effectively collaborated with Woolley at Mt Stromlo. Woolley's early years as Astronomer Royal were those when the country was 'having it so good', and universities and scientific institutions generally were expanding and multiplying. Woolley too was able to recruit some young men with very distinguished university records. In addition, after the SRC came into oper-ation in 1965 there was a regrading throughout the staff, one result of which was the disappearance of the singular status of Chief Assistant. About the same time, partly in consequence of the creation nearby of the University of Sussex, Woolley began to recruit still younger scientists into his research groups because in appropriate cases they could complete a doctorate at the University. Also he instituted a 'Division of Instrumentation and Engineering' under D. McMullan, who worked closely with J.D. McGee of Imperial College, in London, on the development of image intensifiers for use on telescopes. The new grading system also facilitated new avenues of promotion so that Woolley could have A. Hunter appointed his second-in-command as Deputy Director. This enabled him to take advantage of Hunter's out-standing organizational skills. Thenceforth much of the success of Woolley's directorship was possible because of the extent to which he could rely upon those skills. I am sure he would wish this to be acknowledged in any account of his own stewardship.

Geophysical concerns

The extension of RGO activity on the astrophysical side could be achieved only partly by enlargement of staff and other resources. As already stated, some had inevitably to be at the expense of curtailment of older activities. Woolley pruned solar astronomy in the Observatory to about the minimum needed to meet its then current commitment to the inter national monitoring of solar activity. The solar work had been linked with the Observatory's long-standing and renowned involvement with geomag-netism. Although recognising the significance of the work, Woolley judged there to be some institution more appropriate than RGO to take responsibility for it. Eventually, in 1967, he had the responsibility transferred to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), although for the rest of his time the Geomagnetism Unit head-quarters remained housed at Herstmonceux. Likewise the Chronometer Department of RGO had long given vital service to the nation, but again Woolley thought it more appropriate for someone else to run it and in 1965 he arranged for its transfer to the Ministry of Defence. During the remainder of Woolley's time, it too stayed housed in the Castle. Finally in this regard, the Observatory had maintainedinvaluable meteorological records, amongst the longest anywhere, at Greenwich. In 1952 this activity had been transferred to Herstmonceux. However, soon after he took office, Woolley felt impelled to terminate the work, or at any rate most of it.

All this development calls for two comments. The history of RGO over about the past 150 years shows that much of geophysical science had its origins in operations of Britain's national astronomical observatory. In consequence, astronomy and geophysics are more closely associated in Britain than elsewhere, to the evident benefit of both. Maybe the great expansion of both sciences made inevitable Woolley's disposing of most of RGO's geophysical involvement. But partings are apt to be sad and also regrettable. Woolley could scarcely have foreseen that the growth of planetary science after his time would bring astronomy and geophysics nearer together again; had he been able to do so, he might have proceeded somewhat differently. In any event all that he did demonstrated his readiness to make firm decisions and to take drastic action.

The other comment concerns the making of such decisions. Up to 1965 Woolley was in a position to make them without seeking anybody approval. Presumably he reported them to the Visitors, but he would have been much surprised had they demurred. Things changed somewhat when the SRC took over. In fact, when the SRC chairman made his first visit to RGO and Woolley had to conduct him around, it was said that Woolley looked positively sheepish at having to introduce his staff to somebody whom he had to regard as his 'boss'. Hitherto Woolley and his staff had regarded Woolley as having no 'boss' other than Woolley himself And they had liked it that way!

Overseas Observing

Elsewhere in this memoir is mentioned the co-operation between RGO and the observatories in South Africa. Not only did this afford the possibility of observing the southern sky, but the Pretoria 74-inch telescope was far larger than any at RGO before 1967, when the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) became available. Even for observing in the northern hemisphere, Woolley had therefore continually to seek opportunities for himself and his colleagues to use large telescopes overseas. He made numerous visits to California, chiefly to use the 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes on Mt Wilson but also because he welcomed opportunities to confer with astronomers there like Ira S. Bowen, Allan Sandage and C.D. Shane. For instance, he was there in September-November 1959 measuring radial velocities of stars in the Hyades, and in the same year A. Hunter from RGO was there for six months to take second-epoch proper-motion plates of these stars. Again, usually with a colleague from RGO, during 1965-67 Woolley had several profitable observing spells on the 74-inch telescope at Kottamia in the Egyptian desert, obtaining many hundreds of spectra for radial velocity determinations. Later he arranged for staffmembers to visit the Sierra Nevada outstation of the Cartuja Observatory in Spain: besides making needed observations in favourable atmospheric conditions, this was partly with a view to the possibility of finding in the northern hemisphere a more favourable site than Herstmonceux for an RGO telescope. It should be added that Woolley continued to have observing visits abroad without ever getting a name as an 'absentee director'; indeed he always wanted to be back as soon as possible and was credited with frequently reappearing at Herstmonceux a day earlier than he had been expected.

Telescopes and other instruments

The story of the INT, before its transfer to La Palma after Woolley had ceased to be concerned, has been told in several accessible accounts; details need not detain us here. Although the INT was never part of RGO, as long as Woolley was Director he was responsible to the SRC for its maintenance and operation. Also RGO was mainly responsible for its instrumentation - its spectrographs, cameras and so on - most of which was constructed in the RGO workshops, which Woolley had had enlarged. Also in his time certain important modern smaller 'telescopes' were brought into use at Herstmonceux. These included two that were designed for determination of astronomical time and of latitude variation, both instruments having been cherished interests of Spencer Jones. One was the Danjon Astrolabe erected in 1960. The other was the Photographic Zenith Tube (PZT), brought into regular use from 1957, its operation being made largely automatic from 1961; it has achieved remarkable accuracy. The Herstmonceux PZT has been the prototype for others, including the one that Woolley himself in about 1946 ordered for Mt Stromlo. For another thing, it was during Woolley's tenure that RGO went over from the use of quartz clocks to caesium-beam ('atomic') clocks. Such topics have to be recalled as examples of the sorts of things to which Woolley needed to give his directorial attention. They were not, however, his personal scientific interests, so here there is no call to pursue them further.

Anglo-Australian Telescope. In the field of this section, Woolley did make one of his most outstanding contributions to world astronomy by his own major share in achieving the construction of the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). No one who saw him simply going about his daily pursuits at Herstmonceux would guess that all the time he was immersed in complicated, delicate, and to a large extent frustrating negotiations about this project. His involvement persisted because he was Astronomer Royal, but the exertions it entailed were no part of his official duties in that capacity. The tangled tale of the project from 1955 to 1967 has been authoritatively recorded, with full documentation, by Sir Bernard Lovell, who was himself crucially involved at important stages. More general accounts have been given by Huxley and Gascoigne et al. The following is about the briefest sketch that may convey some inkling of the proceedings.

The idea started with Woolley himself. Being so aware that the southern sky happens to contain certain features - such as the galactic centre - of even greater significance than any known in the northern sky, it was obvious to him that it ought to be studied by using telescopes at least as good as those used to study the northern sky. While still Director at Mt Stromlo, on a visit to Canada Woolley aired the suggestion that Australia, Canada and the U.K. should join in building a 200-inch telescope in Australia. Shortly afterwards he returned as Astronomer Royal to the U.K., where, as he already knew, another similar scheme was under discussion. Astronomers of five or six European countries were considering a proposal to set up in the southern hemisphere - probably in South Africa - a duplicate of the 120-inch reflector at the Lick Observatory and one of the 48-inch Palomar Schmidt telescope, or approximately such facilities, for their joint use. Representative British astronomers had attended some of the deliberations, to which they had been invited in the hope that the U.K. might join and contribute about a quarter of the cost. Woolley reckoned that the U.K.'s likely share of observing time would not be worth the cost. He urged the superior advantage for the U.K. of joining with Australia; it has to be inferred that Canadian astronomers as a whole had not responded. The obvious course was for both schemes to proceed in amity. This they doubtless would have done had it not been for political pressure for Britain to be seen to support a European venture, and for Australia's reluctance to be seen as obstructing this. Over the next several years there were interminable to-ings and fro-ings between Australian and British astronomers, other scientists, government ministers, and officers and staff of the Australian Academy of Science and the Royal Society. Schemes discussed came to include all possible combinations of Australia, the U.S.A. and the U.K., and anything between a 100-inch and a 200-inch telescope.

Early in 1962 the air was somewhat cleared when, on the basis of a statement submitted by Woolley, the British government's Advisory Council on Scientific Policy (ACSP) endorsed the decision for the U.K not to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which was due to be formally established that year. It expressed support for a renewed approach to Australia. Should that fail, it would endorse the idea of co-operation with U.S. astronomers in Chile.

The year 1963 then saw encouraging portents. In March, Woolley attended in Canberra a high-powered meeting with about eight of Australia's most prominent physical scientists. Strong and unanimous scientific support was expressed for a large optical telescope in Australia. On governmental level, the meeting urged that the U.K. government should be asked to take the initiative.

At about that stage, Woolley and his astronomical colleagues tightened up the project into that for a telescope of 150-inch aperture, designed to give good access to the prime focus, with Siding Spring as the probable site. There followed some healthy publicity in Australia and Britain. Then in August-September, the President of the Royal Society, Sir Howard (Lord) Florey, an Australian by birth, was in Australia for other purposes. But I know that he was fully aware of what had been going on about the telescope and that he had taken the trouble to inform himself of the current situation. I have always been convinced that the ultimate success of the project owed much to some well judged intervention by Florey in the course of his visit. Indeed, as Lovell has noted, on returning from this visit with Florey, the Executive Secretary of the Royal Society wrote that '...at the invitation of the [Australian] Academy the Royal Society is setting up a committee to join with the Academy in discussing the proposed 150-inch telescope and Sir Howard has agreed to be Chairman'.

The Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) informed the first meeting of the Committee that the DSIR was pre-pared to consider funding the project. Then in June 1964 Woolley led a U.K. mission to Australia, that met the Australian Large Telescope Committee, followed by several meetings with its Technical Sub-committee.

Such a breathtaking rate of progress could not, of course, be sustained. Two major interruptions soon followed. In 1964 there was a change of government in Britain. Then in 1965 there was the change of administration of British civil science already mentioned. This meant that the AAT became one of the host of projects competing for support from the SRC budget. Actually, for a brief interval prospects looked rosy indeed, with the expectation of almost lavish growth rates in grants. All this very soon proved to be an illusion, and when government intentions were conveyed to the scientists all their hopes had to be ruthlessly curtailed. Astronomers having highly commendable projects, including the radio astronomers at Jodrell Bank and Cambridge, then with wonderful altruism agreed to give first priority to 'the 150-inch Anglo-Australian Telescope' - perhaps the first official use of this title. The Astronomy Space and Radio Board recommended that the SRC should proceed on the assumption that design studies should be made within about a year with a view to construction starting after about two years. Also it recommended that the SRC should ask H.M. Government to set up an AAT Joint Policy Committee with the Australians. There ensued grave delays in the SRC's taking action and it was not until May 1966 that they sent the necessary telegram to Australia. Then another year went by before there was governmental agreement about cost sharing. During this long interval astronomers on both sides began to think up other schemes, in the melee of which the AAT could well have disappeared without trace. At long last, however, on 6 June 1967 the Astronomy Policy and Grants Committee of the SRC was able to take decisions that finally set in motion the lengthy business of producing a telescope.

Over the next seven years, until the first plates were taken in 1974, there was a continuing saga of problems requiring solution, some concerning the future management of the telescope, but most concerning technology of design and construction. For most of the rest of his time at RGO, Woolley remained a member of the Joint Policy Committee. He made one crucial contribution by having John Pope, the engineer in charge of RGO workshops, seconded to serve from about 1967 to 1972 as Project Engineer for the AAT. But Woolley professed no expert knowledge of the technology, and he was glad for his old friend R.O. Redman (1905-75), who certainly was an expert, to become the leading British participant.

Early in 1975 Woolley and colleagues at the Cape organised a conference there in honour of A.D. Thackeray, and they had Redman to describe in effect the finished form of the AAT. I was there, and I recall Woolley's evident happiness at what he heard. The telescope went into 'scheduled operation' in June of that year, two decades after Woolley had broached the proposal. Actually already in October 1974 H.R.H. the Prince of Wales had formally inaugurated the AAT at its site on Siding Spring Mountain in New South Wales. Woolley had not been there because he was suffering from diabetes and was unable to make the journey from South Africa. The telescope was being voted a splendid success.

Another enterprise, in itself also another success story, has been the U.K.48-inch Schmidt telescope, also at Siding Spring. Lovell has published a brief but fully documented history. It was a scheme that went through with remarkable celerity, Treasury approval being given late in 1970 and the first plates being taken in July 1973. Woolley supported it, but had little to do with carrying it out. It has been of immense value to all astronomers. Nevertheless optical astronomers have cause to view this with embarrassment, because it was originally financed at the expense of vital projects in radio astronomy.


No account of Astronomer Royal Woolley should fail to mention his care for the relaxations of his staff. He promoted and enthusiastically participated in cricket, hockey, lawn tennis (men's doubles), and country dancing in the splendid setting of the castle ball-room. He helped the staff to acquire their 'club' building to be used for social purposes of all sorts. Whenever he took part in any sport he liked to be given a hard game - but he liked to win. Everybody knew this, and it is impossible to believe that he did not know that they knew. Because he had been so much younger in age than his academic contemporaries he had not been able to join in their sporting activities; then when he was able to take up such activities he had to do so with people younger than himself. I think he needed to be continually reassured that he was 'doing all right' by convincing himself that he could in fact beat them.

Some public relations

The foregoing account of Woolley's career up to 1971 deals in the main with his obligations as a servant of the government in Australia or Great Britain. There were many other things that he was asked to do because he held the public offices he did, but which were not duties attached to these offices. It seems convenient to devote this separate section to mentioning these and enlarging some-what on a few upon which he bestowed special effort.

The following undertakings were in this general category:

Besides such official duties, Woolley was in demand also for things like 'opening' an observatory for some local astronomical society. He was a tall man with a good presence, and he performed these functions, official and unofficial, with dignified good humour.

Astronomy in education

Woolley held well-thought-out views upon the place of astronomy in the undergraduate and postgraduate education of would-be professional astronomers, and in the general education of others. His views were shared by probably most British astronomers, but it happened that Woolley had, or made, special opportunities for putting some of them into practice.

As already mentioned, he was much concerned in the setting up of the ANU in Canberra. In 1950 that university appointed him honorary professor of astronomy, an office of which, we have seen, he made most effective use. His inaugural lecture in July 1955, quoting Dryden, he entitled 'The Longest Tyranny'. It was mainly a scholarly essay on the centuries-long subjugation of thought about the physical world to the philosophical views of Aristotle, with their defiance of observed physical and astronomical phenomena. Somehow Woolley managed to work into it his ideas on astronomy for undergraduates:

As a practical scheme I advocate a general course [of astronomy] in the first year (with no more mathematics than the Leaving Certificate prerequsite) for those who wish to offer only one science and also to whet the appetites of potential specialists [in astronomy]. For advanced undergraduate work I advocate an optional course in astronomy and astrophysics to be taken as part of a degree course in mathematics and physics. It would perhaps be a bad thing to type a student as an astronomer so early as his third or fourth year.
He concluded by paying tribute to ANU for 'finding a place for astronomy'.

The irony of all this was that a majority of the founders of ANU had decided that it should be a university without undergraduates. Woolley fought against this, which he regarded as a contradiction in terms. But ANU remained without undergraduates until 1960; until then the undergraduate body of Australia had no contact with those reckoned to be the country's leading academics.

Starting in 1957, for the rest of Woolley's time at RGO the annual 'Herstmonceux Conference' was a cherished scientific event in the calendar of those privileged to attend. Apart from the first, it was on some field of current astronomical research having particular relevance for RGO workers. The first was, however, on the education and training of astronomers. Although Woolley favoured the British practice of prospective professional astronomers doing a first degree in mathematics and/or physics, rather than in astronomy itself, he was troubled by the drawback that they then proceeded to tackle research problems in some specialised branch without ever having had a systematic 'education' in astronomy. Woolley recommended something more approaching the U.S. practice of placing more stress upon a range of postgraduate lecture courses not specially directed toward any particular field of research, in at any rate the student's first postgraduate year. For the conference he invited fifteen of so concerned academics to discuss such matters over two or three days. I think nothing very specific emerged, but I do believe that the discussion had a lasting influence in ensuring that British astronomers thereafter had a better background than had been usual hitherto. Also I believe that Woolley's occasional service as a Ph.D. oral examiner reinforced this since it became known that, whatever the thesis topic might be, Woolley would require well-informed answers to questions on general astronomy. Admittedly the effectiveness of this came to be a trifle weakened when it got around that a question about Oort's constants of galactic rotation was always a safe bet!

Woolley's own most fruitful action in this field was, starting in his first summer at RGO, his conduct of summer courses for university students after the end of their second or third year of undergraduate studies. A participating student would spend about six weeks in the Observatory, most of the time working in about the same way as would a new recruit to the staff, that is, as a member of a small research group under the direction of its leader, making and reducing observations and measurements. In addition he or she would have opportunities to learn about the research of other groups and about instruments they might be using. All students in the course would also attend lectures given by members of the RGO staffon astronomy in general as well as some having special reference to particular work in progress in the RGO or the Nautical Almanac Office.

A course would comprise some 12 to 16 carefully selected students. In some summers there were two such six-week courses, which were then something of a strain upon the RGO staff. At the time, several other government establishments took some corresponding action, and ministries or educational authorities provided some finance.

The RGO courses were outstandingly successful. This was basically thanks to Woolley's personality and enthusiasm, and to the enthusiastic co-operation of his colleagues. Of course, astronomy always has a special appeal, but particularly so when done in the romantic setting of a medieval castle in which the students were housed and fed. The fruitfulness of the undertaking is demonstrated by the fact that almost every British astronomer of the generation concerned is a former 'vacation student'. There must also be many such students who afterwards went on to careers in other sciences, and who are lastingly grateful for the scientific experience of some weeks spent at the RGO.

The RGO has maintained Woolley's practice. Mr C. Benn of the Observatory has gathered some statistics: from 1956 to 1987 the total number of differ-ent summer students was 444 (a no. of these attending more than one course), of whom at least 70 have taken up careers in astronomy.

Woolley's remaining special contribution to British astronomy in the educational field was his invaluable service to the University of Sussex in its earliest years. When in 1945 the Admiralty accepted the recommendation of the Board of Visitors of the Royal Observatory that it should be moved from Greenwich to Herstmonceux there was little thought of there ever being a university anywhere in Sussex. However, by about the time of Woolley's arrival in 1956, local action was leading to discussions with the University Grants Committee. During 1958-59 the Committee approved the proposal to found a new university. Woolley became one of the first members of its Council. The first students came in the autumn of 1961. Woolley was back in the sort of situation in which he had found himself a decade earlier in regard to the founding of the ANU. At that stage there was no suggestion of any link between the new university and RGO, nor even of its 'finding a place for astronomy'.

The full story - too long to tell here - of how that came about goes back to discussions started soon after the war about the possibility of having, somewhere in the U.K., a centre for theoretical astronomy. Around 1960, it seemed to have been agreed that there should be one, and that the coming University of Sussex, as the one nearest to the headquarters of optical Astronomy (RGO), should take charge of it. Plans had then to go into abeyance until the enactment of the Science and Technology Bill of 1965. In consequence of involved negotiations before and after that, when the SRC came into being it gave main support for theoretical astronomy to an institute in Cambridge, but it did also give some encouragement to Sussex to set up a research group in that field.

This was how the University of Sussex came to 'find a place for astronomy'. It was in fact the origin of its Astronomy Centre,which has ever since been making a significant contribution to astronomy in Britain.

As soon as the new University and Woolley himself were satisfied that there was indeed a future for astronomy in the University near RGO, he welcomed it for the reasons that had made him welcome the similar development in the case of ANU near Mt Stromlo. It offered young members of his staff the opportunity to work for a higher degree while at the same time carrying out their duties at the Observatory. He and the University were able to agree upon arrangements for M.Sc. and D.Phil. degree courses in astronomy so that students were able to embark upon them in October 1965. Woolley and his colleagues B.E.J. Pagel and D. Lynden-Bell were appointed visiting members of the faculty. At first, almost all the students were indeed young members of the RGO staff working part-time for one of these degrees. Reality was given to their universiy affiliation by the fact of the students and their lecturers coming to the campus for most of their classes. Various members of the regular faculty co-operated effectively, and in the first term a 'joint seminar' with RGO was started that has flourished ever since.

All this has had notable consequences for the development of astronomy in Great Britain. In particular, in 1970 the International Astronomical Union held its XIV General Assembly in the University of Sussex and at nearby Brighton, the only previous such occasion in the U.K. being the II General Assembly in 1925 at Cambridge. At a ceremony in the Dome in Brighton honorary degrees of the University were conferred upon the President of the Union and three other prominent members. One of these was Woolley, who was being honoured for his distinction as an astronomer, and also for his signal services to the University in the ways briefly recorded here.

Astronomy in South Africa

When Woolley became Astronomer Royal, there were but two British-administered observatories in the southern hemisphere, both in South Africa. Woolley had had no previous professional dealings with either of them; he had simply made an occasional courtesy call when he and his wife visited South African relatives on journeys to or from Australia when they lived there. As time went on, however, after he went to RGO he became more and more involved in South African astronomy until, as he could not possibly have foreseen, he came to direct effectively all of it.

The two observatories in question were the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope and the Radcliffe Observatory at Pretoria. The 'Cape', administered independently of the RGO by the British Admiralty, had been founded in 1820 as the 'southern Greenwich'; it did about the same sort of astronomy as Greenwich did for the north, and was equipped accordingly. Its international repute was of the highest. From 1950 to 1968 its director, Her Majesty's Astronomer, was R.H. Stoy. The 'Radcliffe', administered by the Radcliffe Trustees in London, had been founded in 1772 in Oxford, whence it had moved in 1935; it was intended to do mainly astronomical spectroscopy, and its one significant telescope was the 74-inch reflector which had begun operating only in 1948. Until the similar telescope procured by Woolley for Mt Stromlo came into use in 1956, the Radcliffe telescope was by far the largest in the southern hemisphere and it was earning a fine reputation. From 1950 to 1974 the director, the Radcliffe Observer, was A.D. Thackeray. It happened that the two directors had been near contemporaries in Cambridge, where they both attended Woolley's lectures when he was Isaac Newton Student there; he was their senior by little more than four years.

In 1951 the Radcliffe Trustees agreed to the Cape's having one-third of observing time on the 74-inch in return for an annual payment by the Admiralty. Soon after going to RGO in 1956, Woolley learned that Stoy had difficulty in maintaining adequate Cape astronomer-power in Pretoria to make full use of this facility. Thereupon Woolley volunteered to assist by seconding on three-year tours of 'detached duty' one RGO scientific officer at a time. This worked out admirably and during the next twelve years there was a succession of four incumbents. All of these went on to distinguished careers in astronomy back at RGO or elsewhere; the first was P.A. Wayman (1957-60), who eventually left RGO in 1964 to become director of Dunsink Observatory in Ireland. Woolley picked good volunteers!

Then in 1958 Woolley obtained a substantial grant from the DSIR - something like £30,000 over 5 years - for the intensive study described below at Pretoria and the Cape by himself and his collaborators of the part of the Galaxy in the southern sky and of the Magellanic Clouds. On one of his own visits in this context, he and Stoy discussed the possibility of a closer relationship between RGO and the Cape. This led from 1960 to a joint administration. The Admiralty arranged for the Board of Visitors of RGO to assume similar responsibilities towards the Cape. As director of RGO, Woolley was given general oversight of the Cape, which, however, retained H. M. Astronomer as its own director for all 'local' purposes. The practical effect was that Woolley was empowered to second staff members from one Observatory to the other for tours of two years or more. After a while, in practice this operated largely from RGO to the Cape. At the time, universities in South Africa were not producing many trained astronomers - although thanks to a great extent to Stoy's interaction with the University of Cape Town that was being remedied - and so as a result of the change Stoy had some better-qualified junior staff than before. This was of course at the cost of some self-sacrifice on Stoy's part; in particular, he had been wishing for his Observatory to have a Board of Visitors of its own.

The next major development was that, in consequence of the Science and Technology Act of 1965, the SRC replaced DSIR, and it took over from the Admiralty the administration of both observatories. As already mentioned, the Visitors disappeared and the new RGO Committee of SRC was appointed. In practice this was called upon to advise upon little more than the deployment of the grant to the observatories for equipment. It was given little say in policy decisions or in making appointments of staff members.

For the next half-dozen years the history became ever more complicated with numerous intertwining strands. Among other things, these concerned (a) the AAT and the U.K. Schmidt, which denoted such a major diversion away from South Africa of British involvement in southern hemisphere astronomy; (b) ESO, which until about that time had been expected to establish a major astronomical centre in South Africa, but which switched to South America instead: (c) the deterioration in observing conditions at both the Cape and the Radcliffe owing to urban growth in their vicinities, which was compelling them to investigate possibilities of moving some of their work to some far better available sites; (d) the financial problems of the Radcliffe Trust; and (e) the important fact that, for reasons unconnected with the Cape and Radcliffe, the CSIR of the Republic of South Africa was from about 1964 considering afresh its own responsibility for promoting astronomy in that country. I have been writing about British-controlled activity. Apart from giving general assent, the South African government and its agencies had not been involved. Contacts with astronomers and other scientists in South African institutions were thoroughly friendly, but for the most part they had remained informal largely because, as indicated above, astronomy had featured rather little in the universities. The possibility of more positive constructive co-operation in astronomy was, however, beginning to emerge. In particular, Stoy and Thackeray were members of the South African National Committee for Astronomy and of the Republic Observatory Committee. The CSIR set up the latter to investigate the possible establishment of a new such observatory and to report upon possible sites. The chairman of both committees was Dr F.J. Hewitt, Vice-President of CSIR, who as a matter of friendliness and courtesy kept Woolley informally posted about their doings on account of Woolley's responsibilities towards the Cape.

Arising from those responsibilities and his SRC involvement in the AAT negotiations, Woolley was concerned with all these various strands. What is about to be said here is an attempt to indicate briefly the elements in the history that came most to concern Woolley himself.

About as soon as the SRC came into being, the Radcliffe Trustees sought to sell to it their entire Observatory. The SRC declined to buy, but they did agree the terms of a seven-year lease of the Observatory from the Trustees to date from April 1967.

Then the Cape astronomers began to look for a site to which they could profitably move their recently acquired 'Elizabeth Telescope', an excellent modern 40-inch reflector. Early in 1967 they picked upon a site in the Karroo near Sutherland, about 230 miles north of Cape Town. This they showed to Woolley when he was on a visit a few weeks later; it won his enthusiastic approval.

Meanwhile the Southern Hemisphere Review Committee of SRC in London had been at work, and then early in 1968 it visited South Africa. Woolley was present in his capacity as Director of RGO, not as a Review Committee member. During the visit J.F. Hosie, Head of Astronomy at SRC, on behalf of his Council proposed 'a joint venture in astronomy combining the facilities of the Royal Observatory at the Cape with those of the Republic Observatory (in Johannesburg)'. CSIR reacted favourably and sought special funding from its government.

There seems to have been no effective response until in February 1969 Woolley, still quite informally, visited the responsible government minister. Then several months later, Dr Meiring Naude, President of CSIR, asked Woolley if he would consider an offer of appointment as first Director of a proposed new South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). These happenings evidently helped in the allocation of funds for, early in 1970, the South African government approved funds for a 'first phase' of work on the observatory. On the strength of this, CSIR confirmed the invitation to Woolley, who must have indicated his readiness to accept after his retirement from RGO, due the following year. All this was announced publicly in September 1970 in a joint statement by SRC and CSIR.

Site-testing had been going ahead. Again early in 1970, after a visit by Woolley, his Deputy Director at RGO, A. Hunter, and J.F. Hosie of SRC, CSIR accepted the recommendation of Sutherland as the site for the main observational work of SAAO. The old Royal Observatory was to be its headquarters.

In accordance with a long-expressed intention, in 1968 R.H. Stoy resigned as H.M. Astronomer. In view of the coming change of control, this entailed the extinction of the title. On Woolley's recommendation, the astronomer G.A. Harding of RGO served from 1968 to 1971 as Officer-in-Charge of the Royal Observatory at the Cape, the years 1970 and 1971 being then seen as the last two years of its existence as such. CSIR had taken responsibility for developing the Sutherland site, and Harding worked closely with Dr Hewitt in this, including the planning of buildings. Woolley was kept informed of progress, but he was happy to leave the work generally to CSIR and Harding, than whom he could not have hoped for a more able representative. Of course, Woolley had to delegate such responsibility since at the RGO he was busy winding up his tenure as Astronomer Royal. Harding kept normal astronomical activity going at the Cape. This was mainly on the astrometric side, and programmes could run on through the forthcoming change of regime.

The formal agreement between Britain and South Africa for the whole operation was not signed until December 1971, less than one month before the locally agreed date for the commencement of the SAAO. That date was 1 January 1972, and Woolley did then in fact take office as its first Director.

Dr F.J. Hewitt has kindly supplied me with the information upon which the latter part of this account is based, and Dr R.H. Stoy with that for the earlier part, although to a slight extent I had been involved in the British end of the operation. Dr Hewitt has written, 'I have the highest admiration for the way Sir Richard carried out his duties as the first Director..., as the CSIR executive officer to whom he reported...I can say without any qualification that I could never wish for a more co-operative or reasonable director with whom to work.'

There was one (literally) very large factor that had not been any part of the 'joint venture' as originally proposed, but apart from which its significance would have been far less. This was nothing other than the acquisition for the new observatory at Sutherland of the then most famous telescope in the southern hemisphere, the Radcliffe 74-inch reflector.

In 1972 the Radcliffe Trustees finally decided to close the observatory at Pretoria, when the lease to SRC expired in 1974. As soon as CSIR learned of this, Dr Naude made an offer for the telescope, to keep it in South Africa. He was able to call upon CSIR funds outside the SAAO budget. In this way Sutherland acquired its most important instrument; the CSIR had had nothing whatever to do with the Trust's decision to close its observatory.

While the protracted negotiations here summarised were under way, the SRC-supported astronomers in South Africa unfortunately came to feel deplorably insecure. So far as I know, none ultimately had cause for complaint, but at the time some seemed to blame Woolley for their anxieties; I am convinced that the fault was not his.

Things might very easily have worked out much worse for astronomy. The Admiralty and the Radcliffe Trustees might well have decided to pull out of South Africa much sooner than they did simply because the historic reasons for being there had ceased to apply. As it was, the SRC was able to step in at the right moment, and along with the vigorous operations of CSIR to give that department of southern hemisphere astronomy a new lease of life. It is no more than just to say that the scientifically satisfactory outcome must be credited largely to the skills of J.F. Hosie of SRC and F.J. Hewitt of CSIR. One must immediately add that the key element in the success of their endeavours was the availability of Richard Woolley with his very special connections in Britain and in South Africa, his discreet interventions at psychological moments, and above all his readiness to shoulder the directorship for the first five years of the new establishment.

South African Astronomical Observatory, 1972-76

Woolley was appointed Director of SAAO for the first five years of its existence. For its first fifteen years it was to be a joint enterprise of SRC (U.K.) and CSIR (South Africa); after that, control was to pass to CSIR alone. All the main observing facilities are concentrated on the Sutherland site, but the old Cape Observatory in Cape Town remains the head-quarters, and houses its invaluable astronomical library. It is itself a major centre for astronomical research, and it also provides observing facilities for visiting astronomers, mostly from universities in the U.K. and South Africa. As planned, the Radcliffe Observatory continued to operate at Pretoria until 1974. By about a year later the reassembly at Sutherland of the 74-inch Radcliffe Telescope was well advanced. It has remained the chief telescope, but the 40-inch and 20-inch reflectors from the Cape have also given excellent service at Sutherland.

Woolley's energies were taken up to a great extent in seeing to the completion of the buildings and the erection of the telescopes at Sutherland. But he characteristically managed to keep his astronomers going on their research work with remarkably little disruption. The work at Sutherland in Woolley's time was mostly based on photographic and photo-electric photometry of stars and globular clusters in the Galaxy and the Magellanic Clouds, including extensive programmes on variable stars in which Woolley himself took part. The astrometric work continued at the Cape, including an important programme designed to refine the matching of standards in the northern and southern hemispheres.

The official opening of the Sutherland Station took place in March 1973. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, performed the ceremony, which was attended by several other official representatives from the U.K., as well as those from CSIR. Also characteristically of Woolley, it was made the occasion for an astronomical symposium in Cape Town.

Most of the scientific staff of the Cape, and several from the Radcliffe, stayed on into Woolley's time. G.A. Harding stayed for three years as Woolley's Deputy Director before returning to RGO. M.W. Feast, who had been Thackeray's Chief Assistant for a no. of years, succeeded Harding as Deputy Director. Throughout his times as director in Australia, Herstmonceux, and South Africa, Woolley was extraordinarily fortunate in the colleagues he had in such a capacity and in the loyalty he inspired in them. Very deservedly, Feast succeeded Woolley when he retired at the end of 1976. Yet again Woolley was able to pass on a flourishing establishment.

Scientific work to about 1955

Other sections of this memoir indicate how much of a professional astronomer's time and energy go into work that in a broad sense may fairly be called scientific, but that can scarcely be classed as personal scientific research. Also it must be obvious how impossible it is to make any sharp distinction between what is and is not 'personal' work. Some of the astronomer's brightest ideas may go into programmes he proposes for others to pursue; in work that does count as 'personal' he must generally use other astronomers' observations as well as his own; and much of his work is of course in any case collaborative. Evident though all this may be, like all other astronomers Woolley had to learn it by experience and adjust to it. By an admission of his own, he had not learnt it before he went to Mt Wilson in 1929; in consequence he came to look upon his two years there as to a great extent misspent. More than a no. of other astronomers who have been entrusted with offices of wide responsibilities, Woolley did, however, practically to the end of his professional career persist in pursuing his own lines of research as a genuine working astronomer. As time went on, his research papers more and more carried the names of collaborators besides his own, but he would not put his name to anything unless he had contributed a considerable share of the work, as well as the original concept.

The outer layers of a star

In 1953 Woolley and D.W.N. Stibbs published their book with this title: up to the time of writing the book, most of Woolley's research came under this head.

When he was embarking on such work in 1928, a topic of predominant astrophysical interest to observers and theorists was the manner of variation of light intensity with wavelength through a line in the spectrum of an astronomical object, i.e. the 'line-contour'. The spectrum being recorded on a photographic plate, the degree of darkening of the plate being then made to produce a trace by a microphotometer, and the plate having been suitably calibrated, this yielded the graph of light intensity against wavelength showing the observed line-contours. From knowlege of the instruments employed and of the physics involved, together with a theoretical model of the observed object, the theorist calculated theoretical line-contours. In astrophysical application, comparison of observed and theoretical contours was normally intended to test the model, although obviously it was at the same time a test of the physical theory. The general procedure is still the basis for a great part of what astrophysicists can learn about anything in the sky. In Woolley's early days it was in its infancy, the difference between then and now being that observations can now be made in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and that techniques of observation and of computation of models have become immeasurably more sophisticated.

Eddington evidently set Woolley to work on the theory of line-contours; for the next five years or so much of Woolley's work consisted of developments of ideas sketched out by Eddington.

Woolley discussed in detail the relevant questions of radiative transfer in a stellar atmosphere - the solar atmosphere in particular - in which the atoms responsible for a spectral line are excited and de-excited by collisions as well as by radiation. He was able to show that in consequence the predicted central light intensity in the line would be of the order actually observed, instead of the effectively zero value predicted if such collisional effects are ignored. Next he discussed the phenomenon of 'interlocking' of spectral lines, that is, of a particular quantum energy-level sharing in the production of more than one spectral line. He was thus a pioneer in the study of such 'incoherent scattering'. In contrast to some of his own subsequent results, at the time he concluded that this had in general almost negligible effect upon theoretical line contours. He reached somewhat similar conclusions about lines in multiplets. But in the first of these two papers, which was the first paper he wrote at Mt Wilson, he came upon complications when he used published observations (by other astronomers) to test his ideas.

Hitherto Woolley had himself done no serious observational work; in fact, he had gone to Mt Wilson to acquire experience on that side of astronomy. His first venture there did not, however, take his investigation beyond the Earth's atmosphere! True, he used the rather famous solar telescope on Mt Wilson, and he observed the spectrum of sunlight to test the theory of the formation of spectral absorption lines and their contours by an atmosphere traversed by this light. However - and I do not know who initiated the proposal - the atmosphere with which Woolley was to deal was that of the Earth, and the spectral lines were those composing the so-called 'B band' in the spectrum of the molecular oxygen contained in that atmosphere. The Sun was simply a convenient source sending light through it. Nevertheless it was a pioneering enterprise because, so far as was known, nobody had ever before attempted to measure relative line-widths in a band spectrum. The main value of the exercise may have been to establish the feasibility of such a study. But it does seem to have rather satisfactorily checked the theory of line-formation being used by Woolley.

The theory of absorption-line formation ought to predict for a particular star how the strength W (suitably defined) of a particular line of a particular atom depends upon the number N (suitably defined) of such atoms that are effective in producing the line. The graph of W against N has acquired the name 'curve of growth'. If W is measured then N may be read from the curve and, having regard to the definition of N, we are securing a quantitative chemical analysis of the relevant part of the star's atmosphere - a main objective of stellar spectroscopy. The first such curve was constructed, for the Sun, by astronomers in Utrecht in 1930-31. Woolley's remaining paper from his time at Mt Wilson was a pioneering contribution to the understanding of this procedure. It was noteworthy too because, when writing it, Woolley was in contact there with the two eminent astronomers W.S. Adams (1876-1956) and H.N. Russell (1877-1957). In 1928 they had produced their well-known 'calibration' of the famous Rowland scale of intensities for solar spectral lines. This had led in 1929 to Russell's important paper 'On the composition of the Sun's atmosphere' (Russell 1929). Woolley and his immediate contemporaries sought to achieve the same goal by applying more sophisticated theory of line-formation to the results of more modern techniques of observation and measurement.

Much of Woolley's work between mid-1931 and mid-1933, when he was Isaac Newton Student and based in the Solar Physics Observatory of which F.J.M. Stratton had become Director in 1928, culminated in the memoir. This reported his microphotometry of the solar spectrum within a rich and interesting wave-length interval of just 350 Å. He gave a careful resume of the theory of line-contours, including some recent developments by himself. He described his technique for measuring the central light-intensity and the equivalent widths of altogether almost 400 absorption lines among about 600 that he identified in his wavelength interval. He calibrated and measured the plates in Cambridge, but the high-dispersion spectra were photographed for him by J. Evershed (1864-1956) at his private observatory. Woolley then discussed in particular the relative intensities within eight multiplets, taken from this and other work, that furnish crucial tests of the applicability of the theory. He found 'anomalies' in the results for the solar spectrum compared with laboratory spectra. He concluded that interlocking must have a significant effect in these cases. He inferred that, sadly, this phenomenon to a considerable extent invalidated the Adams-Russell calibration of the Rowland scale.

In 1929 E.A. Milne ( 1896-1950) gave a famous Bakerian Lecture, the peak of his own great contribution to the study of the outer parts of stars and the basis for much of the subsequent work in the field by others. Woolley recognised the importance of Milne's achievements. But, as Milne did, he recognised also that they had been derived without the benefit, in interpreting stellar spectra, of a full theory of the formation of spectral lines such as Woolley and some contemporaries had proceeded to develop. So in 1932 Woolley re-discussed some of Milne's problems with the aid of such theory, paying special attention to methods of approximation in the numerical work. In tracing the development of Woolley's astronomical interests this paper may be noted as the first in which he took occasion explicitly to discuss other stars besides the Sun.

In this particular context, one should perhaps comment that a glance at just the titles Woolley chose for, say, any half dozen consecutive papers in the list might suggest an inclination to jump around for topics. Looking at the papers themselves, however, one sees how on the contrary it was the case of one problem leading to another in the disciplined pursuit of a central theme. In the work so far described, for example, the theme was the extraction of the maximum amount of astronomically significant information from the analysis of spectra. Of course, a particular observatory is in general pursuing several themes, with several long-term research programmes running concurrently. An individual astronomer like Woolley is likely to become involved in more than one of these, and he may at intervals publish results in one and in another. We shall notice examples of this with Woolley himself

Another thing about Woolley's work was its professionalism. This I myself put down to his family background; he called both his father's and his mother's families 'professional with some contactwith university circles'. Once, after we had been seeing an American colleague of his at work on a project requiring the marshalling of voluminous information, he did nevertheless remark, 'You see how professional an American can be, we are all amateurs.' I knew what he meant, and it struck home. But personally I should make an exception of Woolley himself as regards the conduct of his science, even if not always his administration.

As regards Woolley's continuing interest in stellar atmospheres and stellar spectra, his move in 1933 to Greenwich had the effect of intensifying two trends in his work, each proving beneficial to the other. One was the extension of his concern with stars other than the Sun, the other was the extension of his interest in solar phenomena. Both were promoted by work in progress at Greenwich.

Woolley found a helpful colleague in the other Chief Assistant W.M.H. Greaves (1897-1955). He was then in charge of a major programme on colour temperatures of stars. Woolley soon wrote papers in which he applied his knowledge of the formation of stellar spectra to the results being obtained.

Woolley came to the conclusion that the continuous absorption coefficient in a stellar atmosphere, the most important parameter determining the star's colour temperature, is the resultant of the effects of all continuous absorption beyond the heads of the line series of all atoms and ions present - significant contributions coming, of course, from the more abundant species producing absorption in frequencies where the radiation is appreciable. Woolley concerned himself specially with the Sun, and he was well aware that astrophysicists were still very uncertain about the relative abundances of the chemical elements. Basically, however, his concept was accepted from about 1934 until, in 1939, R. Wildt (1905-76) at Princeton discovered the paramount role in the context, for stars not greatly different from the Sun, of the negative hydrogen ion.

With regard to solar astronomy, the study of solar activity and of solar-terrestrial relations was at a peak at this period, and Greenwich was a world leader in the field. H.W. Newton (1893-1985) was in charge of the Solar Department; he stimulated Woolley's interest in this study, in both obtaining and interpreting observations. A large part of these came from the use of a Hale spectrohelioscope on loan since 1930 from Mt Wilson. Woolley and Newton constructed ancillary equipment that improved its performance. Woolley was able to interpret the results in terms of his theory of the structure of the solar atmosphere: he showed how the theory could be tested rather rigorously by the way in which the character of lines in the solar spectrum can be observed to vary across the solar disk, especially in the vicinity of the limb. This sort of observation was impossible except for the Sun.

A highlight in this phase of Woolley's involve-ment in solar astronomy was his co-authorship of Eclipses of the Sun and Moon by F.W. Dyson and himself. Sir Frank Dyson (1868-1939), Astromoner Royal 1910-33, was an astronomer of great talent and remarkable versatility. Amongst his manifold astronomical activities, he had been a dedicated, successful and uniquely fortunate observer of total eclipses of the Sun. On his retirement he felt an obligation to write a book to review the scientific outcome of everything of the sort done hitherto. It was a typical inspiration on his part invite so relatively young a colleague as Woolley to share in the work, he must have done so with the agreement of Spencer Jones as Woolley's Director. So far as I know. Woolley never saw a total solar eclipse, but he was able to provide a background of up-to-date solar physics, and incidentally to make the language of the text flow more smoothly than Dyson's more staccato style would have done. The result was an authentic classic of astronomical literature, though an unpretentious one.

As a very young man, Woolley had outstanding teachers in Cape Town. As still a young man entering upon his profession he was closely associated with Stratton and Eddington in Cambridge, and with Adams and Russell at Mt Wilson. And now he enjoyed this priceless collaboration with another renowned leader in astronomy. Manifestly it took a good man to respond adequately to these opportunities, but that man's achievements must also be a tribute to these astronomers who afforded him such opportunities.

The book came out at about the time when Woolley moved back from Greenwich to Cambridge. In the next section we shall see that he took with him a commitment to double-star observing. But he also maintained his interest in stellar atmospheres. Then in 1939 he moved to Australia. The narrative of the war years has shown why he could not publish much research between 1939 and 1946. The two papers he did rather surprisingly manage to publish during that time were quite properly on solar astronomy because he was directing a still nominally 'solar' observatory. He acknowledged help by D.W.N. Stibbs, who had come there in 1941 as a research fellow. But the subject of the papers was convection in the Sun and its possible effect upon any variation of solar radiation across the Sun's disk. So his previous involvement in this topic at Greenwich suggests that he must have been pondering upon it ever since he left there.

Also in solar work when Woolley was at Greenwich, there had been a very active interest in solar-terrestrial relations, but he was not involved in that side of the work. Circumstances at Mt Stromlo just after the war did, however, cause it to win his lively attention. It was a particular interest of his colleague C.W. Allen. Also, as we have seen D.F. Martyn had arrived on the scene, he being a world leader in the study of the Earth's ionosphere. It is evident that the ionosphere must be produced by the action of the Sun upon the Earth's upper atmosphere, because there is nothing else to do this. But at the time no-one had discovered how the inferred electron densities could be produced with-out blandly postulating that the Sun emits a quite implausible amount of radiation in the far ultra-violet. In work reminiscent of what he had done some fifteen years earlier at Mt Wilson, Woolley was able to use his knowledge of the actual solar radiation and of the theory of its transmission through an atmosphere - here again that of the Earth, not the Sun itself - to determine the radiation field at any level in the atmosphere. He reached the general conclusion that the electron density demanded by the radio evidence must be supplied mainly by atmospheric oxygen; more particularly, that the E layer is supplied by the ionization of molecular oxygen, O**2, the F**1 layer by that of N**2 or NO, and the F**2 layer by that of atomic oxygen, O. Woolley outlined this scheme in one paper, refined it in a second, and discussed radiative equilibrium in the ionosphere in a third. In the last he inferred that, in the ionosphere, solar energy is absorbed mainly in the ultraviolet, and re-emitted in the infrared, the absorption begin mainly by O below a height of about 250 km. Also he inferred tiat H**2O is absent higher up than this, the temperature at about 250 km being controlled by negative ions, and at greater heights by dust.

S. Chapman (1888-1970) communicated these papers to the Royal Society. He was another leading scientist who took a continuing interest in Woolley's work, and he had stays at Mt Stromlo in 1949 and 1950. Woolley's ideas in this domain appear to have stood the test of time. Although he and D.F. Martyn remained in close touch and Martyn had some collaboration with some of Woolley's colleagues after this one ionospheric interlude Woolley himself switched back to studying, along with some of these colleagues, what goes on at the solar end of the business.

About a third of the Eclipses book had been devoted to the solar corona. Its total luminosity is about one millionth that of the Sun as a whole, and its total mass is probably less than 10*-l5 solar mass. Nevertheless it is the most spectacular feature of a total eclipse of the Sun, and its existence might never have been suspected had not the Earth possessed a Moon of just the apparent size to cause a total eclipse of the Sun, moving in such an orbit that it does this. Eclipses had fully set out the astro-physical problems, as these had been seen about 1936, presented by the existence of the corona. Great advances in solving many of these problems sprang from the appreciation of solar physicists, following discoveries by W. Grotrian, B. Lyot, and B. Edlen in the 1930s and early 1940s, that the temperature of the corona is between 1 and 2 million degrees Kelvin. In the years 1946-48 Woolley encouraged his associates S.C.B. Gascoigne and C.W. Allen to work with him in this domain. His work with Allen was the most thorough investigation to date of the constitution of the corona; in particular it validated the inference of such a temperature. The paper is now regarded as Woolley's best achievement in the field.

About the same time, another significant excursion in Woolley's scientific concerns was into radio astromony. Important pioneering work was then being done in Australia. Woolley became interested in two of its main topics. One was the general radio emission from the Galaxy. He examined the possibility that this is produced by free-free transitions of electrons in interstellar space. He tried to estimate the kinetic temperature of free electrons in regions near hot stars, and elsewhere. His final inference seemed to be that the detected radio emission could fairly reasonably be accounted for in this way, but that then there would have to be other observable features in the Galaxy that are not in fact found. The other topic was solar radio noise, which he studied along with other special emissions from the Sun, particularly in regard to terrestrial effects.

When Woolley became Astronomer Royal, about the time of the initial discoveries of radio galaxies and their distribution, he wholly recognised those achievements. He was on the best of terms with leading British radio astronomers. They in turn gave Woolley strong support in campaigns for larger optical telescopes in various parts of the world.

This brings us to the time when Woolley and Stibbs must have been at work on The Outer Layers of a Star. (Sir) Harrie Massey had suggested to Woolley that he should invite D.W.N. Stibbs to be co-author. It is a textbook of the astrophysical theory, and its mathematical formulation, underlying most of the work described in the present section. Mainly it does not review the astrophysical results of applying the theory. But chapters on the solar corona and chromosphere were designed partly to bring up-to-date the account of these topics in the Eclipses book of 1937, which was in the same Oxford series of texts. The book most effectively met a very real need when it first appeared and for many years after that. Even today there seems to be a need for something in the modern idiom, but not greatly different in substance.

After the writing of this book, Woolley ceased to work within its domain. Both the contemporary state of evolution of astrophysics, and the expanding horizons of astronomy at Mt Stromlo, made it natural for him to turn his attention to the study of stellar systems. Because of another long-standing astronomical pursuit of his, this denoted a less total discontinuity of interest than might at first appear; to that pursuit we now turn.

Double stars

Greenwich had produced an unanticipated departure in Woolley's interests that turned out to be real start to his career as a devoted observational astronomer, although naturally the type of observation varied as time went on. The importance of observing double stars is well known because in general more can be learnt about a star that is gravitationally bound to a companion than about one that is not. However, it is in only relatively few cases that the stars of such a pair can be seen with a telescope as two separate bodies, and their relative motion can be well determined ('visual binary'). In Woolley's time, Greenwich had a major programme of such work on its 28-inch refractor, with the astronomer L.S.T. Symms (1898-1977) in charge.

I presume that each of the Astronomer Royal's two Chief Assistants had general responsibility under him for a share of the programmed and that this one happened to fall to Woolley. This, I imagine, implied no requirement for him to participate in the observations. But he must have been captivated by the challenge of such work. Evidently he took it up in much the way that at various stages he took up hockey, cricket, golf, country dancing and so forth. As in these pursuits, he strove to make himself an expert, in this particular case in both the making of observations and in the derivation of orbits from them. At the time, he wrote observational papers with Symms and a theoretical paper on his own.

Then on his return to Cambridge in 1937 he immediately set up a programme of 'micrometrical measures of double stars', which he pursued throughout the next two years. He published results for about 80 double and a few triple stars, got from observations on between one and twenty-four nights per system. Later, at Mt Stromlo, he organised a somewhat similar programme for southern stars; results from about 1600 observations made in 1945-47 were published.

After Woolley became Astronomer Royal and he had got all the Greenwich telescopes moved to Herstmonceux, he took the work up again with his original colleague Symms and others, again using the 28-inch refractor: they published results obtained in 1957-63.

It was indeed a characteristic of Woolley that if he once showed enthusiasm for a subject like this, his enthusiasm did persist until he deliberately cut off the particular line for what he judged to be a compelling reason. It was foreign to his character to allow some line of activity simply to wither away. The double-star work illustrates also how he was drawn to something exacting and demanding self-discipline, and requiring the means of observations to be pushed to the utmost of its capability. Besides, this particular line made him feel himself a real astronomer working alongside real astronomers. He used to say that nobody should be called an astronomer who is not accustomed to see the Sun rise at the end of a night's work at the telescope. And if the individual was in a state of exhaustion, so much the more to his credit. When Woolley himself had observing visits to Kottamia in the Egyptian desert with perhaps ten nights in succession each of some twelve hours at the telescope, he would come back to Herstmonceux on the verge of collapse.

Scientific work after about 1955: galactic astronomy

From about his final year at Mt Stromlo, and throughout his years at RGO, Woolley's own astronomical work dealt principally with our Milky Way Galaxy, its structure and dynamics. His study was mainly of what may be based upon detailed observations of the contents of the system within a few thousand parsecs of the Sun. But he was of course prepared to apply what could be learnt in this way to the discussion of phenomena in more extended regions. He enlisted the ready co-operation of a succession of younger colleagues, and organised it in such a way that he was able to have several major programmes running in parallel. Although they ran that way, they must be described in sequence.

Star clusters

The immediate stimulus for much of Woolley's interest in this field was the important study carried out at Mt Stromlo by G. de Vaucouleurs of the brightness distribution across elliptical galaxies. This was essentially empirical; Woolley took up the challenge to develop a physical theory of physical systems of the type concerned. The type is basically that of an isolated aggregate of stars, in an effectively steady state as a whole, each star moving under no influence other than the gravitational attractions of all the rest. In the dynamical theory, Woolley in general treated the stars as equal point-masses. Making certain mathematical simplifications, he studied first the problem of the 'equilibrium' of a globular star cluster. His main special assumption was that the velocity distribution of the stars is what he called 'truncated Maxwellian'.

An actual globular cluster belonging to the Galaxy is typically a system of 105 to 107 stars at a distance from the Sun of more than 5000 parsecs. Consequently it is difficult to secure sufficient observational material about one to make detailed tests of theoretical predictions. On the other hand, a so-called 'open cluster' or 'galactic cluster' contains on the order of 100 stars, and its distance may be around 100 parsecs. So long as it remains a recognisable cluster it presents basically the same dynamical problem, but the observational information;about it can be far more comprehensive than that for any globular cluster. So this was where Woolley's studies of nearer regions of the Galaxy came into this field of investigation.

Woolley carried out the first exhaustive tests of the theory by making use of the considerable store of observations of the Pleiades. This is the best-known 'open duster'; its distance from the Sun is about 130 parsecs and Woolley used a list of 291 members. The results of the tests were encouraging.

Over the next several years Woolley extended the study to a number of actual globular clusters, using some published observations but to an increasing degree observations made by him and his colleagues, mainly at Mt Wilson and Pretoria. In particular they made w Centauri probably the most extensively observed ever of all such objects, so that it became a sort of RGO mascot. It was in this object that Woolley and G.A. Harding were the first to detect resultant rotation in any globular cluster

On the theoretical side Woolley and his collaborators extended the work to indude the effect of such rotation, and also to take account of close encounters that could result in the ejection of stars from a cluster. Early on, he had also discussed tidal effects of the rest of the Galaxy upon the structure and stability of a cluster. One of the most important out-comes was estimates of masses of globular clusters that showed the mass-to-light ratio for a cluster as a whole to have about the same value as that for the Sun.

During the time when the work on globular clusters was in spate, Woolley chose to make a progress report upon it the topic of his Halley Lecture delivered in April 1961.

Besides serving its immediate purpose, in its published form the lecture gives a revealing impression of Woolley at work.

He started from a clear conception of the problems to be solved and of their significance for the rest of astronomy; he had worked out the essential theory for himself, he or his collaborators knew the literature; he procured the best possible new observational material, he and his team analysed all the available relevant material; he compared observation and theory with powerful critical insight; and he identified supplementary and consequential problems so that he saw clearly where to go next.

Such work was and remains the basic 'natural his-tory' of the observed cosmos. Current models of the systems studied by Woolley are, as Lynden-Bell has remarked, the 'natural successors to Woolley's'; they exist because their discoverers had Woolley's models from which to start.

RR Lyrae variable stars

By virtue of relations between period and absolute luminosity, certain classes of variable stars are invaluable astronomical'standard-candle' distance indicators. Within the Galaxy and its globular clusters the class most useful in this capacity is that of 'RR Lyrae variables'. These are valuable also as revealing some of the kinematic history of the older-population stars in the Galaxy. Thus they were a crucial element in Woolley's study of the structure and mechanics of this Galaxy. He organised systematic investigations by various colleagues at Herstmonceux. The published text of his second Presidential Address to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in 1965 is a comprehensive survey of what had become known on the subject by that time. It paid special attention to the galactic orbits of these stars. In the same year a paper with RGO collaborators gave a new calibration of absolute magnitudes of RR Lyrae stars that has proved to be of enduring usefulness.

These stars remained a lasting interest of Woolley. They were the topic of his own contribution to the Woolley Symposium in 1971, when he summarized the massive investigation by himself and Ann Savage. Also they were in 1978 the topic of his last research paper. The discussion in it of statistical features of the motion of RR Lyrae stars 'is still much discussed as an important datum on the nature of orbits of the stars in the Galaxy's halo', as Professor Lynden-Bell assures me.

Magellanic Clouds

As every southern hemisphere astronomer is bound to be, Woolley was in a general way much interested in the Clouds of Magellan, although during his time at Mt Stromlo he had not himself worked on them. His increasing interest in the astronomy of the Galaxy was, however, guaranteed to induce him to look to the Clouds to provide the opportunity for comparative studies, as they are much the nearest comparable systems. In particular, Woolley had become engrossed by the great value of RR Lyrae stars for galactic studies. And he had naturally been deeply impressed by the significance of A.D. Thackeray's announcement in 1952 of his discovery of such stars in the Clouds. It was surely Woolley's wish to extend his galactic studies, in which he had found the RR Lyrae stars so valuable, to the Magellanic Clouds, and his expectation of finding these stars similarly useful therein, that made him eager to work on the Clouds even when he was no longer in the right hemisphere.

The ensuing campaign was wholly typical of Woolley. He was about to occupy and exploit new astronomical territory. As he would admit, Thackeray and his associates in Pretoria, as well as astronomers at Mt Stromlo, had done the pioneering exploration. Woolley's systematic follow-up required a larger team, with experienced leaders, employing all available resources. He had his enthusiastic younger colleagues based at the RGO, he gained the co-operation of the directors of the Cape (Stoy) and Radcliffe (Thackeray) Observatories, and he enlisted the temporary assistance of distinguished U.S. observers, O.J. Eggen (already an RGO colleague) and A.R. Sandage. The observations were made in South Africa; most of their reduction and analysis was done at Herstmonceux. Stars in selected fields in the Clouds were studied exhaustively by photographic and photoelectric photometry and spectroscopy for magnitude, colour, spectra, radial motion and variability. Membership of the Large Magellanic Cloud could be checked by comparing plates taken at the Cape with the same telescope in 1912 and 1960, a star showing perceptible proper motion in this interval being rejected as not a Cloud member.

The exercise started in 1958; the main results were published in a series of substantial reports, 'Studies in the Magellanic Clouds I to VII', over the years 1960-1965 and Woolley described the work at various conferences.

All observations in the programme were completed nearly thirty years ago. Inevitably astronomical investigations of this nature, however excellent they were by the standards of their day, sooner or later come to be superseded by others got by means of newer techniques. That has happened here, a big factor in this case being the employment of large Schmidt telescopes that had been unavailable in the southern hemisphere until the 1970s. But each major first-class programme such as Woolley's is in its turn an essential step in the forward progress of a subject.

A logistic feature made this particular enterprise possible, and probably unique. The DSIR gave Woolley 'a substantial grant' over five years from 1958 for 'the photometry of southern objects'. Normally, one government body like DSIR would not be permitted to give financial assistance to another like the Admiralty, which then administered the RGO. In this case the DSIR could probably proceed on the basis that a large part of the observing was being performed at the Radcliffe Observatory, which was not a government establishment, by astronomers of whom some, like Sandage, were not employed by the government. The proceeding was to the credit of the DSIR of the time and of Woolley's enterprise and ability in negotiating with it.

Nearby stars: stellar motions

The first book published, as long ago as 1914, by A.S. Eddington was Stellar Movements and the Structure of the Universe. In 1958 Woolley gave an Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution in London with almost the same title. The similarity must have been intended by Woolley as a tribute to his revered master. For Eddington had demonstrated how the study of the motions of the stars was the key to learning from their apparent positions, apparent magnitudes, colours and parallaxes 'the nature and organization of the great system which they constitute'. Eddington had to declare the study to be 'still in its infancy'; Woolley had a major share in assembling empirical material to carry it forward. The purposes in doing so he explained in his discourse, as well as in his Presidential Address to Section A of the British Association in 1960 at Cardiff. He liked explicity to refer to Eddington, and to demonstrate how he sought to answer 'particular queries in Eddington's book'.

Between 1958 and 1978 Woolley was author or co-author of some dozen papers on the space-motions of 'nearby' stars, meaning for the most part stars within 25 parsecs of the Sun.

Thanks to the work of Eddington, followed by fundamental studies by J.H. Oort, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and others, astronomers understood in their essentials the basic structure and mechanics of the Galaxy, at any rate of its observed stellar system - which had been the 'Universe' of 1914. Therefore an astronomer like Woolley could know what studies in his day would best help to refine such understanding. To this end it was desired to know about the galactic orbits of stars in large regions of the Galaxy. But the space-velocity of a star could be well determined for most sorts of star only if they were fairly nearby, say within 25 parsecs. As regards stars that at any epoch are near the Sun, existing studies told Woolley that 'most...wander a kiloparsec around their mean distance from the centre of the Galaxy; many...wander twice as much'. So if Woolley could observe all the stars now within any neighbourhood of the Sun that contains a fair number, he would be observing stars that, in their galactic orbits, had been, or were going to be, 'wandering' through an annulus of the Galaxy having radial extent of several thousand parsecs. Actually, therefore, he would have a sample of the stars that at any epoch occupy that annulus; that is, a representative sample of a large part of the Galaxy.

Woolley chose the neighbourhood within 25 parsecs of the Sun to give stars near enough to avoid selection effects, and numerous enough to provide a significant sample. Probably the most valuable outcome of work in this domain by Woolley and his colleagues at RGO was the critical Catalogue of Stars within Twenty-five Parsecs (1970) and its statistical analysis. For the 1744 systems catalogued (stars, double stars, multiple stars) it used much published material, but Woolley's staff had determined many new parallaxes and proper motions, and re-determined others.

Another key development, which was recent when Woolley started work, was that of the study of stellar evolution. This gave information about stellar ages, so that if Woolley could determine the galactic orbit of a star of known age, he could infer where its birthplace in the Galaxy had been. A merit of Woollers work was in demonstrating the feasibility of such studies.

In the general field of this department of Woolley's interests, his main observational programme - apart from that for the parallaxes and proper motions just mentioned - was that for measuring radial velocities of G- and K-type stars (mostly giant stars and mostly, of course, much further away than 25 parsecs). It was started at Helwan (Kottamia) and completed at RGO. The resulting catalogue compiled by the RGO and Helwan astronomers, after a summary had appeared in 1977, was published in full in 1981. It gives velocities for over 1200 stars derived fron 3700 spectra.

Galactic orbits

Every component of the Galaxy - single star, internally bound system, interstellar cloud - is in 'galactic orbit' in the gravitational field of the whole. The orbits are concentrated towards the central plane and almost all traversed in the same sense, this as a whole being the phenomenon of rotation of the Galaxy. As indicated, Woolley's work on nearby stars and their space-motions was mainly a prelude to the study of galactic orbits.

If P is a point distant r from the galactic centre O and if OP makes an angle theta with the galactic plane, Woolley gave reasons for the gravitational potential at P being well represented, for small enough theta, by a function of r only plus a function of theta only divided by r*2. If a star is bound in such a field its orbit can be confined inside an annular 'box' having theta between plus/minus i, r, r between pi/( l plus/minus e), where pi, i, e are invariants of the motion. Woolley studied 'box orbits' extensively.

Along with M.P. Candy he studied the scattering of such orbits in interaction with a massive interstellar cloud depicted as a local singularity in the potential field. This work was note-worthy because, as related above, it made Woolley an enthusiastic convert to the use of modern computing in such applications. It was noteworthy also because the gravitational effects of 'giant molecular clouds' in the Galaxy has aquired renewed topical interest in recent years.

An interesting by-product of Woolley's work arose when O. Wilson from California Institute of Technology, visited RGO in 1969. He had extensively observed intensities of emission lines of ionised calcium in the spectra of late-type main-sequence stars. He had discovered a correlation between these intensities and the ages of the stars inferred from other properties. Wilson and Woolley then found such ages to agree well with the 'kinematic ages' derived by Woolley from his galactic orbits of some of the same stars. This work produced the unexpected inference that a large fraction of the stars near the sun are relatively young. As they thought, this seemed to indicate that the raw material for star formation is still arriving in this part of the Galaxy. Again this is a problem that is still being debated.

Local density of gravitating matter

Woolley was long concerned about the mean density of gravitating matter near the galactic plane in the vicinity of the Sun. Its value happens to be crucial for the fixing of the numerical value of a no. of other parameters of the Galaxy. Woolley was able to infer a value of the density from the dependence of the mean stellar speed upon distance from the galactic plane derived from his observational material. He compared this with the density obtained from the estimated masses of observed stars in the region. He concluded that this comparison did not demand the existence in the region of any considerable amount of what is now called 'dark matter'. In this conclusion he differed from a no. of other investigators before and since. Neverthless the most recent more sophisticated studies tend to favour Woolley's conclusions, although the question cannot even yet be regarded as settled.

This and several other instances in the present review of Woolley's contributions demonstrate how he played an important part in opening up tracts of astronomical research that have ever since demanded attention. Numbers of his own papers on these continue to call for serious study. Also, catalogues of measurements that he instigated and helped to compile are of important permanent value.

General writings and addresses

The whole object of Woolley's working life was to do astronomy himself, and to get others doing it, with the aim of learning as much as possible about the physical Universe - what it is and how it works. He wanted always to get on with this job. He did not seek to talk or write about it, except in efforts to promote this aim. Manifestly he regarded it as a worthy end in itself He was happy to find new phenomena and to account for them by known physics. I do not think that he looked to discover new physics, or that he worried much about anything called 'meaning' or 'significance'.

As a young man Woolley brought out a small popular book, A Key to the Stars, which was written probably before he left Cambridge to go to Greenwich, for it appeared in 1934. In the preface he averred 'that the latest developments, the fields in which speculation is still rife and knowledge has not yet been won for certain, are less suitable for popular exposition than the demonstrable results which are well studied and well known and which partake of the character of the laws of Nature...In some sense there is certainty in science, and this certain knowledge I have tried to exhibit, argued as well as is possible to a lay reader who has no knowledge of either mathematics or physics.' The book was an excellent introduction to the astronomy of the day in so far as it met Woolley's criterion of 'certainty'. It evidently found a responding readership, for new editions were called for in 1952 and 1957. But today I think that readers expect to be told about today's - or tomorow's - speculations.

Over the years it fell to Woolley to deliver numerous presidential addresses, invited lectures and the like, some of which are mentioned elsewhere in this memoir. Mostly he chose simply to present a straightforward general account of research in which he was involved,and so to convey a valid impression of what the prosecution of such research is actually like, all presented in much the spirit of that preface written so early in his career.

Occasionally, however, Woolley more explicitly expounded his aims, and his view of the prospects of attaining them. A revealing example was his first Presidential Address to the RAS in 1964. His declared theme, 'Observation in the Southern Hemisphere', did indeed run through most of it. But somehow he contrived at the same time to range over almost every aspect of British astronomy and its current and future status in the world - how research programmed particularly to do with Galactic astronomy, ought to be selected, with examples; the need for a large southern telescope of about 150-inch aperture, and what was being done about this; the branches of contemporary astronomy, optical, radio, space.

He mentioned that 'a considerable team has been working for several years at Herstmonceux on w Centauri', this work being described elsewhere in this memoir. Then he went out of his way to comment that 'So comprehensive an attack on a particular topic...could hardly be made without calling on resources of a large observatory such as the Royal Greenwich Observatory.' The execution of such programmes is crucial to our understanding of the physical Universe. Woolley's comment turns out to be even more pertinent today than when he made it, for the Research Council that now administers the RGO has come to regard this as existing primarily to provide observational facilities for research to be carried out by university departments that obviously cannot hope to have such facilities of their own. The Council regards the RGO as not itself being primarily a research establishment. This policy is fundamentally mistaken, if the RGO has to provide instruments that other astronomers cannot provide for themselves, it must also provide research results that those astronomers cannot provide for themselves. One wonders whether Woolley, when making his comment, may have foreseen the change of policy that could follow a change of administration.

Woolley concluded this address by reiterating his conviction that 'the centre of gravity of the observational attack on problems of the Galaxy is...within the province of the great ground-based reflecting telescope, and will be pursued by the sort of astronomers who use these telescopes and who are accustomed to seeing the dawn break upon their nightly labours'. Thanks in great measure to Woolley's preparatory efforts, and thanks to the enterprise of the Council that I have criticised on other grounds, some of the greatest such telescopes now in use are British instruments.

Nevertheless, in the address Woolley had given full recognition to the parts to be played by radio astronomy and space astronomy. It is pleasant to notice that just before its delivery he had presented the Gold Medal of the RAS to Martin Ryle for his outstanding contributions to the development of radio astronomy - the first such award to a radio astronomer - for which Woolley expressed generous admiration.


Woolley married Gwyneth (Jane Margaret) Meyler in 1932. She shared Woolley's musical tastes; they possessed two grand pianos and in the evening in Herstmonceux Castle it was usual to hear them playing duets with considerable virtuosity. Health permitting, she was a charming hostess. Before they left Australia she became something of a recluse and this persisted through most of their time at Herstmonceux. On the somewhat rare occasions when she accompanied Woolley on social occasions, however, or when she cared to entertain in the Castle, she was as charming as ever. And she showed that she knew everything about what was going on around her. She seemed rather better during their time in South Africa, and also when they retired from there to occupy a pleasant house, which they had acquired a few years earlier, in the small Sussex village of Hankham, a few miles from Herstmonceux. However she died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1979. There had been no children. Gwyneth's friends are now convinced that her 'illness' of so many years was anorexia. It seems to be part of this affliction to develop an uncanny ability to hide it from those closest to the victim. If Woolley could be sometimes somewhat abrupt with a colleague we ought to appreciate that he had for so long a time to endure the bafflement of Gwyneth's inexplicable condition. He was shattered by her death; soon afterwards, he developed some eye trouble requiring hospital treatment.

Mrs (Emily May) Patricia Marples was a lady to whom the worldwide community of astronomers, and above all everyone in the RGO, owed an enormous debt. She was a 'war widow' who, soon after RGO went to Herstmonceux, had been entrusted with the domestic arrangements throughout the Castle, other than those in the Astronomer Royal's living quarters. So she organised the catering for everyone, the lodging of observers, astronomical visitors including conference members, and vacation students, and occasional more ambitious social occasions. Everybody concerned in any of these ways carried away the happiest recollections of the personal welcome they had enjoyed. Mrs Marples was also a wonderful support for Gwyneth Woolley. About the time of the Woolleys' return from South Africa she had retired to her house in Yorkshire. Her friends and his were pleased to learn some months after he had left hospital that she and Woolley were to be married.

Soon after that, they decided to live in South Africa where Patricia devoted herself to looking after Woolley's health. A succession of astronomical friends visited them there and for several years brought back reassuring reports of their wellbeing. But then in 1985 we learned that they had both been seriously ill and shortly afterwards that Patricia had died.

In due course Woolley recovered, but was left with rather bad sight. About the end of 1985 he married Sheila Gillham, who had earlier lectured in English at Stellenbosch University but retired as Vice-Principal of Herschel at the end of that year. Herschel - a multi-racial Anglican girls' school - is so named because the astronomer Sir John Herschel owned the estate on which it stands. They enjoyed their shared literary interests. After a bad fall, Woolley died on Christmas Eve in 1986. It was a consolation to all his friends that at least he had not had to endure impairment of his mental faculties, which he would surely have found hard to bear. But heartfelt sympathy went to his widow at this sudden bereavement.

Many friends attended his funeral at Somerset West, Cape, South Africa. On 2 May 1987 a memorial service was held in the Chapel of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Woolley will be remembered as the man who was seen, when it was most needed, to infuse great vigour into British optical astronomy. As he was always ready to point out, Britain's optical astronomers had never ceased to be leaders in southern hemisphere astronomy nor in solar astronomy. But at home they had no ready access to the sort of telescopic power available to American astronomers, although they were expecting to have the INT. Woolley was the man to make them want to get things done wherever they were.

Woolley lived to know that the INT was having a new lease of life on La Palma, the AAT and the U.K. Schmidt were doing great things in the southern hemisphere, and so were both the Radcliffe Telescope on its new site at Sutherland and the similar telescope he had got on Mt Stromlo. All these were enterprises in which he had played a foremost part, all actually for users other than himself And he knew about the advanced state of the great Herschel 4.2 metre telescope that would not have come at all had not his own efforts led up to it.

He had left his mark upon much galactic astronomy as a result of his own researches. But his greatest contribution was in the no. of younger astronomers he had inspired and launched upon fruitful careers of their own in all three continents where he had lived and laboured.

In preparing this memoir I have consulted many from this number. Without exception, every one of these has summed up his or her reply by some variant of 'you will see that I have had to criticise some of the things he did and we had our differences, but I came to respect him highly and altogether I do owe a great deal to him, and we remained good friends'. Maybe to inspire such a combination of sentiments was the key to his ultimate success with such people - wanting to criticise brought home his humanity, and respect won in spite of criticisms was all the more significant.

Dr A. Hunter, Director RGO 1973-75, allows me to quote his remarks at a farewell party for Woolley when he was leaving RGO at the end of 1971. After recalling that he had worked under Woolley for a long time, he continued 'long enough to say with confidence that his every action was informed by a determination to support the position of RGO in the world of astronomy; and to ensure, if possible, that he handed on to his successor an establishment in better shape than when he took it over. You cannot ask more of a director than that.'

Honours and distinctions


In 1953 Woolley started to write an autobiographical sketch, with the declared intention of depositing it with the Royal Society. He got as far as a brief mention of his two years, 1937-39, as J.C. Adams Astronomer in Cambridge, and apparently never resumed the undertaking. Lady (Sheila) Woolley has kindly given me a copy of what he did leave.

In the case of someone whose working life has been divided between such widely separated places in three continents as Woolley's was, anyone attempting to give an account of it must be particularly dependent upon information supplied by those who knew him in these various locations. I am deeply indebted to the following besides Lady Woolley and Woolley's sister-in-law, Mrs R. Bennett, who have helped in this way: C. Benn, O.J. Eggen, M.W. Feast, S.C.B. Gascoigne, F.J. Hewitt, R.W. Home, A. Hunter, D.H.P. Jones, Sir Bernard Lovell, D. Lynden-Bell, M. Moran, C.A. Murray, F.R.N. Nabarro, B.E.J. Pagel, M.J. and Margaret Penston, J.D. Pope, the late D.H. Sadler, C.B. Schedvin, D.W.N. Stibbs, R.H. Stoy, P.A. Wayman. Sir Frederick White, G.J. Whitrow and G.A. Wilkins, as well as others whom I have from time to time consulted orally. I wish that space would permit me to particularise more. At least I must specially thank Professor Lynden-Bell and Professor Pagel for expert opinions on much of Woolley's contribution to astronomy (although I take responsibility for views expressed here). And I am greatly indebted to Professor Lynden-Bell, to Janet Dudley, lately Librarian and Archivist at RGO, to Jonathan Hutchins, Librarian, and Adam Perkins, Archivist, at RGO for invaluable help with archival and bibliographic material, and to Mrs Pauline Hinton for putting the bibliography into the form required for the present purpose.

The photographs were taken in about 1963 and about 1978 and are published with permission of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

Sir William McCrea FRS, is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the Astronomy Centre, University of Sussex, England. This notice is substantially identical with that published in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 34, 1988. It had been re-set for the present purpose; in seeing this version through the press the author gladly acknowledges the help of Professor S.C.B. Gascoigne and Professor R.W. Home.

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 7, no. 3, 1988.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

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