Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: HUG 4876

Papers of Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1929-1997


Fred Lawrence Whipple, Phillips Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University (1950-1977) and former director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (1955-1973), is a world renowned expert on comets. He is the independent discoverer of six comets.


  • 1929-1997


Conditions on Use and Access

Access to this collection requires the permission of the donor. Please consult the reference staff for further details. Additional restrictions may apply to some material; see restriction note in the Correspondence Series.


12 cubic feet (26 document boxes, 2 folders)

The Papers of Fred Lawrence Whipple document his studies in astronomy and astrophysics while at the Harvard College Observatory and at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The bulk of the collection consists of correspondence with colleagues, friends, students, university officials, amateur astronomers, professional associations, and government agencies. It also includes a small amount of material related to the subject matter Whipple taught at Harvard University.


Fred Lawrence Whipple (1906-2004), Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University (1945-1977) is a world-renowned expert on comets. His theory on the nature of cometary nuclei published in 1950 revolutionized and advanced the science of astronomy and astrophysics. Whipple has published over 200 papers and books and has written on such diverse topics as comet and asteroid orbits, variable stars, novae and supernovae, the nature of galaxies, planetary nebulae, the earth's upper atmosphere, and solar system evolution.

Whipple was born on November 5, 1906 in Red Oak, Iowa to Henry Lawrence and Celestia (MacFarland) Whipple. The Whipples were farmers, and Fred shared the responsibility of attending to the family farm while going to school. In 1921 Whipple's father moved the family to California and opened a grocery store where Fred worked part-time.

After graduating from Long Beach High School (1923), Whipple spent one year at Occidental College (1923-1924) before moving on to the University of California at Los Angles. Here he majored in mathematics and graduated in 1927. Concluding that mathematics was too boring and excited by the possibilities of astronomy, Whipple changed fields and in 1931 he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. During this early period of study, Whipple used logarithms as mathematical tools to determine the future course of comets based on their observed positions in the past. He also began his study of variable stars and constellations and helped calculate the orbit of the newly discovered planet of Pluto.

Whipple's long association with Harvard University began in 1931 when he became the program director for the Harvard College Observatory. Under his direction, the Observatory developed the use of double station photography to study the precise velocity and deceleration of meteors. These studies led Whipple to conclude that meteors consisted of the loose fragile material that came from comets and that meteors did not originate beyond our solar system. Whipple established his leadership role in the scientific community during the 1930s after he personally scanned 70,000 sky-survey photographic plates with an hand magnifier and discovered six new comets. For his efforts he was awarded several Donohue medals. In 1932 Whipple was appointed an instructor in astronomy at Harvard and a lecturer in 1938.

During World War II, Whipple worked for the Harvard Radio Research Laboratories (1942-1945) and directed the development of confusion reflectors that were designed to disrupt German radar. These reflectors were small pieces of aluminum foil that, when dropped from Allied planes, simulated a multitude of aircraft. For his work on this project, Whipple received a Presidential Certificate of Merit in 1948. After the war, Whipple returned to the Observatory. In 1945 he was appointed an Associate Professor and finally, Phillips Professor of Astronomy in 1968.

Whipple became an active leader in upper-atmospheric research using meteor photography during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He photographed meteors simultaneously from a telescope camera in Cambridge and from one at Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts; between the two there is a distance of twenty-four miles (1944). In 1946 he helped develop plans to launch iron missiles from V2 rockets to determine the size of meteors. The flights would be photographed by Harvard's aerial cameras and calculations made from photographic plates. In 1951 the Observatory acquired new cameras capable of photographing forty times as many meteors and capturing the nature of the upper atmosphere, enhancing rocket experiments. His use of meteor photography helped Whipple develop a comet model that described the physical and genetic relationship of comet and meteor streams. Always interested in space travel, Whipple invented the Whipple Shield or meteor bumper for space craft in 1946. This shield was really a thin outer skin that could explode a meteor on contact so that the real skin of a space craft would not puncture. Whipple's shield was improved upon and was used by later space craft.

In 1950 Whipple wrote his seminal paper on the nature of comet nuclei. His viewpoint on the origin and physical nature of comets received broad acceptance and further enhanced his standing in the scientific community. In his paper, Whipple discussed the physical composition of comets and the nature of comet orbits. He argued that, in the cold darkness of space, comets were similar to frozen ice balls consisting of frozen water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and dust. Whipple wrote that when a comet approaches the sun, the solar rays heat up the ice and release the frozen water as a volatile gas that explodes and moves the comet in different directions and at different speeds. Later studies showed that the sweeping tails observed on comets were actually the exploding gases that Whipple described. Whipple studied sixty orbits to confirm his landmark theory and demonstrated that the motions of comets were altered by non-gravitational forces.

In 1955 Whipple was appointed the director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), a position he held until 1973. During his tenure as director, the SAO became a pioneer and leader in space research. Whipple supervised the move of the SAO from Washington, D.C. to Cambridge and expanded its staff, facilities, and scientific scope. Under Whipple's guidance, sixty scientists engaged in the study of stellar interiors, the upper atmosphere, meteorites, celestial mechanics, and geodesy. In 1957 Whipple proposed and helped organize Project Moonwatch, an international program for tracking satellites. By 1959 there were over 200 teams of observers active in many parts of the world. This network, which continued to track satellites until the mid-1970s, sent its findings to the observatory for analysis and became a precursor to the Global Positioning System now used to make geodetic positioning available to anyone. For his leadership and service in creating a worldwide network to track orbiting satellites, Whipple received the American Astronautical Society's Space Flight Award in 1960 and the Distinguished Federal Civilian Award from President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

In 1973 the ties between the Smithsonian and Harvard were strengthened by the creation of the joint Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In the same year, Whipple retired from the SAO and became a senior research scientist for the Center. Although Whipple retired from Harvard in 1977, he continued as a leader in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. In recognition of his contributions, in 1982 the Smithsonian Institution's observatory at Mount Hopkins, Arizona was renamed the Fred Whipple Observatory. In 1986, Whipple's initial theory about the nature of comets, which he developed in 1950, was confirmed when Halley's comet returned to our solar system and was observed by telescopes, cameras, high-flying aircraft, and satellites. Furthermore, in 1999, at the age of 92, and as the preeminent comet expert, Whipple joined the science team of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's unmanned space craft Comet Nucleus Tour mission. This mission, continuing the research that Whipple pioneered in almost fifty years before, sent a robotic satellite into space to take images and comparative spectral maps of cometary nuclei and to analyze the dust and gas flowing from them.

Whipple is best known for his work advancing the understanding and nature of comets and meteors. His findings dramatically influenced astronomy and astrophysics. In recognition of his contributions, minor planet number 1940 was named after him in 1975. In 1971 he received the Kepler Medal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Career Service Award from the National Civil Service League in 1972 for sustained excellence. The Royal Astronomical Society recognized his research and leadership in 1983 by presenting Whipple with a gold medal. In 1997 the University of California presented him with the universities highest honor, the UCLA Medal, for his forethought and insight in the science of astronomy. Finally, the Library of Congress named Whipple as a Living Legend in April 2000 for exemplifying the American ideals of individual creativity, conviction, dedication, and exuberance.

Fred Lawrence Whipple was married to Dorothy Woods in 1927. They had one son, Earle Raymond, and were divorced in 1935. Whipple remarried in 1946 to Babette Francis Samelson and had two daughters, Dorothy Sandra and Laura.

Series in the Collection

  1. Correspondence
  2. Subject Files
  3. Teaching Materials

Obsolete Call Numbers

The following list provides a map to old call numbers that were eradicated by Archives staff during the 2003 re-processing. All of the papers of Fred Lawrence Whipple now fall under the single call number HUG 4876.

  1. HUG 4876.806, Correspondence: Alphabetical file, 1932-1942 moved to Correspondence series.
  2. HUG 4876.808, Correspondence: Special folders, 1937-1949 moved to Correspondence series.
  3. HUG 4876.810, Correspondence, 1940-July 1, 1957 moved to Correspondence series.
  4. HUG 4876.865, Astronomy Courses, 1931-1954 moved to Teaching Materials series.

Acquisition Information

  1. Accession number: 07971; 1976 September 23.
  2. Accession number: 14676; 2002 October 24.

Related Material

Harvard University Archives
  1. Records of the Harvard University Astronomy Department, 1933-1983
  2. Records of the Harvard College Observatory
  3. Records of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
  4. Records of the United States Radio Research Laboratory
Smithsonian Institution
  1. Fred Lawrence Whipple Papers, 1927-1983
  2. Oral history interviews with Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1976
  3. Multiple-Mirror Telescope Video History Collection, 1989
  4. Project Celescope, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, 1958-1968
  5. Records of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Office of the Director, 1971-1987
  6. Records of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Assistant Director (Administration), 1956-1967
American Philosophical Society
  1. Fred Lawrence Whipple Correspondence, 1965-1975


  • Fred Lawrence Whipple. (1952) In Current Biography. Retrieved from H.W. Wilson database (Wilson Biographies Plus) on the World Wide Web: [26 November 2002]
  • Levy, David H. Dr. Comet at 95. Sky and Telescope, 2002 January, 89-90.
  • Raymond E. Bullock. Fred Lawrence Whipple. Volume 4 of Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. New York: Gale Research Inc., 1995.
  • Whipple, Fred L. Of Comets and Meteors. Science, 4 August 2000, 728.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 November 9.

Processing Information

Re-processed, and accession number 14676 added, February 2003 by Dominic P. Grandinetti.

Processing included re-housing materials in the appropriate containers, integration of already-processed papers with newly received material, establishment of series, and the creation of this finding aid. Details about the re-arrangement of each series are noted below. Call numbers beyond the base call number were eliminated as part of integrating the 1976 and 2002 accessions. A list of these obsolete call numbers appears at the end of the finding aid.

The archivist placed the documents into acid-free folders, re-housed the materials into archival document boxes, and examined the folder contents to establish the date of the material. Paper clips and rusty staples were removed.

Duplicate materials were weeded.

Subject Files Series: routine or repetitive documents such as thank-you letters, meeting announcements, mimeographs of administrative letters, requests for general information, budget working papers, and records documenting routine expenditures were discarded

Teaching materials: student grade lists were discarded.

Whipple, Fred Lawrence, 1906- . Papers of Fred Lawrence Whipple : an inventory
Language of description
Edition statement
This inventory created February, 2003. The last revisions for first publication of the document completed 1 February 2003.

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.

Pusey Library
Harvard Yard
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-2461