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Summary Article: Struve, Otto von (1897-1963) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United States of America, Russian Federation

Subject: biography, astronomy

Russian-born US astronomer, the last of four generations of a family of eminent astronomers. He contributed to many areas of stellar astronomy, but was best known for his work on interstellar matter and stellar and nebular spectroscopy.

Struve was born on 12 August 1897 at Kharkov in Russia. He studied at the Gymnasium at Kharkov before entering a school for artillery training in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in 1915. He served in the Imperial Russian Army on the Turkish front during World War I. After the war he studied at the University of Kharkov, where he was awarded a degree with top honours in 1919. He was conscripted into the counter-revolutionary White Army during the Civil War in 1919, but he fled to Turkey in 1920.

With the aid of E B Frost, director of the Yerkes Observatory, Struve went to the USA in 1921. He became an assistant at the observatory and studied for his doctorate, which was awarded in 1923. He then rose to the ranks of instructor (1924), assistant (1927) and associate (1930) professor, and assistant director of the observatory (1931). He became professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago in 1932. When Frost retired in 1932, Struve was made director of the Yerkes Observatory. He was also the founder director of the McDonald Observatory in Texas.

Struve taught at the University of Chicago until 1950, when he became professor of astrophysics and director of the Leuschner Observatory at the University of California at Berkeley. He left in 1959 to become director of the newly established National Radioastronomy Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia. He retired because of ill-health in 1962, but was appointed joint professor of the Institute of Advanced Studies and California Institute of Technology.

Struve was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society. He was the recipient of numerous honours including the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1944 and the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1950. He died on 6 April 1963 in Berkeley.

Struve's early work was on stellar spectroscopy and the positions of comets and asteroids. Spectroscopic analysis of interstellar space had fascinated him from early in his career, as had double stars. He did early work on stellar rotation and demonstrated the rotation of blue-giant stars and the relationship between stellar temperature (and hence spectral type) and speed of rotation. In 1931 he found, as he had anticipated, that stars that spun at a high rate deposited gaseous material around their equators.

In 1936, together with C T Elvey, Struve developed a nebular spectrograph that was used to study interstellar gas clouds. In 1938 they were able to demonstrate for the first time that ionized hydrogen is present in interstellar matter. They also determined that interstellar hydrogen is concentrated in the galactic plane. These observations had important implications for later work on the structure of our Galaxy and for radio astronomy.

Struve was also interested in theories of the evolution of stars, planetary systems, and the universe as a whole. He believed that the establishment of a planetary system should be thought of as the normal course of events in stellar evolution and not a freak occurrence. Struve's contributions to astronomy were of fundamental importance to the fast-growing science of the present century, just as his forefathers' work had been in their time.

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.

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