Philip Fox, 1878-1944


 The news of the death of Philip Fox on July 21, 1944, came with a shock to his unusually wide circle of friends, for he was only sixty-six years old, and up to a month before his death was leading his usual active life in apparent good health. Then he was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and death followed from an arterial thrombosis.

My first meeting with him came about forty years ago, shortly after the Congress of Arts and Sciences at St. Louis in 1904. I had gone on to Chicago and Professor S. W. Burnham had invited me to dine with him at the Italian basement restaurant on South Clark Street, the scene of the meetings of what must surely have been the unique astronomical dining club in America. “Don’t dress,” said Burnham, “there is nothing fancy about our dinners; but you will find the dinner good and will meet eight or ten or more of the best fellows in the world and you will enjoy yourself.”

He was right. I found just such a group assembled, all old friends, all filled with good cheer and good talk, and one of the liveliest of the group was Philip Fox. An excellent string quartet provided music, both classical and popular, and when at about the coffee and cigars stage of the dinner it struck up an air then being sung everywhere, Fox, to my astonishment, jumped up and spoke a word to the leader, who smilingly surrendered his violin and bow. Fox thereupon conducted the orchestra like a professional, and in response to applause, shouted “Again! Everybody join in the chorus.” They did—every diner in the room who knew words or tune—and the room rang with shouts of “Funiculi, Funicula.”

I narrate this incident for it shows Fox enjoying life, and no man I have known ever enjoyed it more fully. His well-knit athletic figure and fine bearing impressed the most casual acquaintance, and many members of the American Astronomical Society, whose meetings he so regularly attended, can doubtless cap my reminiscent story. He was always in demand as toast­master or after-dinner speaker at these meetings, and in his active participation in the scientific discussions he not only always showed his comprehension of the subject before the meeting, but also usually had original comments to make, sometimes serious, sometimes not, that added to the interest of the debate.

We have so long been accustomed to associate Fox with Chicago that many, especially of our younger readers, may learn with surprise that he was born in Kansas (Manhattan, May 7, 1878) and received his undergraduate training at Kansas State College (B.S., 1897). A year’s assistantship in engineering at the College, and two years of experience as teacher of mathematics and Commandant at St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kansas, followed. Next, he entered Dartmouth College as a senior, “for the experience,” and to act as assistant in physics, taking there a second B.S. degree, and, what is more important, studying under Edwin Brant Frost and his own distinguished cousin the physicist Ernest Fox Nichols. This experience decided his future career.

In 1903 he was appointed Carnegie Research Assistant at the Yerkes Observatory, and remained there or as instructor in astrophysics at the University of Chicago (with a year out for study at the University of Berlin) until he was offered the directorship of the Dearborn Observatory in 1909. At the Yerkes Observatory and at Chicago, his chief interest was in solar research. He participated, as assistant, in the program that Hale had initiated, working regularly with the Rumford spectroheliograph, and at the same time contributed the results of a number of independent personal researches. He never lost his interest in solar work though, as we shall see, his major activities were directed along other lines.

It is important to note that before going to Dartmouth he had spent a year in the Philippines as Second Lieutenant of Infantry in a company of volunteers from Kansas, for in addition to the useful service he rendered, this led later to his membership in the Officers’ Reserve Corps at Fort Sheridan, near Chicago, and strengthened his natural inclination to keep himself physically fit, even from the Army drillmaster’s point of view.

In these early years, he had acquired a mastery of the violin and had developed his better than amateur ability as an artist, giving special attention to etching. Music and art remained to the end two of his greatest resources for the enjoyment of life, and we find him, even in his last year, playing the violin in a small musical ensemble, setting French poems to music, and making etchings of some of the old buildings of Harvard University.

Fox thus came to the directorship of the Dearborn Observatory, his most important astronomical position, a man of wide training and experience, and he threw himself enthusiastically into work with its 18 1/2-inch refractor. This telescope had had a distinguished history as an instrument for the discovery and observation of double stars. While it was still in course of construction, Alvan G. Clark had discovered with it the tiny companion to Sirius, whose existence had been predicted by Bessel. Later, at Evanston, Burnham had used it in a remarkable series of double-star measures and discoveries, and G. W. Hough, as director, had followed with his own long series of double-star observations. It was natural therefore that Fox should turn first to double-star work. He soon secured an improved modern mounting and then began systematic measurement, and his ability and devotion to this work are attested by the volume and quality of the measures he published, especially when we take into account the unfavorable climate at Chicago.

But Schlesinger at the Yerkes Observatory, in the meantime, had been developing his program for the photographic determination of stellar parallax, in which he invited other observatories to join. This program attracted Fox and he instituted a parallax program at Evanston to be carried on concurrently with his double-star program. Now, no man, however robust, can carry on two such arduous programs simultaneously for any length of time, and Fox, while planning the work and participating in every phase of it—the observations at the telescope, the measurement of the plates, and the reduction of the measures—wisely left the major part of the actual parallax work to young assistants, giving scrupulous credit, when he came to publish the results, to the part every one of the considerable number had taken in the work.

Fox undoubtedly looked forward to a long and unbroken career of service at the Dearborn Observatory. Happily married (his widow and four children, three sons and a daughter, survive him), located in a congenial university community, surrounded by scores of friends, artists, musicians, and scientists, and equipped with a telescope with which, as he so fully demonstrated, useful contributions to knowledge could be made, his situation was well-nigh ideal.

Then came the war in 1917. As reserve officer, Fox was immediately available for service and was among the first to cross to France, where he remained for more than two years. His services were valuable and he rose to the rank of Major of Infantry and Assistant Chief of Staff of the Seventh Division of our forces. Returning late in 1919, he resumed his former activities and in the next ten years completed the programs whose results are recorded in Volumes I—Ill of the Annals of the Dearborn Observatory.

Now came the offer to serve as the first director of the splendid Adler Planetarium which was being erected on the Lake Shore front of Chicago—the first installation of its kind in this country. The offer appealed to Fox’s artistic temperament and also to his instinct for teaching. He at once saw in it the opportunity, which, indeed, it offered, to promote a wide popular understanding of the universe in which we live. His demonstrations at the Planetarium and his additional lectures set a high standard which his successors, and the directors of similar institutions, later established in different centers in the country, have, happily, striven to maintain.

Fox passed eight successful years in this work; then, in 1937, moved by what promises I do not know, he accepted the directorship of the Museum of Science and Industry of Chicago. Unquestionably, he had been given assurances that led him to see in the position a broader opportunity for public educational service, and he at once became active in furthering the work of the Museum. But it was an unhappy decision and the story of the next three years is an unpleasant one upon which I do not propose to enter further than to say that promises were not kept, and, in 1940, Fox, together with several department heads, was summarily dismissed. This action was deeply resented, not only by Fox’s personal friends—a goodly company in itself— but by scientific men throughout the country, and it will be a long time indeed before this ugly stain will fade from the record of the Museum.

As for Fox himself, though for a brief period he was technically “out of work,” he found plenty to do to occupy his mind and hands with astronomical research, music, art, and the activities of the Officers’ Reserve Corps. He was soon recalled to active Army service with the rank of full colonel. His first assignment was the supervision, as commanding officer, of the Gulf Coast Recreational Area. Presently, he was shifted to the more important post of commanding officer of the Army Electronics Training Center at Harvard University, a position he held until he was retired under the Army age rules. He continued, however, to lecture on electronics at the University until the end came.

He was only sixty-six when he died—cut off before his time, some will say. But Fox himself never placed undue value upon mere existence. He repeatedly put his life at stake for what he regarded as higher values, and it was granted to him to lead a full, rich, and joyous life of high accomplishment and to have the end come, as he would have had it come, while he was still actively at work.

Let us not mourn him. Let us rather, in Browning’s great words:

 Greet the unseen with a cheer!

Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be, -

“Strive and thrive!  cry “Speed,—fight on, fare ever There as here.”




August 21. 1944

Edited July 19, 2007