Observations eclipse early obstacles

Chancellor William Chauvenet nurtured Edward S. Holden’s interest in astronomy on the campus of Washington University, but Holden’s initial fascination with the field sprang from a series of circumstances associated with childhood tragedy.

The Lick Observatory at Mount Hamilton in California circa 1880.
The Lick Observatory at Mount Hamilton in California, circa 1880.

Born in St. Louis, Edward Holden was 3 years old in 1849 when his mother and sister died of cholera. Holden’s father later sent him back East to live with an aunt near Boston, where he attended school with a cousin whose father happened to be director of the Harvard Observatory.

Brought up in an intellectual atmosphere, Holden spent time around noted scientists on the Harvard campus, the nearby botanical gardens and at the observatory, where he caught his first glimpse of the star Vega through one of the finest telescopes of that era.

Returning to St. Louis as a teenager, Holden began studies at the Washington University-affiliated prep school before enrolling at the university itself in 1862. One the university’s brighter students, he soon began studying astronomy under the tutelage of Chancellor Chauvenet.

Then, cholera struck again, claiming the life of Holden’s father. Chauvenet invited the orphaned student to live in the chancellor’s residence, and he grew close to the family, eventually marrying Chauvenet’s daughter, Mary. (6)

After graduation, Holden headed back East to continue his studies at West Point, but his relationship with astronomers at Washington University would continue for decades.

Following military service, Holden landed a job as a professor at the U.S. Naval Observatory, where he served as an assistant to the influential astronomer Simon Newcomb. He directed the observatory at Washburn University in Wisconsin for five years before securing his appointment as the first director of Lick Observatory, located high on  Mount Hamilton, California.