Dean of American Astronomers
Dr. Harlow Shapley was born on November 2, 1885 in Nashville, MO, just northwest of Carthage. Although he was denied admission to Carthage High School because he lacked sufficient early education he was admitted to the Carthage Collegiate Institute (on the site of what is now Mark Twain School). There he completed a six-year Latin-Scientific course of study in one and a half years. He graduated in 1907 as valedictorian. From there he went on to the University of Missouri in Columbia with the intention of enrolling in the world’s first School of Journalism. Upon learning it would not be operational until the following term, he began the study of astronomy. He graduated with his bachelor of arts in 1910 and master of arts degree in 1911. In 1913 he earned the doctor of philosophy degree from Princeton University. From there he earned many additional doctorates, at least 16 honorary, from numerous institutions of higher learning around the globe.
From 1914 until 1921, Dr. Shapley was an astronomer at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California. While there he introduced new methods for the determination of great stellar distances and the new concept of the size of the Milky Way Galaxy. From 1921 until 1952, he was a professor of astronomy and director of the Harvard Observatory where he worked on many projects including photometry and spectroscopy. From 1952 until his “retirement” in 1956, he was the Paine Professor of Astronomy at Harvard where worked on special projects and traveled to universities worldwide to lecture.
One of Dr. Shapley’s most important discoveries was that the sun is not the center of the universe, as had been believed for centuries, and he placed the center of the Galaxy, of which Earth is a part, at some 25,000 light years distance from this planet in the direction of Sagittarius. This point has been known as the Shapley Center.
Like Carl Hubbell, Bertha Teague, and Janet Kavandi (other Hall of Carthage Heroes members) he did not spend a great deal of time in Carthage, but his impact on the world was significant. Dr. Shapley discovered his intellect in Carthage and went on to share it with the world for more than 60 years. He was mentioned in the same sentence “with Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein as one of the greatest scientists in history”. Another article described him as “one of a mere handful of mental giants who have lifted man out of an earthbound existence into the Space Age. His genius is acclaimed throughout the world”.
May 3, 1963 was declared Harlow Shapley Day in Carthage, MO. He came “home” to receive recognition for his achievements including an honorary diploma from Carthage High School. In remarks at the dinner honoring him, he listed his four principles: 1) do not be afraid to explore new ideas; 2) never stop learning; 3) the greater the scope of your interests, the better you serve the world; 4) do not rest on your laurels, but seek more goals and work harder.