William Herbert Steavenson

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William Herbert Steavenson FRAS (26 April 1894 – 23 September 1975) was an English amateur astronomer.[1][2]

W. H. Steavenson was born in Quenington, Gloucestershire, England, where his father was the Anglican vicar. He lost the vision in his right eye in a childhood accident. The family later moved to Cheltenham.[1]

Steavenson developed an interest in astronomy as a child after receiving a small folding telescope as a gift. A little later he was given a larger telescope and experimented with photographing star fields using a camera attached to the telescope. In September 1911, while still a schoolboy at Cheltenham College, he independently discovered the comet C/1911 S2, but unfortunately for him he did not check his photograph quickly enough and credit went to Ferdinand Quénisset. Nevertheless, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in January 1912 whilst still at school. He is believed to have been the youngest Fellow.[1]

He chose medicine as his profession and became a surgeon, but pursued astronomy his entire life and was a skilled observer. He moved to London to study at Guy's Hospital, setting up home at West Norwood. He subsequently practised medicine there as a family doctor. He erected there an observatory with 15-inch (38-cm) aperture reflecting telescope. He concentrated on variable stars, planets and their satellites, and comets, and also observed the remnants of old novae like Nova Persei 1901. He later set up a 20.5-inch (52-cm) aperture reflector.[1]

Steavenson studied how the human eye operates, particularly at the low-light levels encountered in visual astronomy. He measured the diameter of the pupil of a dark-adapted eye to be 1/3 inch (8mm), which was larger than the figure that was believed at that time.[1]

Steavenson also studied the optics of telescopes. He assessed the image quality provided by several large refracting telescopes.[1]

Steavenson became noted as a historian of astronomy. He studied the collection of instruments belonging to the Herschel family at Slough, and became an authority on the work of the Herschels.[1]

He moved to work as a family doctor in Cheltenham during the Second World War. He then moved to Cambridge, where he had a new 30-inch (76-cm) reflector erected in the grounds of the Cambridge Observatory and used it for visual observations.[1]

During 1957–1959 he served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society, one of the few amateur astronomers to do so in the twentieth century.[1] He was also Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, and president of the British Astronomical Association from 1926 to 1928. He directed its Saturn Section 1917-1919, Mars Section 1922-1930 and its Method of Observation Section 1932-1961.

He worked for 30 years as astronomy correspondent for The Times and won the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1928.

W. H. Steavenson spent his last years living with family in South Marston, Wiltshire. He died in 1975.[1]


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