Henry Albers (2009)

Henry Albers, Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College for over thirty years, died March 29 in Fairhope, Alabama. For his work at Vassar, where he held the Maria Mitchell Chair, Albers received the first Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award for his inspiration of women astronomers. He said “In the final analysis it is the students who bring the joy into teaching.” At the same time, as chairman of the long range planning committee at Vassar College, he was the author of the proposal that the college move to become coeducational. In retirement, Albers gathered and edited MariaMitchell—A Life in Journals and Letters, the firsthand account of America's first woman astronomer which appeared in 2002.

In 1966 Albers made the first of nine observing runs to conduct spectroscopic research at The Interamerican Observatory in Cerro Tololo, Chile, a site so arid that Albers described it as being reached by “turning at the cactus.” The results of his research, including “Infrared Study of the Southern Milky Way for CarbonStars,” were funded by the National Science Foundation. Also under NSF sponsorship, Albers worked on a team to produce up-to-date six volumes of hands-on astronomy materials for young people. During his sabbatical leave years he was a visiting researcher at the Sterrewacht Leiden, Holland and at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The astronomer was born in Andover, MA in 1925 to a German immigrant pastry baker who ran away from Hamburg at age 12, changed his Prussian name, and signed on to serve as a ship's cookie. Albers Sr. baked the celebratory cake at the Russo-Japanese Peace Conference and baked for every president from Teddy Roosevelt to Eisenhower. Albers’ mother, Edna Oliver, came from a long-time Maine sea-faring family, and the family credited his early fascination with the stars to this association with the sea.

After graduation from Punchard High School, Albers served in WWII in the Army Air Corps and saw service in the Po Valley campaign in radar maintenance. Returning, he became part of Harvard's Class of 1950. The largest class ever at that time, it is still referred to as “The Great Middle Class.” He received his MA at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, and then entered Case Institute of Technology, where he earned the first PhD from Warner Swasey Observatory in 1956. He taught at Butler University and MacalesterCollege before beginning work at Vassar in 1958.

Upon his retirement to Falmouth, MA in 1991, Albers continued his passionate teaching of math and physics in the Volunteers in Public Schools Program and was honored with a “Volunteer of the Year” Award. Invited as a guest lecturer, he sailed on fourteen cruises throughout the world. Frequently he would find Vassar alums and retired faculty in his audience.

In 1998 Albers moved to Fairhope, AL. There he continued hisparticipation in teaching, served on the board of the Eastern Shore Institute of Life Long Learning, and worked with the Friends of the Library, as he had in Falmouth. He advanced in his avocations of painting, choral singing, and gardening.

Albers is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Wilma Clarice Smith and their three children, Catherine of Los Angeles, Christina of New Orleans, and Henry Peter of San Francisco, and two grandchildren, Henry Edward and Sarah Anne Kuczynski. Memorials may be directed to the Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship. The death was attributed to pneumonia originating from complications of Parkinson's disease. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has accepted his full body donation for scientific research, including their new brain study on mental illnesses including Parkinson’s.