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Bok, Bart Jan (1906–1983)

by Ben Gascoigne

One of the best-known astronomers of his generation died on August 5 in Tucson, Arizona. Professor Bart J. Bok, will be remembered in Canberra as the ebullient, energetic director of Mount Stromlo Observatory in the years 1957-66. Most people knew him as a public lecturer of great skill and character and as a tireless advocate of his beloved astronomy, but to the scientific community he was rather the far-sighted and effective director who gave Mount Stromlo much of its present shape, and whose influence on astronomy in this country will be felt for years to come.

He took over the directorship on 1 January, 1957, the day on which the observatory was transferred from the then Department of the Interior to ANU.

One of his first actions was to set up a graduate school which attracted students from all over Australia and has grown into one of the great successes of the observatory. Although not technically minded himself, he greatly strengthened the technical side of the observatory, especially in the fields of spectroscopy, photography and electronics. In later years this policy paid handsome dividends.

He instituted an Australia-wide search for a prime observing site, which culminiated in 1960 in the choice of Siding Spring Mountain near Coonabarabran. Twenty years later Siding Spring had become one of the most important astronomical observatories in the world.

He was a great—and vocal—advocate for the Anglo-Australian Telescope, his advocacy made the more effective by a close friendship which developed with R.G. Menzies.

Bok was born at Hoorn in Holland in 1906, the son of a sergeant-major in the Netherlands Army. He took a PhD at Groningen and from there proceeded to Harvard, where he became a professor.

While at Harvard he married Priscilla Fairfield, also a professional astronomer. Besides his wife, she became his life-long collaborator: their book, The Milky Way, is one of the most successful astronomical texts ever written.

Bok left ANU to become director of Steward Observatory in Arizona, a relatively small establishment which in a few years he had lifted to the front rank of American astronomy. As a colleague said, 'Bart always leaves his observatories in better shape than he found them'.

He was a Corresponding member of the Australian Academy and a Fellow of the US Academy of Science, and was awarded many of the honours of his profession. These included the Bruce Medal, the Henry Norris Russel Lectureship, and a term as President of the American Astronomical Society.

Bart Bok was a warm-hearted generous man, with friends all over the world, and he will be sadly missed.

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Citation details

Ben Gascoigne, 'Bok, Bart Jan (1906–1983)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bok-bart-jan-129/text130, accessed 21 September 2017.

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