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SUB-SERIES Identifier: UAV 630.110.xx

Records of Harvard College Observatory Boyden Station, Bloemfontein, South Africa


The Harvard College Observatory Boyden Station was established in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1927 in order to conduct astronomical observations of the southern hemisphere. The Records of Harvard College Observatory Boyden Station document the scientific and administrative functions and activities of the South African observatory, beginning with its genesis in 1908 and continuing into the mid-1950s. The series is chiefly comprised of incoming and outgoing correspondence between Observatory director Harlow Shapley and Boyden Station superintendents John Stefanos Paraskevopoulos and Henry J. Smith. The series also includes scientific reports, data, blueprints, maps, and financial records.


  • Creation: 1907-1956 and [undated]


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.


7.55 cubic feet (12 oversized folders, 7 legal document boxes, 7 document boxes, 6 legal half-document boxes, 3 flat boxes, 2 half-document boxes, 1 pamphlet binder)
14 photographs

The Records of Harvard College Observatory Boyden Station, Bloemfontein, South Africa document the scientific and administrative functions and activities of the observatory from its genesis in 1908, through its official establishment in the 1920s, and into the mid-1950s. The majority of the collection is comprised of incoming and outgoing correspondence between Boyden Station superintendents John Stefanos Paraskevopoulos and Henry J. Smith with Harvard College Observatory astronomers in Cambridge, particularly director Harlow Shapley. Other frequent correspondents include Harvard astronomers Edward Charles Pickering, Bart J. Bok, and Willard P. Gerrish, as well as Observatory administrative assistant Sybil L. Chubb. Much of the earlier correspondence relates to Solon Irving Bailey's scouting and determination of Bloemfontein as Boyden Station’s new home. Letters from the 1950s discuss the transfer of power to Smith following Paraskevopoulos’s sudden death in 1951, and includes correspondence with interim administrators Eric Mervyn Lindsay and Bart J. Bok.

The series gives insight into the daily operations of Boyden Station and its relationship with the Observatory at Harvard, as well as to the local government in South Africa and with the larger international astronomical community. Topics of discussion include equipment and supply considerations, finances and budgets, staffing concerns, including hiring and firing decisions, and invoices of goods shipped by the Harvard College Observatory to Boyden Station. There is significant discussion of scientific data, including the sharing of observations, data readings, and the transfer of photographic plates. Paraskevopoulos received requests for astronomical information from other scientists and members of the general public, as well as invitations to formal events, particularly local South African parties and dinners.

Also documented throughout this series is the Observatory’s long tradition of employing female astronomers, through correspondence with Margaret Olmsted, Jenka Mohr, Arville D. Walker, Dorrit Hoffleit, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Of particular note is the correspondence with Elske van Panhuys Smith, who helped her husband Henry J. Smith oversee operations at Boyden Station.

Although most of the letters are professional in tone, many letters also discuss personal and informal matters, and sometimes relate to the international social and political climate. For instance, a 1936 letter from Shapley to Paraskevopoulos examines "anti-foreign" and anti-Semitic sentiments nationally and at Harvard. Correspondence from the early 1940s also discusses wartime issues, including disrupted supply chains, political turmoil, and staffing shortages. Some of the letters from this time period have portions cut out, presumably by United States government censors.

Throughout the series, there are also several scientific reports and data, contracts, maps of South Africa, sketches of scientific instruments, blueprints of Boyden Station buildings, facilities, and equipment, and a few scattered photographs and newspaper clippings. Additionally, there are a variety of financial records, including invoices, bank statements, and account summaries.

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.

Historical note on Boyden Station

In 1890, the Harvard College Observatory sent astronomer Solon Irving Bailey to South America to establish an observatory near Arequipa, Peru. Boyden Station, as it was named, was intended to perform photographic surveys of the sky not visible from Cambridge's northern latitude. In 1908, after severe weather rendered observations at Arequipa increasingly difficult, Bailey traveled to South Africa to explore potential new locations for Boyden Station. He eventually recommended a site near Bloemfontein, although a lack of funds delayed the move until 1927. Bloemfontein's first and longtime director was Greek astronomer John S. Paraskevopoulos, who held the post from 1927 until his death in 1951. Harvard stopped its direct financial support of the site in 1966.

The area in which Boyden Station was established was referred to as the Cape Colony at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was a British colony established in 1806 in what is now South Africa. When the Union of South Africa formed in 1910, the area of the Cape Colony became part of the province of the Cape of Good Hope, also called Cape Province.

Biographical note on Solon Irving Bailey

Solon Irving Bailey (1854-1931), Phillips Professor of Astronomy at Harvard, spent forty-four years with the Harvard College Observatory. Bailey was largely responsible for the successful establishment of Harvard's Boyden Station Observatory in Arequipa, Peru. His pioneering photographic studies of globular clusters, variable stars, nebulae, and galactic clusters provided the basis from which other astronomers were able to determine the size of the Milky Way and other galaxies.

While earning his AM at Harvard, Bailey joined the staff of the Harvard College Observatory as a volunteer in 1887. In 1889, Observatory director Edward C. Pickering sent him to South America to find a suitable site for a telescope to extend Harvard’s astronomical observations to the southern hemisphere. Bailey traveled in Peru for two years, finally selecting Arequipa as the site of the Boyden Station Observatory, where he served as director until 1905. He also established a series of meteorological stations, culminating in 1893 with the creation of a weather station near the peak of El Misti, a volcano overlooking the city of Arequipa. In 1908, after severe weather rendered observations at Arequipa increasingly difficult, Bailey traveled to South Africa to explore potential new locations for the Boyden Station. He traveled between Peru and Cambridge throughout his career.

Bailey was acting director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1919 to 1921 after the death of Edward Charles Pickering and prior to the appointment of Harlow Shapley. He died in 1931.

Biographical note on John Stefanos Paraskevopoulos

John Stefanos Paraskevopoulos (1889-1951) was a Greek astronomer who served as superintendent of the Harvard College Observatory’s Boyden Station. Paraskevopoulos, or "Paras" as he was sometimes known, obtained his PhD in 1910 from the University of Athens. Following his studies, he served in the Greek army during World War I and worked at the National Observatory of Athens.

In 1921, Paraskevopoulos traveled to the United States on a two-year fellowship, working at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. He then returned to Greece as head of the astronomy department of the National Observatory of Athens, with the intention of building a large telescope for Greece. However, political instability caused by a war between Greece and Turkey disrupted these plans. Consequently, in September 1923, Paraskevopoulos accepted an offer from the Harvard College Observatory to become superintendent of the Observatory's southern station in Arequipa, Peru. After Boyden Station relocated to South Africa in 1927, Paraskevopoulos served as its director until his sudden death in 1951. A crater "Paraskevopoulos" on the Moon is named in his honor.

Biographical note on Henry J. Smith

Henry ("Harry") J. Smith (1928-1983), astronomer, received his PhD in astronomy from Harvard University in 1955. Smith was superintendent of Boyden Station from 1952 to 1954, following the death of John Paraskevopoulos. From 1955 to 1963, he directed the Solar Activity Patrol at the Sacramento Peak Observatory in New Mexico before leaving for NASA, where he served as Chief of the Solar Physics Program, then Deputy Director of Physics and Astronomy, and finally as Deputy Associate Administrator for Sciences and Applications. From 1976 until his death in 1983, he was a member of the Combat Support Systems Directorate in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition of the United States Department of the Army. Smith was married to fellow astronomer Elske van Panhuys Smith (1929-), and the two collaborated frequently, including as co-authors of the book, Solar Flares.

Biographical note on Elske van Panhuys Smith

Elske van Panhuys Smith (1929-), astronomer and solar physicist, was born on November 9, 1929 in Monte Carlo, Monaco. She went to the United States in 1943 and received her BS in astronomy from Radcliffe College in 1950, her MA in 1951, and her PhD in 1956. She married fellow astronomer Henry J. Smith in 1950, and the two collaborated professionally throughout their lives. Smith aided her husband in his work as superintendent of the Boyden Station of the Harvard College Observatory in South Africa from 1952 to 1954. The couple remained working for the Harvard College Observatory until 1958.

Smith was on the faculty at the University of Maryland for more than 15 years and was dean and director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She retired in 1995.


The records are arranged in thirteen series:

  1. Meteorological observations and correspondence, 1908-1910 (UAV 630.110)
  2. Correspondence from South Africa to Cambridge, 1907-1910 (UAV 630.110.5)
  3. Letters of Assistant L.G. Schultz, 1909-1910 (UAV 630.110.8)
  4. Letterbook of Solon Irving Bailey, 1909 (UAV 630.110.10)
  5. Correspondence to Boyden Station, 1927-1954 (UAV 630.110.20)
  6. Correspondence from Boyden Station, 1927-1954 (UAV 630.110.21)
  7. Miscellaneous correspondence, 1927-1944 (UAV 630.110.22)
  8. Correspondence of John Stefanos Paraskevopoulos, 1939-1951 (UAV 630.110.23)
  9. Correspondence of Bart J. Bok, Eric Mervyn Lindsay, Henry J. Smith, and others, 1950-1954 (UAV 630.110.24)
  10. Financial affairs record book, Friends of Boyden Station, and specifications and contracts, 1950-1954 and [undated] (UAV 630.110.30)
  11. Reports, maps, and blueprints, 1924-1952 and [undated] (UAV 630.110.32)
  12. Cancelled checks and stubs, paid invoices, monthly account summaries, 1951-1954 (UAV 630.110.34)
  13. Report on Bonn Meeting of the Administrative Council of the Boyden Station, June 18, 1956 (UAV 630.110.40)


Each series is arranged chronologically.

Acquisition Information

The Records of Harvard College Observatory Boyden Station, Bloemfontein, South Africa were transferred to the Harvard University Archives from the Harvard College Observatory.

Online access

Some of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links to digital content accompany descriptions.

Related Materials

The Harvard University Archives also holds:
  1. Records of the Harvard College Observatory, Boyden Station, Arequipa, Peru (UAV 630.100)
  2. Photographs of Boyden Station in South Africa, circa 1930s-1950s (HUY 178)
  3. Records of the Harvard College Observatory : General expenses of John S. Paraskevopoulos in Peru and South Africa, 1926-1949 (UAV 630.268)
  4. Records of the Harvard College Observatory : Boyden Fund memorandum, [circa 1880s-1890s] (UAV 630.209)
  5. Records of the Harvard College Observatory: photographs (UAV 630.271)
  6. Miscellaneous items relating to Boyden Station, 1887-1951 (inclusive) (UAV 630.451)
  7. Friends of the Boyden Station A statement regarding a Committee for the Boyden Station of Harvard observatory (HUF 165.151.9)
  8. Bailey, Solon I. (Solon Irving), 1854-1931. Papers of Solon Irving Bailey, 1889-1925, 1931. HUG 1191, Harvard University Archives
  9. Progress of Photo-Electric Work at the Boyden Station, Sept. 1950-May 1951 (HUF 165.551)
  10. A catalogue of plates taken at the Boyden Observatory with the Armagh-Dunsink-Harvard telescope, November 27, 1950 to March 28, 1955 (HUF 165.560)

Inventory update

This document last updated 2022 December 19.

Processing Information

An initial inventory was created in April 2014 by Kate Bowers from a variety of information sources. The series titles have been transcribed from their original document boxes; it is unclear if these titles were original to the Observatory or devised by archivists.

Additional processing work was completed by Olivia Mandica-Hart in October-December 2022. Processing included physical re-housing, increased description, and significant updates to this finding aid.

There is significant overlap throughout all of the correspondences series; it is unclear to the archivist why the letters have been separated and arranged as such.

Harvard College Observatory. Records of Harvard College Observatory Boyden Station, Bloemfontein, South Africa, 1907-1956 and [undated] : an inventory
Harvard University Archives
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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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