Doolittle, Charles Leander
BornOntario, Indiana, USA, 12 November 1843
DiedPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 1 March 1919
Charles Leander Doolittle, who was trained as a field astronomer and engineer, spent his career working primarily on terrestrial latitude variation. He also was the first director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Flower Observatory.
Doolittle interrupted his studies at the University of Michigan, where he studied astronomy under James C. Watson, to join the Union Army during the American Civil War. He then performed survey work with the United States Northern Boundary Commission, serving with the astronomer Lewis Boss , later director of the Dudley Observatory in New York, during which expedition Doolittle traveled as far as the Rocky Mountains and endured extreme hardships. In 1874 he returned to the University of Michigan and completed his civil engineering degree. The following year he became Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Lehigh University, a position he held for 20 years. Lehigh purchased a zenith telescope from the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, which Doolittle used to teach his classes in practical field astronomy; he also used the instrument in his own studies in latitude variation at Lehigh’s Sayre Observatory.
Perhaps because of his work with surveying with the Northern Boundary Commission, Doolittle was fascinated by the problem of terrestrial latitude variation. Leonhard Euler ’s law of the rotation of rigid bodies predicted minute latitude variation resulting from the motion of a spinning body’s poles. In the 1880s and 1890s, the Boston astronomer Seth Chandler refined Euler’s theory with observations of the Earth’s rotation, and about the same time Doolittle himself observed similar evidence of the phenomenon at Lehigh, measuring the positions of stars from different locations to detect minute variations in the Earth’s latitude.
In 1895 Doolittle left Lehigh to become Professor of Mathematics and the first Flower Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. However, before he could continue his research in latitude variation, he spent much of his first 2 years overseeing the construction of the Flower Observatory, which was built with funds bequeathed in the will of a wealthy local citizen, Reese Wall Flower. In this new observatory Doolittle had both superior equipment and paid assistants (one of whom was his son Eric) and was therefore able to take far better measurements in his pursuit of latitude variation, resulting (in Doolittle’s own words) in a “very accurate and carefully executed series of latitude observations at different points.” A resulting series of papers published from 1902 to 1912 demonstrated his painstaking efforts to quantify the phenomenon of latitude variation, charting the evolution of his research at both the Sayre and Flower observatories.
Doolittle retired in 1912 and was succeeded as director of the Flower Observatory by his son, the astronomer Eric Doolittle. As the first two directors of the Flower Observatory, Charles and Eric wrote an important history of that observatory and its early astronomical work. Also in 1912 Lehigh University conferred on Charles an honorary LLD.
Doolittle was the first treasurer of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) from its founding in 1899 until 1912. He also was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Astronomische Gesellschaft. His Treatise on Practical Astronomy: As Applied to Geodesy and Navigation, which went through multiple editions, was both a university textbook and manual for field astronomers.
Doolittle was married twice; his second wife and widow was Helen Wolle Doolittle. His oldest son Alfred worked in the Nautical Almanac office in Washington D.C., and his second son Eric, in addition to succeeding Charles at Flower Observatory, was a founding member of the AAS. Two other sons, Gilbert and Melvin, fought in World War I, in which Gilbert was killed. Of the fifth son, Harold, little is known. His only daughter, Hilda Doolittle, was the American imagist poet known as “H. D.”; she was in the same cadre as the poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.
In an obituary in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Charles Leander Doolittle was described as “a man of singularly modest temperament, genial in manner and straightforward in character.”
- Anonymous, “Dr. Charles Leander Doolittle,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, 7 March 1919, 509.Google Scholar
- Doolittle, Charles L. and Eric Doolittle. “History and Description of the Flower Astronomical Observatory,” Publications of the University of Pennsylvania, Astronomical Series1, part 1 (1912): v–x.Google Scholar