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COLLECTION Identifier: UAV 630.37

Records of the Harvard College Observatory Director Donald H. Menzel


Donald Howard Menzel (1901-1976), astronomer and astrophysicist, served as director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1952 until his retirement in 1966. The Records of the Harvard College Observatory Director Donald H. Menzel consist chiefly of incoming and outgoing letters with a variety of correspondents, including many notable scientists from the United States and abroad, and document the research and administrative activities of the Harvard College Observatory from 1951 to 1969. Also chronicled is Menzel's work with professional organizations and government agencies, particularly the Smithsonian Institution.


  • 1951-1969


Researcher Access

This series is open for research with the following exception: Personnel and student records are closed for 80 years. Specific restrictions are noted at the subseries and folder levels; please see reference staff for details.


34.1 cubic feet (86 document boxes, 18 oversized folders, 16 half-document boxes, 2 legal half-document boxes, 1 legal document box, 1 pamphlet folder, 1 flat box)

The Records of Harvard College Observatory Director Donald H. Menzel document his tenure as head of the Observatory from 1952 to 1966. The records primarily consist of correspondence between Menzel and a variety of correspondents, including notable scientists from the United States and abroad, publishers, politicians and government agencies, businesspeople, and numerous professional organizations and projects. The stature and diversity of Menzel’s correspondents, which include Senator John F. Kennedy, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, director Frank Capra, and astronomer Carl Sagan, demonstrate his popularity and influence both within his field and beyond. Menzel fielded many letters from the general public, as well, particularly aspiring and amateur astronomers, who often asked for his advice and opinions. He was also popular with children, giving regular talks on astronomy at the Observatory for youths. He received many letters from kids, who addressed him as “Donald Duck.”

Menzel continued the Observatory’s dedicated and established history of employing and supporting female astronomers, corresponding and collaborating with women from around the world, including the Observatory’s Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, whose correspondence features prominently throughout the collection.

Topics of discussion include astronomical theories, events, and phenomena, and the administrative, scientific, and teaching functions of the Observatory. Correspondence with various Harvard University departments and personnel gives insight into the daily operations, functions, educational activities, staffing considerations, equipment needs, and finances and budgets of the Observatory. These subjects are reflected throughout the collection, particularly in internal memoranda and in letters between Menzel and Harvard president Nathan Pusey and deans McGeorge Bundy and Franklin L. Ford. There are also several blueprints and diazos of scientific equipment and Observatory buildings found throughout the correspondence series. There is substantial correspondence throughout the 1950s and 1960s related to the financial and administrative issues facing Boyden Station in South Africa. Also captured is the Observatory's agreement with the Smithsonian to transfer its Astrophysical Observatory in Washington, D.C. to the grounds of Observatory in 1955. Additionally, Menzel published extensively on what he viewed as “the myth” of flying saucers, and many letters in this series discuss his opinions regarding UFOs.

In addition to Menzel's correspondence, the records also contain letters, grant proposals, reports, and other records detailing the modernization of equipment and the construction of new buildings for the Harvard College Observatory, particularly at the George R. Agassiz Station (now known as the Oak Ridge Observatory) in Harvard, Massachusetts, and the erection of a new Observatory office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Historical note on the Harvard College Observatory

The Harvard College Observatory was founded in 1839 by the Harvard Corporation after decades of attempts to develop an observatory at Harvard University. Under the Observatory's first two directors, William Cranch Bond and his son, George Phillips Bond, the Observatory began an extensive study of the Orion Nebula and Saturn, discovering the eighth satellite of Saturn, Hyperion in 1848; and the dark inner ring of Saturn (the Crepe Ring) in 1850. Pioneers in astrophotography, the Bonds produced the first recognizable daguerreotype of the Moon and the star Vega in 1850; and the first photographic print of the Moon in 1857. The Observatory became the world's foremost producer of stellar spectra and magnitudes, established an observing station in Peru, and applied mass-production techniques to the analysis of data during the directorship of Edward C. Pickering from 1877 to 1919. Harlow Shapley, director of the Observatory in the 1950s, expanded the scope of the Observatory's galactic research tracking minor planets and asteroids in the Solar System and increasing its telescopic power with the establishment of the Oak Ridge station, also known as the George R. Agassiz Station, in Harvard, Massachusetts. In the 1960s and 1970s, Observatory directors Donald H. Menzel and Leo Goldberg maintained programs in solar and stellar astrophysics and space astronomy. In 1973, the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (founded in 1890) merged to form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The Center is a research institute that carries on studies in astronomy, astrophysics, earth and space sciences, and science education.

Biographical note on Donald Howard Menzel

Donald Howard Menzel (1901-1976), astronomer and astrophysicist, was the acting director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1952 to 1954, and then was appointed permanent director, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. Menzel received his AB degree in chemistry in 1920 and an AM degree in chemistry and mathematics the following year from the University of Denver. From Princeton University, he received an AM in astronomy in 1923, and a PhD in astrophysics in 1924. Before joining the Harvard College Observatory in 1932, Menzel was an instructor at the University of Iowa (1924 to 1925), an Assistant Professor at Ohio State University (1925 to 1926), and Assistant Astronomer at Lick Observatory of the University of California (1926 to 1932).

Menzel's general field of research included astrophysics, with a specialization on problems related to the sun and the solar system, and the interpretation of stellar and nebular spectra. During his lifetime, he participated in sixteen solar eclipse expeditions. Under Menzel's leadership, the Harvard College Observatory became a significant center for radio astronomy and space research. His most notable achievement was bringing the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from Washington, D.C. to Cambridge, to share facilities with the Harvard College Observatory, which resulted in the establishment of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1973. Menzel held several positions at Harvard University, including Assistant Professor (1932 to 1935), Associate Professor (1935 to 1938), Professor of Astrophysics (1938 to 1954), Paine Professor of Astronomy (1954 to 1970), and Associate Director of Solar Research (1946 to 1954).

Over the course of his career, Menzel published more than 25 books, several of which discussed UFOs, a topic about which he felt strongly. In 1968, Menzel testified before a United States House Committee on Science and Astronautics Symposium on UFOs, explaining that he considered all UFO sightings to have natural explanations and that they were not evidence of alien life.

He married Florence Kreager in 1926; they met during Menzel’s time as a professor at Ohio State, where she was a student. Florence was always involved in Observatory functions, becoming friendly with Observatory students, faculty, and employees. The couple had two daughters, Suzanne and Elizabeth.

Menzel retired as director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1966, following health issues stemming from a heart attack. He died in 1976.


The records are arranged in two series:

  1. Correspondence files, 1952-1966 (UAV 630.37)
  2. Records relating to Observatory buildings and facilities, 1951-1969 (UAV 630.37.15)


The Records of the Harvard College Observatory Director Donald H. Menzel were received by the Harvard University Archives before 1980.

Related Materials

The Harvard University Archives also holds :

  1. Papers of Donald H. Menzel, 1931-1986 (HUG 4567):
  2. Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Portraits, approximately 1852-approximately 2004 (HUP):
  3. Records of the Department of Astronomy, 1919-1984 (UAV 169.xx)


  • Gingerich, Owen, Leo Goldberg, John H. Van Vleck, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Memorial Minute: Donald Howard Menzel. Harvard University Gazette 23 (March 2, 1979).
  • Goldberg, Leo. "Donald Howard Menzel." Sky and Telescope 53 (April 1977) : 244-251.
  • Menzel, Donald H. Curriculum vitae. 1976. Biographical files. Harvard University Archives (HUG 300).

Inventory update

This document last updated 2023 January 04.

Processing Information

The Records of the Harvard College Observatory Director Donald H. Menzel were initially processed in March-April 2020 by Dominic P. Grandinetti. Processing included the establishment of a series hierarchy and the creation of this finding aid.

Additional processing work was completed by Olivia Mandica-Hart in April-August 2022. This work included enhanced description, physical re-housing, and the determination and separation of restricted materials.

Original folder titles were retained. Dates, notes, and titles supplied by the archivist appear in brackets. In all respects, the archivist attempted to retain and preserve the original arrangement and existing relationships of the documents as established by Donald H. Menzel. Processing and arrangement details of each series are noted at the series level.

Harvard College Observatory. Records of the Harvard College Observatory Director Donald H. Menzel, 1951-1969: an inventory
Harvard University Archives
June 21, 2022
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Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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