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The Astronomer Fred Lawrence Whipple

Updated on December 11, 2021
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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.

Fred Whipple at 95.
Fred Whipple at 95.

Early Years

Born as the son of a farmer, in Red Oak, Iowa on the 5th of November, 1906, Fred Lawrence Whipple, son of Lawrence Whipple and Celestia (MacFarland) Whipple, would eventually go on to change the scientific community with his theories.

When Whipple was four, his younger brother's death from Scarlett fever proved traumatic for him and his parents. Whipple and his mother also contracted Scarlett fever, but they survived. A year later, when Whipple was five, he narrowly survived polio. This dashed his dream of being a professional tennis player since it made his left leg over one inch shorter than his right. His mother became concerned for the family health and had the three family members get a preventative appendectomy.

His early education took place in a one-room school house which did not satisfy his craving for knowledge. Soon he began frequenting the town library and engrossing himself in fairy tales as well as science fiction. Even at this young age he read the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells. When he found an author that attracted him, he read their works completely.

Eight grades took classes in that single room school house. Whipple described in a later interview that there were usually fewer than eight students in the school house. When he made it to Emerson High School there were about 60 students. He didn't talk to many of the other students, he attributes this to the children not being able to understand the complexities of the things he was interested in. He said "It was a cross-section of the intelligence quota of the gene bank. There was very little to talk to them about."

By the time Whipple had reached high school he was renown for his spelling and ciphering abilities, even winning several spelling bees. His farm life gained him exposure to machinery, he became intrigued with the specific workings and functions of the machinery. He used Erector and Meccano sets to build models of the machinery and created custom chemistry experiments at home. For a time he became intrigued by radio and how the waves communicated between devices.

When Whipple was 15, he and his family moved from their farm in Iowa to Long Beach, CA. His father, who had been an Elder at the Presbyterian church in Red Oaks, took religion very seriously. When Whipple went off to college, he continued as a member of the Christian Endeavor Society, but mostly broke away from the church. He saw it as irrational and after a long time, he left the religious part of his life behind.

College Years

Whipple's parents focused on his success, especially after the untimely death of his younger brother. His precocity, combined with his willingness to learn a vast array of subjects made him destined for college. Whipple started his education at Occidental College, a small Presbyterian school east of Los Angeles. The weather increased Whipple's ability to partake in recreational activities. He made friends, played tennis, and built radio sets, but was still finding Occidental College deficient. After much pleading and persuasion, his parents agreed to let him attend UCLA provided he spent his weekends working at the grocery store with his father.

At UCLA, Whipple majored in mathematics, much to his parents chagrin, as they were hoping to have a doctor in the family. UCLA is where Whipple first discovered astronomy, which immediately piqued his interest. It was taught by Frederick C. Leonard, who eventually helped Whipple secure his position in a graduate fellowship at Berkeley.

By 1927, Whipple was working at Berkeley with their summer work at home program. This was followed by summer teaching at Stanford in 1929. Though Leonard helped Whipple secure his graduate fellowship, Whipple doesn't attribute his exposure to orbit theory to Leonard, but instead to Armin Otto Leuschner, who was Whipple's primary professor during his graduate years.

Whipple was awarded a Lick Fellowship in 1930-31. During his time at the Lick Observatory, Whipple was exposed to astrophysics while working under the guidance of Donald Menzel and to stellar astronomy while working under Robert Trumpler and C. Donald Shane. The graduate students at the observatory were competitive and would often have contests to see who could complete computations the quickest.

The Veritas Array at Whipple Observatory

Professional Career

While working as a graduate student with Ernest Clare Bower and two other students under the direction of Leuschner, Whipple aided in the discovery of Pluto's orbit. These findings were published in 1930. Much notoriety came with this discovery as astronomer's and physicist's entered debates over whether Pluto was Percival Lowell's fabled planet X.

The publicity of the research could have ensured Whipple a career in the field of orbit theory, and he certainly had the interest. Ultimately though, Whipple knew that publishing his own thesis in astrophysics would put him in the mainstream. He continued to work under Menzel conducting spectroscopic observations at Lick Observatory.

In 1931, Whipple completed his thesis, which described the variations in line profiles for Cepheids based upon a pulsation model using two Cepheid variables. His thesis was accepted, though he did not succeed at proving his theory. This, and subsequent attempts Whipple made to engage in mainstream astrophysics, ultimately failed. He returned to the realm of mathematical astronomy and orbit theory. Orbital theory is the science of the physical laws used to explain the motion of the planets as they orbit the sun.

Whipple tended to work better with Menzel than any of the other astronomers at Lick. Menzel eventually recommended Whipple for a position as a junior observer at Harvard Observatory. Once he began working at the Harvard Observatory, Whipple initiated a new design for the main observation telescope. His new design had more mirrors and a simpler mount to limit weight and expense, while also providing a larger aperture.

Working at the Harvard Observatory led to his ultimate discover of several asteroids and comets. He tracked the trajectory of meteors and proved that they originated within our own solar system, and not from interstellar space as previously thought. In 1933, he discovered 36P/Whipple, a periodic comet and the asteroid 1252 Celestia. With a group of others, he discovered five other non-periodic comets, the first being the Peltier-Whipple comet.

Comet 1P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island.
Comet 1P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island.

World War II

Like many scientists and engineers of that day he was drawn in work to support America in World War II. Whipple created a device that confused enemy radar by using tinfoil cut into chaff. v. Whipple was awarded a Certificate of Merit in 1948 for this device. He also invented the "Whipple Shield" which vaporizes small particles thus keeping them from endangering spacecraft. This device works on both manned and un-manned spacecraft.

Work at Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Whipple was a professor of Astronomy at Harvard from 1950 until 1977. He wrote a series of papers entitled A Comet Model early in his teaching career. These papers became quite influential and were published in Astrophysical Journal. These papers were the first to high-light his theory on the composition of comets. His observation of comets and meteors had inspired him to formulate the "dirty snowball" hypothesis. This hypothesis, which was proven upon the return of Halley's comet in 1986, states that the head of a comet houses a nucleus. This nucleus is comprised of ices of water, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane mixed with dust. The area called the coma surrounds the nucleus which glows due to a combination of reflected sunlight and the ionization of escaping gases.

In 1955, when Loyal Blaine Aldrich died, Whipple was elected as director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), a post which he maintained until 1973. Whipple looked forward to the days when there would be artificial satellites. He even organized Operation Moonwatch in order to track them. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in 1957, Operation Moonwatch was the only organization equipped to observe it. Life magazine featured him and some of his researchers on the cover and had a story outlining their prowess of observation.

The movie Conquest of Space, which Disney released in 1955, had Whipple as one of the chief science consultants.

Under his leadership, SAO was able to develop an optical tracking system for satellites. The network was spectacularly successful and enabled astronomers to determine the exact shape of the earth from the effect its gravitational pull had on satellite orbits. For his influence on the project, Whipple was given the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Award from President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Whipple later said it was his most exciting moment.

Whipple continued his work well past retirement and in 1999, at the age of 93, was made a consultant on NASA's contour mission. He is the oldest person to accept such a post.

Personal Life

Whipple never quit reading, especially science fiction. He got lost in Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernback and other pulp fiction stories of the time. In 1928, Whipple met Dorothy Woods, a native to Los Angeles, and married her. In 1930, they had their first and only son, Earle Raymond Whipple. This marriage ended in a divorce. Whipple married Babette Samuelson Whipple, from Belmont, MA in 1946 and had two daughters, Sandra and Laura, with her.

In the late 1960s, Mount Hopkins in Arizona was selected by Whipple as the site for the new SAO astronomical observatory. This is where the first multiple mirror telescope was placed. In 1981, the observatory was officially renamed the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory.

In his 1978 autobiography, Whipple credits mathematics as veering him through physics and into astronomy "where time, space, and physics had a common meeting ground."

The last known media appearance Whipple made was in the science documentary Target...Earth? which was released in 1980.

The Astrophysical Journal completed a survey in 2003 and found that Whipple's papers discussing his "icy conglomerate" model were the most cited series of papers within the past 50 years.

Whipple wasn't without his hobbies. Sources say that he was an avid rose grower and cultivator in his spare time. He also wrote several books including; Earth, Moon and Planets, Orbiting the Sun: Planets and Satellites of the Solar System, Particulate Contents of Space, and Survey of the Universe. All currently available through Amazon.

Whipple died on August 30th, 2004, in Cambridge, MA, just shy of his 98th birthday. His obituaries can be found in the Washington Post written by Adam Bernstein, Physics Today written by Don Brownlee and Paul Hodge, the New York Times written by Kenneth Chang, in Astronomy & Geophysics written by David Hughes and many other publications.

For the almost century he was on the earth, Fred Lawrence Whipple, changed the course of human events. He showed his true patriotism during WWII and was prepared for the inevitable when the Soviets launched into space. The ability we have today to explore space, launch telecommunication satellites, even to have a world of information at our finger tips is largely in part to the vision of this man who, unlike most, lived to see his theories become confirmed and his visions become realized in everyday life.

Multiple Mirror telescope at the Fred Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Arizona in 1981.
Multiple Mirror telescope at the Fred Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Arizona in 1981. | Source


  • Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Second Revised Edition. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1982.
  • Milhorn, H. Thomas. The History of Astronomy and Astrophysics: A Biographical Approach. Publishing Inc., 2008.

© 2014 Doug West


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