BornManhattan, Kansas, USA, 7 March 1878
DiedCambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 21 July 1944
During Philip Fox’s career as an observatory and planetarium director, he exhibited many traits desirable for a professional astronomer involved in administration and served as a role model for future American planetarium directors.
The son of Simeon and Esther (née Butler) Fox, Philip earned a bachelor’s degree in 1897 at Kansas State College. After graduation, he taught mathematics and served as commandant at Saint John’s Military School before enlisting in the US Army. In 1898, Fox served in the Philippine Islands where he rose to the rank of second lieutenant during the Spanish-American War. After the war, he returned to Kansas State and was awarded a master’s degree in 1901. Fox also studied under Edwin Frost and earned a second bachelor’s degree in physics from Dartmouth College in 1902. The following year, Fox was appointed a Carnegie Assistant at Yerkes Observatory and worked with Frost on its Rumford spectroheliograph until 1905.
After a year of study at the University of Berlin, Fox returned to Yerkes and taught astrophysics until 1909, when he replaced George Hough as director of Northwestern University’s Dearborn Observatory. Fox continued Hough’s program of measuring binary stars with Dearborn’s historic 18.5-in. Clark refractor. In 1911, Fox replaced the telescope’s tube and mounting with superior equipment that allowed him to extend the observatory program to the photographic determination of stellar parallaxes. During World War I, Fox volunteered for service in the Army, receiving a commission as a major in the infantry. He served in France and was promoted to lieutenant colonel while serving as an assistant chief of staff in the Seventh Infantry Division.
In 1919, Fox resumed his research and teaching at Dearborn Observatory. His investigations grew to involve the help of “no fewer than twenty four assistants and students who had been trained and had taken part in the work.” A number of these assistants were women astronomers, but as former Lick Observatory director Robert Aitken noted, Fox gave “scrupulous credit … to the part every one of the considerable number had taken.” Much of this work appeared in Volume I (1915) and Volume II (1925) of the Annals of the Dearborn Observatory, written and edited by Fox. He also completed a study on the rotation of the Sun that was published in 1921.
Fox was chosen as the first director of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (the first such installation in North America) in 1929. The planetarium was to be situated in close proximity to both the Field Museum of Natural History and the Shedd Aquarium on Chicago’s lake front; both institutions fostered active research programs in addition to their public museum roles. Fox envisioned that the planetarium would likewise be operated as a research institution and not simply as a pedagogical device. He installed a coelostat on the planetarium’s roof, feeding a vertical telescope with a spectrohelioscope, although this was used primarily for exhibiting the solar spectrum.
Fox and his assistant Maude Bennot devised a regularly changing schedule of monthly programs. Twelve lecture topics were developed in order “to show the various possibilities of the [star] instrument.” Audience members who attended the series received a complete introductory course in descriptive astronomy. This programming style was dubbed the “American practice” and was emulated by other major US planetaria during the 1930s. Fox wished all visitors “to see a stirring spectacle,… the heavens portrayed in great dignity and splendor, dynamic, inspiring, in a way that dispels the mystery but retains the majesty.”
Fox served as master of ceremonies at the opening night of Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition (1933/1934). Light from the star Arcturus was gathered onto photoelectric cells at the Yerkes Observatory (and three other remote astronomical observatories in the event it was cloudy at Yerkes). Electrical impulses from these photoelectric cells were transmitted over telegraph lines and used to turn on lights illuminating the fair’s exhibits. Arcturus was chosen on account of its distance of 40 light years. Starlight reaching telescopes in 1933 had begun its journey at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, hosted at Chicago in 1893. During the fair’s two seasons, attendance at the Adler Planetarium reached almost 1.3 million visitors. By this means, a large segment of the country’s population came to experience a Zeiss planetarium’s reproduction of the heavens.
Recognition of Fox’s skills as an administrator led to a request for his services in the opening of Griffith Observatory’s planetarium in Los Angeles, California. A quarrel between the observatory’s board of directors and the project’s advisory committee, astronomers associated with Mount Wilson Observatory and the California Institute of Technology, paralyzed the project until Fox arrived on the scene. Nearly a year of temporary duty in Los Angeles was required to see the project on to its successful startup.
During his tenure at the Adler Planetarium, Fox hosted the 44th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (1930) and published volume III of Annals of the Dearborn Observatory (1935). He maintained professional ties with numerous scientific associations, serving as secretary (1925–1933) and vice president (1937) of Section D of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and vice president (1938–1940) of the American Astronomical Society. He also served for many years as the secretary of the Chicago Astronomical Society and actively promoted the growth of amateur astronomy and amateur telescope making in the Chicago area. Fox made two journeys to observe total solar eclipses: on 10 September 1923 and 31 August 1932.
A very different type of research came to be associated with the Adler Planetarium. When Fox sailed for Europe to familiarize himself with its principal museums and planetaria, he learned about the sale of an important collection of astronomical instruments by the Amsterdam antiques dealer, W. M. Mensing. Adler’s purchase of the Mensing Collection formed the nucleus of the Astronomy Museum, to which the planetarium’s name would thereafter be connected.
In 1937, Fox became the new executive director of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. By his own admission, he faced “a task of very considerable magnitude.” Although they were devoting up to 6 days a week to the museum in attempting to deal with the administrative burden, Fox and several department heads were summarily dismissed only 3 years later after a change took place in the museum’s governing board. An appraisal of Fox’s apparent problem with the board was offered by historian Herman Kogan, who noted that “[Fox] seemed less concerned with attracting larger crowds than with converting the Museum into an institution for scholars and educators.”
Fox was recalled to active military service in 1940 with the rank of full colonel, and was made commanding officer of the Army Electronics Training Center at Harvard University in 1942. In addition to his administrative duties, Fox also taught electronics. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Fox married Ethel L. Snow of Chicago in 1905. The couple had three sons, Bertrand, Stephen, and Robert, and a daughter, Gertrude. Philip Fox was a skilled violinist, cellist, and organist and also drew, painted, and composed etchings for recreation. Fox was awarded honorary degrees from Drake University (LL.D.: 1929) and Kansas State College (D.Sc.: 1931).
Papers of Philip Fox are held in the Northwestern University Archives, Evanston, Illinois. Fox’s planetarium correspondence is preserved at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Chicago, Illinois. Letters between Fox and George Hale are found in the microfilm edition, Hale Papers, Carnegie Institution of Washington and California Institute of Technology.