Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory to Honor Legendary Astronomer

Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff will dedicate a memorial to astronomer Robert Burnham, Jr. on Saturday, August 15.

Almost 12 years ago -- in September, 1997 -- it was Phoenix NewTimes that shocked astronomers around the world with news that Burnham had died four years earlier and almost no one knew it.

Burnham was famous for his 2,000-page, three-volume guide to the heavens titled Burnham's Celestial Handbook, which, to this day, is very popular with telescope-users around the world.

He had produced the books while an employee at Lowell, but in 1979 theobservatory fired him, and Burnham never really recovered from it. As the New Times story explained, after living for a while with his sister in Phoenix, Burnham vanished in 1986. He apparently spent the last seven years of his life in San Diego, destitute, and selling paintings in Balboa Park.

Two years ago, fans of Burnham's books began an effort to memorialize him, and approached Lowell's director, Robert Millis. To his credit, Millis agreed that it was time Lowell remembered its former employee.

A plaque depicting Burnham has been affixed to a boulder on the pathway to the Pluto Telescope, which Clyde Tombaugh famously used in 1930 to discover the ninth planet (before it was downgraded recently), and which Burnham and his partner Norm Thomas used in a 20-year proper motion survey of the entire northern skies.

The ceremony to dedicate the memorial takes place at Lowell's Henry Giclas Hall at 2 pm.

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