UC Berkeley Astronomy Department History

An east-side view of the original Campbell Hall building, before construction of its replacement.

Astronomy research and instruction at the Berkeley campus began in the 1870s, when Astronomy was a required course for engineering students. Astronomy was initially taught by George Davidson, natural scientist and chief of the Pacific Division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, soon followed by Frank Soule, who taught mathematics, civil engineering, and astronomy. Soule led the astronomy program for about two decades until the early 1890s, when he assigned teaching to Armin O. Leuschner, a mathematics instructor. Leuschner went on to head the department until 1938. During his tenure, Astronomy at Berkeley achieved distinction in the field, particularly by producing graduate students and for work on the discovery and computation of orbits of comets and “minor planets” (commonly known as asteroids today).

The Berkeley Astronomy Department was complemented by the University’s Lick Observatory, built in 1888 and, at the time of its completion, one of the premiere facilities for astronomical observation in the world. The astronomy programs at Berkeley and Lick were interwoven; Advanced students received instruction at Berkeley but did much of their actual observation work using the facilities at Lick. Of those graduates awarded PhD’s by the Department of Astronomy between 1898 and 1965, about half held research fellowships at Lick Observatory.

In addition to Leuschner Observatory, Astronomy added another remote facility — the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at Hat Creek in north/central California — in 1958, during the period Campbell Hall was being constructed.

The Department of Astronomy had expanded to a faculty of ten by the mid-1960s when Campbell Hall was new, teaching ten undergraduate courses and accommodating about 110 majors, including 45 graduate studnets. There are currently over 30 faculty and emeriti associated with the Department, as well as numerous research and administrative staff. The Department offers more than 20 courses, ranging from upper-division Astronomy to general interest surveys for non-majors.

William Wallace Campbell

Campbell Hall is named for William Wallace Campbell, who served as the tenth President of the University of California. His term lasted from 1923-1930. Campbell was one of two UC presidents to bridge the period between the retirement of Benjamin Ide Wheeler in 1919 (after 20 years as President) and Robert Gordon Sproul (1930-1959). 

Campbell was, by training and avocation, an astronomer. Educated at the University of Michigan, he came to the University of California’s Lick Observatory in the 1890’s and served as its director from 1901 until 1923, when he became UC President.

Campbell’s pre-Depression tenure as UC President is regarded as “a period of quiet and prosperity (when) the University grew tremendously, aided by generous private gifts.” (Centennial Record, p.17). The conversion of the University’s “Southern Branch” into the UCLA campus took place during his administration, launching the University of California as a true multi-campus system. At the Berkeley campus, substantial growth and construction occurred or was intiated during his tenure.

Campbell retired from the university in 1930. The following year,  he became President of the National Academy of Sciences and guided it through the early years of the Depression. He passed away in in 1938, after suffering from poor health.

Taken from the Historic Resource Evaluation Draft, authored by Page & Turnbull, Inc. in 2003.


Past Department Chairs

  • Armin Otto Leuschner
  • Russell Tracy Crawford
  • Charles Donald Shane
    (1941- 1946)
  • Sturla Einarsson
  • Otto Struve
  • Louis Henyey
  • John Phillips
  • Ivan King
  • George Field
  • John Phillips
    (1971 -1927)
  • Harold Weaver
  • Leonard Kuhi
  • John Gaustad
  • Hyron Spinrad
  • Frank Shu
  • Marc Davis
  • Jonathan Arons
  • Marc Davis
  • Jonathan Arons
  • Donald Backer
  • Jonathan Arons
  • Donald Backer
  • James Graham
  • Imke de Pater
  • Gibor Basri
  • Eugene Chiang
  • Chung-Pei Ma
    (Fall 2018)
  • Alex Filippenko
    (Spring 2019)
  • Eliot Quataert
  • Josh Bloom
  • Jessica Lu
    (2023- )