Title: Alfred Harrison Joy Papers,
Date (inclusive): 1910-1972
Joy, Alfred Harrison
Extent: Number of containers: 10 boxes (2,150 items)
San Marino, California 91108
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Carnegie Institution of Washington Collection. This was done in 1989 as part of a letter
of agreement (dated November 5, 1987) between the Huntington and the Carnegie
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was completed in 1989 prior to their transfer to the Huntington.
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[Identification of item], Alfred Harrison Joy Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino,
Alfred Harrison Joy was a distinguished stellar astronomer who spent most of his
professional career at the Mount Wilson Observatory. His work on stellar radial
velocities, variable stars, and galactic structure in the early twentieth century laid
the groundwork for the rapidly expanding field of astrophysics. His pioneering work, his
long tenure at Mount Wilson, his central roles in the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
and American Astronomical Society, and his position as Secretary of the Observatory make
him a significant figure in the history of astronomy.
Alfred H. Joy was born in Greenville, Illinois, on September 23, 1882 to Frank and Louise
(Maynard) Joy. Little is known of his early years, but it appears that Joy's mother
passed on to her son a great love of science. When it was time for him to go to college,
he went to a small local school, Greenville College, operated by the Free Methodist
Church. He took his degree in 1903 in Latin and science, graduating in a class of seven.
Joy then spent the next year at Oberlin College in Ohio, obtaining an M.A. in physics.
His teacher at Oberlin was Charles E. St. John, who would later become his colleague at
Upon receiving his M.A. in 1904, Joy immediately obtained a teaching position at the
American University of Beirut. He was the instructor of physics at Beirut and this
included teaching astronomy. Over the years, his abilities and interest in astronomy
grew, helped by his participation in the 1905 Lick Observatory eclipse expedition in
Egypt, the transit of Mercury, and observations of the 1910 apparition of Halley's comet.
In 1909, Joy spent the summer in Oxford and Cambridge working on the
Carte du Cielproject. In the summer of 1910, Joy worked as an assistant at the Yerkes
Observatory. And in the 1910-11 academic year he obtained a Thaw fellowship to Princeton
where he received valuable astronomy instruction from Henry Norris Russell. Joy's
notebooks from Russell's classes are a valuable part of this collection (the "classes"
were one-on-one instruction sessions with Russell at his Princeton home). This period,
from 1909 to 1911, was crucial in shaping Joy's future astronomical interests.
Joy returned to Beirut in 1911 where he had recently been appointed director of the
Observatory. In 1914, he traveled to Potsdam, Germany, to continue his research
interests. At Potsdam he came into contact with Karl Schwarzschild and Ejnar Hertzsprung,
two important figures in the growing field of astrophysics. Joy then went to the Yerkes
Observatory for a second time to help in their stellar parallax program. By 1915,
however, the First World War was well underway and Joy found it impossible to get back to
Beirut. Fortunately for him, he had come to the attention of George Ellery Hale at Mount
Wilson, and Hale soon offered Joy a permanent position at Mount Wilson, a position he
held until his retirement thirty-three years later in 1948.
While Joy's first year at Mount Wilson saw work on solar matters, he soon became involved
in the stellar spectroscopy work headed by Walter S. Adams. Earlier, Adams and
Kohlsch|tter had learned how to accurately determine a star's spectral class and absolute
luminosity. Using this information it became possible for them to calculate the distance
to the star, a quantity referred to as its "spectroscopic parallax." Joy worked at
deciphering numerous stellar spectra until, in 1935, Joy and Adams had published a
catalogue of spectroscopic parallaxes of 4,179 stars.
Joy soon became involved in the study of variable stars. Splitting the stars among three
researchers at Mount Wilson, Joy worked on red semi-regular variable stars. One exception
was the remarkable long-period M-type variable, Mira (omicron Ceti). Joy had a fondness
for this famous star, perhaps due to his spectroscopic discovery of its faint companion
star in 1920. Noting the odd spectrum, Joy had written to R. G. Aitken at Lick to see if
he could visually observe the companion in their large refracting telescope. Aitken soon
saw the faint star, thus confirming Joy's discovery. Joy also amassed a great deal of
information on the W Virginis (Population II) Cepheids and RR Lyrae stars, material that
has led to a greater understanding of our Galaxy.
Joy's work on variable stars led to many new results which increased astronomers'
understanding of these peculiar objects. He showed in 1933 that the emission lines in RW
Tauri's spectrum were due to a small Saturn-like ring around the brighter primary star.
Joy identified many spectroscopic binaries and initiated spectroscopic studies of dwarf
Another of Joy's important researches was his study of galactic rotation. From his
earlier studies of the radial velocity of Cepheid variables, he collected a large sample
of data and demonstrated that the Population I Cepheids constituted a low-velocity family
of stars and was able to calculate the coordinates of the Galaxy's center.
Perhaps Joy's most far-reaching work was that on the T Tauri stars. This came about
because of his study of M-type dwarfs. Joy became acquainted with these latter stars
during his work with Adams. As Joy became interested in the M dwarfs' habit of "flaring,"
he came across the unusual star UZ Tauri. This type of star, described by Joy as a T
Tauri variable in 1945, later proved to be the transition between interstellar clouds and
In 1919, Joy married Margherita O. Burns, a computer at the Observatory. The next year,
he was appointed Secretary of the Observatory. In this new position, Joy was constantly
in contact with the community and press regarding astronomical matters in general and
happenings at the Mount Wilson Observatory in particular. Joy remained as Secretary, in
addition to his other duties, until his retirement in 1948.
Joy's most infamous feat was his unfortunate accident in 1946 at the age of sixty-four
when he fell twenty feet from the Cassegrain platform of the 100-inch telescope to the
cement floor. Breaking an arm, a leg, and his hip, Joy was hospitalized but with
characteristic vigor, was back observing eight months later.
A great deal of correspondence in the collection is with the Astronomical Society of the
Pacific. Joy served in many capacities with this organization, being on its Board of
Directors, President in 1931 and 1939, and from 1945 to 1968, editor of the Leaflets, a
monthly issuance of small eight page reports for laymen and astronomers on new results in
astronomy. In 1950, the Society presented Joy with its highest award, the Bruce Gold
Medal. Joy was active in other organizations as well, particularly the American
Astronomical Society, being its President from 1949 to 1952. In 1949, Joy was elected to
the National Academy of Sciences and in 1964 was named an Associate of the Royal
Astronomical Society. In closing, perhaps the best description of Joy comes from his
close friend George H. Herbig: "His scientific work was typical of the man himself: it
was done quietly, patiently, with gentle humor, with great honesty and generosity. It was
accomplished without fanfare, published without arrogance or pretence, and with
recognition of the debt he owed to others. Joy was usually content simply to report what
he had seen or done, in the conviction that speculation or over-interpretation is often
evanescent, but that solid observations would inevitably survive."