Sunday, May 19, 2013

F.W. Russell, Meteor Watch Organizer

F. W. RUSSELL, Meteor Watch Organizer 

Born: 29 January 1845, Winchendon, Massachusetts
Died: 20 November 1915, Dallas, Texas

Frederick William Russell watched meteors from 1861 to 1867, often with the cooperation of other teen-aged observers in Natick, Massachusetts.  Russell and his friends watched meteors in an era when there were many facts still unknown about meteors and meteor showers.  Observers’ assignments were to gather basic data about them. 

Today we are accustomed to near certainty about the dates when meteor showers will recur.  This was not the case in the early to mid-19th century and meteor watchers scheduled their observations to identify these dates and determine from where in the sky meteors emanated. Their hope was to identify meteor showers that repeated their appearances from year to year.  Watches were often made by observers who concentrated on opposite sides of the sky so that meteors’ points of origin, called radiants, would not be missed and the total number of meteors seen all over the sky could be counted per hour or per night.  Even in the early 1860s it was not certain that the ‘August meteors,’ now known as the Perseid meteor shower, were an annual occurrence or not. 

Fred Russell’s earliest published meteor report was made when he was 16 years old.  His report to the American Journal of Science (AJS) revealed that he was a sophisticated observer and data reporter.  He and Edmund L. Pray, another 16-year-old, performed a seven-hour meteor watch on the night of 10 August to 11 August, 1861.  The two apparently watched the sky while back-to-back and saw 397 different meteors.  Additionally, their report to AJS’ meteoric investigator, Edward Herrick (1811-1862), specified the number of meteors seen each hour they watched the sky that night.  The teenagers also kept notes about the brightness of the hundreds of meteors seen.  Along with other observers’ reports, Russell and Pray’s comprehensive account allowed Herrick to conclude that the August meteor shower had returned in 1861 as it had in previous years. 

Astronomers were not content to know that a shower returned annually; they also wished to learn the date the greatest number of shower members appeared.  In order to accomplish this, observers planned watches on consecutive nights when showers had been seen in previous years.  Their nightly watches revealed which night in the series yielded the greatest hourly meteor rate.  Over succeeding years, astronomers were able to clarify the calendar date of the shower “maximum,” the day when the shower’s meteors were most numerous.   

Fred Russell and his young associates participated in this maximum-identifying exercise too, by systematically monitoring the sky during a meteor shower.  As an example Russell performed a series of observations for the nights of 11 through 14 November 1861 in order to identify the night when the most ‘November (Leonid) meteors’ appeared.  His watches’ data helped to pinpoint the morning of 14 November as having the peak meteor rate of the 1861 shower. 

Meteor astronomers also watched during moonless nights that were not previously known to produce great numbers of shooting stars.  Here, the goal was to determine the average number of meteors that could be expected to occur per hour on a non-shower night. Knowing an average, non-shower meteor rate was important because a real meteor outburst could be confirmed by comparing the suspected outburst rate with the non-shower rate. Russell participated in this base-rate type of data gathering too.  In the fall of 1861, he and two other 16-year-olds, Edmund L. Pray and George W. Hanchett, watched the skies from September 23 to 29 and again from 1 to 7 November so that an average number of meteors could be calculated from the hourly counts of their watch. As a result, Russell was able to report an average of five meteors per hour, per observer, for the September nights and five per hour for the November ones too.  Sometimes, in the process of keeping a careful multi-night watch, new annually recurring showers were discovered.  Russell and his friends witnessed a brief meteor surge on one of the September nights but it was not confirmed in subsequent years.  However, had the surge repeated, their 1861 sighting would have been the first observation of a new, recurring shower.    

Russell’s observations were interrupted from September 13, 1862 until May 1, 1863 while he accompanied his father Ira, a Union Army surgeon, to the senior Russell’s new assignment: managing military hospitals in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  While in Arkansas, Fred served as a Union Army Hospital Corps clerk; this war-time exposure to medical facilities, their management and clinical practices was a preview of what a medical career might be like. 

When he returned from Arkansas, Fred Russell appears to have learned some manpower management skills from his father’s hospital administration.  Russell filed a meteor report of observations made from 4 August to 13 August 1863 in which four others assisted.  As a practical matter, it would have been physically impossible for him to personally carry out all watches on the nine dates mentioned in the report.  His assistants were, J.H. Wilson, F.W. Harwood, and E.H. Wolcott and Walter G. Bryant.  The first three men watched with Russell from Natick, Massachusetts (MA) while Bryant, a 15-year-old, kept watch in Winchendon, MA.  An 1874 fire destroyed city records for the years 1860-1870, so Wilson, Harwood, and Wolcott’s ages remain unknown but all were likely adolescents like Fred.  

Russell’s report of the 1863 August meteors was filed with Hubert Anson Newton (1830-1896), Yale College’s 33-year-old professor of astronomy who continued to compile observers’ meteor reports after E.C. Herrick died in 1862.  The report shows that Russell organized his observer corps to combine forces on the nights of 10, 11 and 12 August so that the hours of 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. were manned by observers each night.  The group’s meteor counts on those nights showed the highest count on the 10th (197 August meteors) and dramatically fewer on the 11th and 12th (35 and 43 respectively).  The meteor counts gave Professor Newton one indication that the night of August 10th/11th was likely the meteor shower’s maximum.  
The most complete observer coverage was for the night of 10th August when all four Natick observers watched from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m.; and three watched from 12 midnight to 2 a.m. on the 11th.  Russell impressed upon his helpers the importance of not counting the same meteor twice and it is likely that the men watched different quarters of the sky.  Throughout the night Russell paid attention to the meteors’ radiant: they came from Perseus.  The group’s published data showed a steady rise in the hourly rate of observed meteors, as would be expected from a radiant that rises higher in the sky as the night progresses.  By 2 a.m. the Natick observers had seen 580 August (Perseid) meteors and 81 others which did not issue from Perseus (called ‘sporadics’ today).   Walter Bryant saw an additional 41 meteors between 8:30 and 10 p.m. the same night from Winchendon.  When all the figures were compiled and the procedures used to count them were described, the Massachusetts teens under Russell’s leadership had done a very creditable job for meteoric studies.

Fred Russell became a Yale College freshman at age 19 and continued to file meteor watch reports with Professor Newton, including one of the November (Leonid) meteors in 1865, which is in Newton’s Yale correspondence file.  On 17 October 1866, Russell wrote Newton that he had transferred to Harvard College and asked Newton to supply him with star charts upon which Russell could record meteor paths.  Drawing meteors’ paths on a chart was a more accurate way to communicate the locations of shower meteors seen.  This procedure was regarded as the most useful and least ambiguous way to record an observation session.  Russell sent his last watch report to Newton on 14 August 1867 concerning Perseid meteor observations from 7 to 13 August at Winchendon, MA.  The last written record of Russell’s astronomical efforts was a report from Benjamin Apthorp Gould (1824-1896) to Newton describing an 1867 Leonid meteor watch. Gould, a prominent astronomer, wrote that Russell had contacted him and “offered his services” to record Leonids.  Russell joined Gould and Seth Carlo Chandler (1846-1913) in a two-and-a-half hour meteor watch on the night of 13/14 November 1867.  The three saw 23 meteors and Russell accounted for 15 of them. 

After 1867 Russell’s available time for meteor watches vanished under the demands of his academic studies and professional career.  He graduated from Harvard College in 1869 and went on to the University of the City of New York to earn a medical degree. After graduation in 1870, he joined his father’s medical practice in Winchendon and together they established a sanitarium, called ‘The Highlands’, in which they treated patients with “nervous diseases and the drug habit.”  After his father’s death in 1888, Russell directed the Highlands until 1912 when ill health forced him to retire.  His memberships in the following professional and avocational societies suggest the breadth of his interests: the Boston Society of Neurology and Psychiatry, Society of Medical Superintendents of Insane Hospitals, Psychological Society of New England, Society for the Suppression of Inebriety and the Cambridge Entomological Club.  The last membership reveals that Russell had an ardent lifelong interest in insects.  He was credited with gathering and donating to science a highly regarded collection of moths.  He married Caroline Marvin on 11 June 1872 and the couple had two daughters and a son.  His eldest daughter, Rowena, married Frank J. Hall, a Dallas physician in 1901 and in 1912, Russell and his wife went to live with them.  After Dr. Russell died on 20 November 1915, he was buried in a family plot in Winchendon.  Russell was described as being genial and sociable and he contributed his time and leadership skills to local civic organizations and several medical professional organizations. 

Copyright 2013 Richard Taibi 

REFERENCES databases were consulted for ages of Russell’s watch confederates. 

Eastman, John Robie.  The Progress of Meteoric Astronomy in America.  Bulletin of Philosophical Society of Washington, 1890, vol. 11, pp. 328-333.  Eastman’s catalog of 19th century meteor investigators and their writings is an invaluable insight into the state of meteoric astronomy before 1890.  Accessed 19 May 2013. 

Hall, Frank J.  Obituary, Frederick William Russell.  Typewritten copy from Russell’s biographical folder.  Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts  

Harvard College Class of 1869, Frederick William Russell.  Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1869 of Harvard College, Eighth Report, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary.  1894.  Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press.  Russell signed his class portrait ‘Fred W. Russell’ 

Harvard College Class of 1869, Frederick William Russell.  Eleventh Report of the Class of 1869 of Harvard College, Fiftieth Anniversary.  June 1919.  Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press. 

Dr. Frederick William Russell.  Psyche, 1916, vol. 23, no.1, p. 25.

Herrick, E.C.  Meteoric Observations, August 10, 1861.  American Journal of Science and Art, second series, vol. 32, November 1861, p. 295.

Ira Russell Papers Inventory.  Library University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Manuscripts Department.  Webpage:,Ira.html  Accessed 19 May 2013.

Ira Russell Letters.  University of Arkansas Libraries, Special Collections.  Webpage:  Accessed 19 May 2013 

Hubert Anson Newton correspondence, Yale University Library, Manuscripts and Archives, Record Unit 274, Series I, Box 1, folders 1-4.  New Haven, Connecticut.  Letters cited are from F.W. Russell to H.A. Newton, as follows:
Nov. 1865, this date was handwritten by Newton.
October 17, 1866
August 14, 1867
B. A. Gould to H. A. Newton, 1867, Nov. 14

Newton, Hubert Anson, Summary of observations of shooting stars during the August period, 1863, American Journal of Science and Arts, second series, vol. 36, November 1863, pp. 302-306.

Prescott, Jan, President of the Natick Historical Society; e-mail correspondence to the author on 14 October 2004.  This address was accurate on 19 May 2013. 

Twining, Alexander C.  Report on the Meteors of November 1861, Addendum.  American Journal of Science and Arts, second series, vol. 33, May 1862, p.148.