The Bruce Medalists


  Portrait Photo ca. 1966, courtesy Archives, California Institute of Technology
Jesse Leonard Greenstein
15 October 1909 1971 Bruce Medalist 21 October 2002

Jesse Greenstein was born in New York and educated at Harvard University, with four depression years spent in business between his master’s degree and Ph.D. studies. He worked at Yerkes Observatory, which included McDonald Observatory, from 1937 to 1948. He became the founding head of the graduate program in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology at the time of the inauguration of the 200-inch telescope and the joint operation of Palomar and Mt. Wilson Observatories, and he directed the Caltech astronomy program until 1972. A spectroscopist with interests in theory and instrumentation, he explored the interstellar medium, the colors of nebulae, abundances of the elements and isotopes, and peculiar stars. His abundance project showed that stars in globular clusters and the galactic halo have smaller abundances of heavy elements and are therefore older than the Sun. He made detailed studies of white dwarf stars, observing hundreds with the Hale Telescope and determining their masses, luminosities, temperatures, compositions, gravitational redshifts, magnetic fields, and motions. During World War II he and Louis Henyey developed a wide-field camera which had both military and astronomical applications. He collaborated in the discovery of quasars by Maarten Schmidt in 1963. Greenstein was an early supporter of radio astronomy, and instigated the founding of Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory. He was an important advisor to government agencies and held many administrative positions, including chairing the National Research Council Astronomy Survey Committee, which published the astronomical community’s recommendations for funding for astronomy and astrophysics in the 1970s. In 1995, long after retirement, he revisited the prime focus cage of the Hale telescope.

Presentation of Bruce medal
Weaver, Harold F., PASP 83, 243-47 (1971).

Other awards
American Astronomical Society, Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1970.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold Medal, 1975, presented by D.E. Blackwell, QJRAS 16, 356-57 (1975).

Biographical materials
Boesgaard, A.M., “The Scientific Career of Jesse L. Greenstein,” IAU Symposium 132, xvii-xxiii (1988).
Garstang, Roy H., Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (Springer, NY, 2007), pp. 438-40.
Greenstein, J.L., “An Astronomical Life,” Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 22, 1-35 (1984).
Kraft, Robert P., Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Science 86, 1-27 (2005).

California Institute of Technology, 22 October 2002
Chang, Kenneth, New York Times, 24 October 2002
Engineering and Science, LXVI, no. 1 (2003)
Gunn, James, Bull. Amer. Astr. Soc. 35, 1463-66 (2003).
McFarling, Usha Lee, Los Angeles Times, 25 October 2002, p. B15
Naeye, Robert, Mercury 32, 2, 5-6 (Mar/Apr 2003)
Sargent, Wallace L.W., Astronomy & Geophysics 45, 2.38-2.40 (2004).
Trimble, Virginia, PASP 115, 890-96 (2003).
Wallerstein, George, Physics Today 56, 12, 84 (2003).

Caltech Archives (many)
AIP Center for History of Physics

Named after him
Minor Planet #4612 Greenstein

More references

The Bruce Medalists

Please send comments, additions, corrections, and questions to