Samuel Alfred Mitchell (born April 29, 1874 in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and died February 22, 1960 in Bloomington, Indiana) of Canada was an astronomer who studied Solar Eclipses and set up a program to use photographic techniques to determine the distance to stars at McCormick Observatory, where he served as the director.
Mitchell was born in Kingston, Ontario the son of John Cook and Sarah Chown Mitchell was the sixth of ten children to grow up in the Mitchell home. At age twelve he went off to Kingston Collegiate Institute. From there, he went on to Queen's University
where he received his Masters of Arts in mathematics in 1894. While at Queen's University, he acquired knowledge of the techniques of an astronomical observatory when he was asked to care for the astronomical instruments of the university.
Upon encouragement from his math professor, Nathan Dupuis, he left in 1895 for The Johns Hopkins University to study math under Simon Newcomb, only to find Newcomb retired. Thomas Craig was the new head of mathematics and Mitchell also began study under Charles Lane Poor, the head of astronomy. Poor was an excellent teacher and Mitchell was inclined to follow astronomy from that point on. Mitchell was awarded an astronomy assistantship for his second year at JHU and continued until he received his PhD in 1898 with his thesis published in the Astrophysical Journal, which included a discussion of the amount of astigmatism of a concave grating. While at Hopkins, his astronomy duties consisted of caring for the astronomical transit instrument and the clocks in the little observatory behind the physics laboratory, and the 9.5-inch refractor in the dome of the laboratory roof.
Following receipt of his doctoral degree, Mitchell set out for the brand new Yerkes Observatory
where he began work as a research student in 1898. Though he enjoyed his work at Yerkes, he was enticed to move away and became an instructor in astronomy at Columbia University
in June 1899. That December he married Milly Gray Dumble, the daughter of Professor E. T. Dumble who was then the State Geologist of Texas
. Over the fourteen years he was at Columbia, Mitchell taught undergraduate courses in descriptive astronomy both at Columbia and later for girls from Barnard College
, a year long course in geodesy for third year students, which continued into a first semester fourth year course, and a six week summer camp for civil engineers.
In 1900, he took what would be for him the first of ten eclipse
expeditions. The May 28
eclipse took him to Griffin, Georgia
with the United States Naval Observatory
. Mitchell became a world-renowned authority on solar eclipses through his numerous expeditions, including trips to: Sawah Loento, Sumatra
in the Dutch West Indies
), Daroca, Spain
), Baker, Oregon
), San Diego, California
), Van Vleck Observatory
, Middleton, Connecticut
), Fagernas, Norway
), Niuafoou or "Tin-Can" Island, Tonga
, in the South Pacific Ocean (October 22
), Magog, Quebec
), and Kanton Island
), this time as the scientific leader of a National Geographic Society
Expedition. An article entitled "Nature's Most Dramatic Spectacle" by Mitchell appeared in the September 1938 edition of National Geographic Magazine
. These ten expeditions allowed him to write Eclipses of the Sun, summarizing his work on solar flash spectra, first published in 1923 and produced through five editions (5th edition, 1951). On the 1918 Oregon and the 1925 Connecticut eclipses, Mitchell was aaccompanied by the artist Howard Russell Butler (1856-1934), whose paintings of totality
graced the old Hayden Planetarium
of the American Museum of Natural History
for many years.
Parallax work and Leander McCormick Observatory
Mitchell went back to Yerkes for the summers of 1909, 1910 and 1911 and then returned for a fifteen month sabbatical in 1912 and 1913. Frank Schlesinger
first demonstrated the technique of determining stellar parallaxes photographically at Yerkes in 1905, and Mitchell (along with Frederick Slocum) carried out research applying the technique, publishing their results in 1913. At that point, he was offered the directorship at the Leander McCormick Observatory
at the University of Virginia
. Mitchell spent much of his time and energy as director coming up with funds for running the observatory and paying staff and graduate students. Mitchell started the use of photographic plates with the visual 26-inch refractor shortly after his arrival at the University of Virginia. He became well known for his work on stellar parallaxes and photometry. Dr. Mitchell was liked by faculty and students alike, known for helping to bring prestige to the University.
Mitchell was elected Director Emeritus in 1945 with a wealth of academic and scientific honors attributed to him. He was a member of the following societies: National Academy of Sciences
(elected in 1933, elected to council in 1940, awarded James Craig Watson
Medal in 1948), American Association for the Advancement of Science
(Vice-President in 1921), American Astronomical Society
(Vice-President 1925-1927), Royal Astronomical Society
(fellow and associate), International Astronomical Union
(president of Commission on Solar Eclipses and Commission on Stellar Parallaxes and Proper Motions), American Association of University Professors
(chairman of Committee A, on Academic Freedom and Tenure), American Philosophical Society
, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Mitchell's son, Allan C. G. Mitchell (1902-1963), was chair of the Indiana University
Physics Department from 1938-1963 and pioneered the creation of the IU Cyclotron
Facility in 1941 (one of the first in the world).
Mitchell's granddaughter is the economist Alice Mitchell Rivlin.