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COLLECTION Identifier: HUY 178

Photographs of Boyden Station in South Africa


Boyden Station was established by Harvard University in 1889 to allow for observations from the Southern Hemisphere. The observatory was originally located in Arequipa, Peru, but was relocated to a spot near Bloemfontien in the Orange Free State, South Africa in 1927 due to better weather. The collection includes 182 photographs, which probably date from the 1930s to 1950s. The images depict Boyden Station, as well as its surrounding areas, including employees, equipment, and local South African residents.


  • circa 1930s-1950s


Inventory update

This document last updated 2018 February 22.

Conditions Governing Access

Open for research.


0.35 cubic feet (1 document box)
182 photographs

The collection consists of 182 black and white photographs of various sizes, which date from approximately the 1930s to 1950s, and depict views of the Boyden Station and its surrounding area, station buildings, Observatory employees, telescopes, and other scientific equipment. Also includes photographs of Africans on staff at the Observatory, including an employee named Izaak, as well as African settlements, various snakes killed at the station, children in special dress, and a Bantu wedding ceremony. According to a note accompanying the collection, the photographs came from Elske van Panhuys Smith via Owen Gingerich. The precise date of the photographs is unclear; Smith’s husband, Henry J. Smith, served as Superintendent of the Boyden Station of the Harvard College Observatory in South Africa from 1952 to 1954, and some of the photographs may date from this time period. However, most of the photographs seem to relate to the construction and installation of the 60” telescope, which was installed at the station in 1933. It is possible that Smith took the photographs back to the United States after she and her husband left the station in the mid-1950s.

Historical note on Boyden Station

The Harvard College Observatory was founded by the Harvard Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1839. Boyden Station was established in order to make astronomical observations from the Southern Hemisphere, and was originally located in Arequipa, Peru. The station was moved to a spot near Bloemfontien in the Orange Free State, South Africa in 1927 due to better weather conditions; the South African climate was considered better suited to astronomical observations because it had less cloud cover than Peru. The research activities at Boyden Station focused on photographic and photoelectric observations of stars and star fields in the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds, and variable stars in the Southern hemisphere. Astronomers at Boyden discovered several comets and asteroids. Financial issues at Harvard almost led to the closure of Boyden in 1954, but several European countries (Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Sweden) contributed to funding the observatory. Harvard, which had transferred the title to the Smithsonian Institution, withdrew its financial support in 1976, when the station was donated to the University of the Free State, which continues to operate the observatory today.

Biographical note on Else van Panhuys Smith

Elske van Panhuys Smith, astronomer and solar physicist, was born on November 9, 1929 in Monte Carlo, Monaco. She came to the United States in 1943 and received her B.S. in astronomy from Radcliffe College in 1950, her MA in 1951, and her PhD in 1956. She married Henry J. Smith in 1950; Smith served as Superintendent of the Boyden Station of the Harvard College Observatory in South Africa from 1952 to 1954. She 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 and returned to Massachusetts.


Photographs are arranged in their original order as received.

Custodial History

The photographs were transferred to the Harvard University Archives from the Harvard College Observatory’s Plate Stacks; it is unknown how or when they were received by the Plate Stacks.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Transferred to the Harvard University Archives in October 2016.

Related Materials

The Harvard University Archives also holds the Records of Boyden Station, Bloemfontein, South Africa, 1907-1956 (UAV 630.110) and Miscellaneous items relating to Boyden Station, 1887-1951 (inclusive) (UAV 630.451).

Processing Information

This collection was processed in August 2017 by Olivia Mandica-Hart. Processing involved a collection survey and the creation of this finding aid. This finding aid was created by Olivia Mandica-Hart in August 2017.

Titles enclosed in brackets were devised by the archivist; otherwise, titles were transcribed from an original list of the photographs. Unless specifically indicated by the archivist, all photographs date from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Smith, Elske v. P. , (Elske van Panhuys), 1929- , compiler. Photographs of Boyden Station in South Africa, circa 1930s-1950s : an inventory
Harvard University Archives
August 17, 2017
Description rules
Language of description
  • Appraisal memo

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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