Close Encounters of 20th Century Astronomers: Lois Slocum

One of the most important historical documents in the Van Vleck Observatory’s collections is its guestbook, which was kept from 1916 until 1942 and signed by many noteworthy astronomers from all over the globe.  I spent my summer working with a list of over 900 signatures dating back nearly a century.

Although there are several household names in the Van Vleck Observatory guestbook, one that stood out from the beginning was Lois T. Slocum. Of course, she was labeled a person of interest first and foremost because of her family name; the head of the astronomy department at Wesleyan from the dedication of Van Vleck until 1944 was Frederick Slocum. Despite the shared surname, who Lois was—and how she might be related to Frederick—remained a mystery.

Lois signed the guestbook on three occasions, first in 1921, again in 1923, and then again in 1932, each time citing an affiliation with Smith College Observatory and visiting along with other Smith professors or known astronomers. Further, she is mentioned in the Publications of the Van Vleck Observatory as having worked as a computer on several occasions.

So, she was certainly a Smith-affiliated astronomer with close ties to the Wesleyan astronomy department; but who was she to our Frederick Slocum? As fate would have it, the answer came from Fred himself. Buried within the boxes of Professor Slocum’s correspondence is a series of letters under Lois’s letterhead and addressed to “Aunt Carrie and Uncle Fred.”

1933 Letter from Lois to her Uncle Fred

Lois T. Slocum to Carrie and Frederick Slocum, 19 May 1933. Frederick W. Slocum Correspondence, Van Vleck Observatory Collections, Wesleyan University.

These sorts of small victories have been crucial this summer. The process of teasing out a history from such a meager source has been tedious; this summer, I have had days and days go by without finding much information about a single signatory, and I have also had days where every single search turns up a treasure trove of results. Working with an artifact like the guestbook is all about tenacity, and so finding Lois’s letters was cause for celebration.

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One thought on “Close Encounters of 20th Century Astronomers: Lois Slocum

  1. Lois Slocum did not leave a large footprint in the publications listed in the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, although she does have a number of papers to her credit. She was, however, apparently much admired by those who knew her before her early death in 1951. Harvard astronomer Bart Bok delivered a Lois Tripp Slocum Memorial Lecture at Wilson College on November 6,1951 that provides an interesting account of what was then known about the Milky Way galaxy. A written version of Bok’s talk appeared in the December, 1951, issue of Popular Astronomy — just before the magazine ceased publication.

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