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COLLECTION Identifier: UAV 630.22

Records of Harvard College Observatory Director Harlow Shapley


Harlow Shapley (1885-1972) was an astronomer who served as Director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1921 to 1952. The records document Shapley’s tenure as director and primarily consist of his incoming and outgoing correspondence files. The letters, including three volumes of outgoing correspondence, relate to Observatory operations, research, and activities, particularly its cooperation with other astronomers and observatories from throughout the United States and abroad. Also chronicled are Shapley’s political activities, particularly during World War II, and his work with professional organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shapley also continued the Observatory’s long tradition of employing women; his dedication to hiring and mentoring female astronomers is documented heavily throughout the record series, with letters to many women scientists and students, many of whom Shapley hired to work at the Observatory.


  • 1911-1952 and [undated]


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

The Records of Harvard College Observatory Director Harlow Shapley are open for research with the following exception: Student and personnel records are closed to research use for 80 years from the date of creation. These restrictions appear in the Correspondence series and are noted at the folder level.


42 cubic feet (99 document boxes, 18 folders, 7 legal document boxes, 6 half-document boxes, 5 flat boxes, 3 legal half-document boxes, 2 extra-wide document boxes, 1 custom box)

The Records of Harvard College Observatory Director Harlow Shapley document his tenure as head of the Observatory from 1921 to 1952. The records chiefly consist of Shapley’s correspondence with the world’s most prominent scientists, both astronomers and experts from related fields. These letters underscore the extent to which the global astronomical community communicated and collaborated, and the variety of people who sought Shapley's advice and expertise, as Shapley corresponded with many amateur astronomers and students, as well as politicians and government agencies, publishers, entertainers, other observatories and schools, and members of the general public. Topics of discussion include astronomical observations and theories, scientific trends, political and social issues, and administrative functions of the Observatory, such as the ordering of equipment from manufacturers like J.W. Fecker, Adam Hilger, Ltd., and Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Company, including blueprints of telescopes and other astronomical instruments. The caliber and diversity of Shapley's correspondents, which include Albert Einstein, President Herbert Hoover, Edward R. Murrow, Enrico Fermi, W.E.B. Du Bois, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, Nelson A. Rockefeller, and many other notable figures, demonstrate his prominence, as well as the Observatory's high esteem throughout the world. In a 1946 letter to President Harry S. Truman, Shapley expresses his support for anti-lynching legislation, a reflection of his interest in politics and civil rights. Conversely, his correspondence with members of the general public and amateur astronomers exhibit his commitment to making astronomy accessible to everyone.

The correspondence from the World War II era chronicles the Observatory’s military contract work, as well as Shapley’s efforts to aid scientists in Europe by sending supplies and helping those displaced by the war to relocate to North America. During this period, Shapley was accused of communist activities and was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1946; many of the letters throughout the correspondence series exhibit Shapley’s political opinions and actions. Shapley also continued the Observatory’s long tradition of employing women; his dedication to hiring and mentoring female astronomers is documented heavily throughout the record series, with letters to many women scientists and students, many of whom Shapley hired to work at the Observatory, including Margaret Mayall, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Contance Sawyer Warwick, Elske Van Panhuys Smith, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who received the first Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College in 1925. These letters can be found throughout the correspondence series, though they are especially concentrated in the folders entitled, "Radcliffe College." Shapley also corresponded with many female professors at other institutions, particularly women's colleges, such as Smith College, Vassar College, Wellesley College, and Mount Holyoke College, as well as noted female astronomers, including Alice Farnsworth, Margaret Harwood, Helen Sawyer Hogg, Julie Vinter Hansen, and Marie Paris Pişmiş de Recilas.

Correspondence with various Harvard University departments gives insight into the daily operations, functions, equipment needs, and finances and budgets of the Observatory, as well as the relationship between the University's administration and the Observatory, which is also reflected in letters between Shapley and presidents A. Lawrence Lowell and James Conant. Such letters are located throughout all of the correspondence series, but are specificially grouped within the "Harvard University" subseries. There are also many letters with other Harvard professors, demonstrating the collegiate camaraderie within the University community.

The project files series includes correspondence and administrative documents related to Shapley’s work with professional organizations, which is also reflected throughout the general correspondence series, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he served as president. The series also demonstrates the Observatory's involvement in various projects, including its efforts to establish an observatory in Mexico and its cooperation with the University of Colorado to create the High Altitude Observatory. Some correspondence within the High Altitude Observatory subseries discusses the impact of the Observatory's research on the commercial sector, including American Airlines, as well as the the cooperation with the United States military, primarily the Navy; a July 31, 1945 letter from American Airlines president R.S. Damon to Walter Orr Roberts expresses interest "in the research undertaken by the Harvard College Observatory with respect to solar effects upon air transportation communications."

Biographical note on Harlow Shapley

Harlow Shapley (1885-1972), astronomer and Director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1921 to 1952, was born on November 2, 1885 in Nashville, Missouri. He studied astronomy at the University of Missouri, earning his BA in 1910 and his MA in 1911. Shapley then received a fellowship at Princeton University, studying Cepheid variables and eclipsing binaries under Henry Norris Russell, and obtained his PhD in 1913. A year later, he joined the staff of the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California, where he remained until 1921, when he came to Harvard. Shapley was appointed Paine Professor of Practical Astronomy and director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1921, following the death of the previous director, Edward Charles Pickering. While at Harvard, Shapley mentored many young astronomers from around the world, and in the late 1930s, helped many European refugee scientists emigrate safely to the United States. While director of the Observatory, Shapley is credited with modernizing its equipment, collaborating with scientists from across the world, increasing the scope and number of its publications, and training a new generation of astronomers. During his tenure as director, the Observatory classified hundreds of thousands of stellar spectra that disclosed the chemical composition of the stars and catalogued of external galaxies. He retired from the Observatory in 1952, but continued teaching until 1956. Shapley wrote several books and received many honors and awards throughout his career, including the Henry Draper Medal in 1926, the Rumford Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1933, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society in 1950, and a crater on the moon is named after him. From 1947 to 1948, he was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Shapley was also politically active, particularly during World War II; in November 1946, he was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to answer questions about the Massachusetts Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, of which he was chairman. Then, in the late 1940s, Shapley led several meetings of left-wing organizations to which Russian delegates were invited, leading Senator Joseph McCarthy to name him as one of five alleged Communists connected with the State Department. Shapley was eventually absolved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1950.

Shapley married Martha Betz (1891–1981) in April 1914. Betz, a mathematician and astronomer, assisted her husband in astronomical research both at Mount Wilson and at the Harvard College Observatory, producing many articles on eclipsing stars and other subjects. The couple had one daughter and four sons. Harlow Shapley died in Boulder, Colorado on October 20, 1972.

Historical note on the Harvard College Observatory

In 1839, the Harvard Corporation appointed William Cranch Bond the first Astronomical Observer to the University, thereby taking the first step in establishing the Harvard College Observatory, after which the first telescope was installed in 1847. Scholars and students had studied astronomy at Harvard since the seventeenth century, but it wasn’t until a large comet sparked public interest in 1843 that donors began donating funds to build an observatory. During the tenure of the Harvard College Observatory’s first three directors, William Cranch Bond (1839-1859), George Phillips Bond (1859-1865), and Joseph Winlock (1866-1875), much of the Observatory’s research focused on lunar photography and chronometric activities to establish American longitude and to operate a time service for the United States government and commercial interests. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, under the direction of Edward C. Pickering (1877-1919), research shifted from celestial mechanics and positional astronomy to astrophysics. The Observatory developed into a major research institution, focusing on photographic star surveys, spectroscopic analysis, and culminating in publication of the Henry Draper Catalogue, with spectroscopic classifications for 225,300 stars. During Pickering’s tenure, many women astronomers, including Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Williamina Fleming performed essential research at the Observatory.

During the next several years, the Observatory became an important center for astronomical training and research, and building relationships with other institutions. Harlow Shapley, director from 1921 to 1952, inaugurated a program of graduate study in astronomy. Mandating that public education be a part of the Observatory’s mission, Shapley required students in the Harvard program to present lectures on astronomy to public school children. Donald H. Menzel (1952-1966) arranged a cooperative relationship with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (founded in 1890) and its relocation to Cambridge in 1955. Financial support for the Observatory expanded under Leo Goldberg (1966-1970), and in 1973 George B. Field (1972-1983) created an administrative umbrella organization, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to coordinate the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory’s programs. Today, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics continues studies in astronomy, astrophysics, earth and space sciences, and science education, while the Harvard College Observatory supports Harvard’s Department of Astronomy.


The records are arranged in three series:

  1. Correspondence, 1911-1952 and [undated]
  2. Outgoing correspondence, 1922-1923
  3. Project files, correspondence, and papers, 1928-1952

Related Materials

The Harvard University Archives also holds the Papers of Harlow Shapley, 1906-1966 (HUG 4773.xx) and Correspondence from Harlow Shapley to family members, 1921-1923 (HUG 4773.22).

Inventory update

This document last updated 2023 May 17.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Olivia Mandica-Hart in November 2018-December 2019. Processing included physical re-housing and the creation of this finding aid. Titles were transcribed from the original folders; titles enclosed in brackets were devised by the archivist.

Harvard College Observatory. Records of Harvard College Observatory Director Harlow Shapley, 1911-1952 and [undated] : an inventory
Harvard University Archives
November 1, 2018
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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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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