Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/January 1883/Sketch of Professor Henry Draper

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PSM V22 D302 Henry Draper.jpg


NO greater calamity could have befallen American science than the recent and sudden death of Professor Henry Draper. The news of it was an inexpressible shock to his friends, and was felt with painful regret by the whole community. But forty-five years of age, with the full promise of apparent health, and in the midst of an active and a brilliant career, he was cut off by an illness so short that but few had heard of it when his death was announced. In an excursion to the Rocky Mountains, in August and September, he had been subjected to severe exposure and contracted a heavy cold; he returned, however, in October, considerably recovered and able to resume his scientific labors. He gave a dinner to the National Academy of Sciences, at his residence, on November 16th, and made special and elaborate preparations for the occasion by electric illumination of the dining-hall in a way to produce some novel and agreeable effects. It is supposed that the anxiety and exertion of this preparation were more than he could well endure. He was attacked with severe pains in the chest, and suffered much while at dinner, but thought that he would get relief by a warm bath. But, instead of relief, his symptoms were aggravated, and a physician was sent for who recognized his attack as one of violent double pneumonia and pleurisy. It was hoped, however, that he might recover until shortly before his death, which occurred early in the morning on the 20th of November.

Henry Draper was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, March 7, 1837, and two years later his father, Dr. John William Draper, removed to this city to take the chair of Chemistry in the New York University. Henry, at first, went through the course at the public school, but at the age of fifteen he entered the Academic Department of the university, though he did not graduate there. At the end of his sophomore year he entered the Medical Department of the university, which his father had been prominent in establishing, and from which he took his medical degree in 1858. He at first thought of practicing medicine, and received an appointment upon the medical staff of Bellevue Hospital, which he held for sixteen months, and then decided to abandon practice, and give himself to teaching. He was elected Professor of Physiology in the Academical Department of the university in 1860, and in 1866 became professor of the same branch in the University Medical School. He resigned this post in 1873, and afterward taught advanced analytical chemistry in the Academical Department of the institution. After the death of his father he was appointed to fill his chair, but previous to the opening of the last fall term he severed entirely his connection with the institution.

Professor Henry Draper is one of the men who is not to be interpreted in his individuality alone. With his father he represents one of the double stars in the firmament of scientific celebrities of which we have now a considerable catalogue. Among the illustrious pioneers of mathematical physics there are the Bernoullis, father and son; in chemistry, the Gmelins and the Brodies; in botany, the De Candolles and the Hookers; and, in astronomy, the Cassinis and the Herschels; and to these must be added the Drapers, father and son. Many more examples, though less eminent, might be given in which sons have distinguished themselves by pursuing with success the branches of research opened by their fathers, and to trace the influence that is exerted and the effects that are produced in these cases would be an interesting biographical study. In the present instance the son was the inheritor both of his father's genius and of his subjects of research, while his early education was shaped with a view to the pursuits to which his life was devoted. This point is thus referred to in the sketch of Henry Draper which appeared in a late number of "Harper's Weekly":

"He had for a companion, friend, and teacher, from childhood, one of the most thoroughly cultivated and original scientific men of the present age, who attended carefully to his instruction, and impressed upon him deeply the bent of his own mind in the direction of science. The boy was, in fact, immersed in science from his youngest years, and not merely crammed with its results, but saturated with its true spirit at the most impressible period. He was taught to love science for the interest of its inquiries, and was early put upon the line of original investigation in which he has won his celebrity. Henry Draper inherited not only his father's genius, but his problems of research. Dr. John W. Draper was an experimental investigator of such fertility of resources and such consummate skill that the European savants always deplored his proclivity to literary labors as a great loss to the scientific world. Henry Draper inherited from his father in an eminent degree the aptitude for delicate experimenting, and a fine capacity of manipulatory tact. The elder Draper was one of the founders of the recent science of photo-chemistry. He worked early and brilliantly in the new and fascinating field of the chemistry of light, and more than forty years ago by his extensive contributions to this subject he prepared the way for those who entered to reap the fruits of his labors in the splendid field of spectrum analysis. But the scepter was not to depart from the family. Henry pursued the same line of research, and by his extension of it will have a permanent place among the discoverers of the period."

Henry Draper's first important scientific investigation was made at the age of twenty, and was embodied in his graduating thesis at the Medical College. It was on the functions of the spleen, which was illustrated by microscopic photography—an art then in its infancy. Soon after receiving his degree he went to Europe, and while there visited the widely-known observatory of Lord Rosse, and studied the construction and working of his celebrated colossal reflecting telescope. This led him to consider the problem of using reflecting telescopes for the purpose of photographing celestial objects. On his return home he constructed a telescope of this kind of fifteen and a half inches aperture, and with it took a photograph of the moon fifty inches in diameter—the largest ever made. His success spurred him on to further improvements, so that he became an adept in grinding, polishing, and testing reflecting mirrors. An equatorial telescope was afterward constructed by him, with an aperture of twenty-eight inches, for his observatory at Hastings-on-the-Hudson. The instrument was wholly the work of his own hands, and was designed mainly to photograph the spectra of the stars. After a long series of experiments, it was finished in 1872, and has been pronounced by President Barnard as 'probably the most difficult and costly experiment in celestial chemistry ever made.' He was the first to obtain a photograph of the fixed lines in the spectra of stars, and he continued the work until he had obtained impressions of the spectra of more than one hundred stars.

When the commission was created by Congress for the purpose of observing the transit of Venus, in 1874, Professor Draper was intrusted with the charge of the photographic department. He spent much time in the preparations, for which he declined to receive any compensation. So signal was the success of his disinterested exertions, that the commissioners had a gold medal struck in his honor at the Philadelphia Mint, bearing the inscription, though in an extinct tongue, "He adds luster to ancestral glory." In 1878 he went to the Rocky Mountains to observe the total eclipse of the sun, and there successfully photographed the spectrum of the solar corona. For the last two or three years he had been much engaged in the difficult work of photographing nebulas, and he startled the scientific world by the announcement that he had succeeded in getting a fine photograph of the great nebula in Orion and of its spectrum.

Professor Draper was not a prolific author, like his father, and only wrote one book; but he died in the prime of life, and had he lived would undoubtedly have given to the world the results of his ripened investigations in enduring treatises. He, however, wrote much for the scientific periodicals, describing the results of his work. He contributed several papers to the "American Journal of Science and Arts" and to "Nature." He published in 1864 a "Text-Book of Chemistry," and a paper on the "Philosophic Use of Silvered Glass Reflecting Telescopes." The paper was published in "The Philosophical Magazine." In the same year he published a pamphlet on "Silvered Glass Telescopes and Celestial Photography." "The Quarterly Journal of Science," in 1865, published his views of "Petroleum, its Importance and its History," and "American Contributions to the Spectrum Analysis." The Smithsonian Institution, in its "Contributions, vol. xiv., of 1864," published a paper on "Construction of Silvered Glass Telescopes, Fifteen and a Half-Inch Aperture, and their Use in Celestial Photography." The following papers have been published in "The American Journal of Science and Arts": "On the Diffraction Spectrum Photography," in 1872; "Astronomical Observations on the Atmosphere of the Rocky Mountains," and "Spectra of Venus and α Lyræ," in 1877; "Discovery of Oxygen in the Sun by Photography, and a New Theory of the Solar Spectrum," which was followed by another paper on the same subject, entitled "On the Coincidence of the Bright Lines of the Oxygen Spectrum with Bright Lines in the Solar Spectrum," in 1877; "Eclipse of the Sun in July, 1878," in 1878; "Photographing the Spectra of the Stars and Planets," in 1879; "Photograph of Jupiter's Spectrum," and "Photograph of the Nebula in Orion, on September 30, 1880," in 1880; and "Photograph of the Spectra of the Comet of June, 1881," last year.

Probably Henry Draper's most important work was his discovery of oxygen in the sun, which was duly chronicled and made a matter of discussion in "The Popular Science Monthly" at the time. It was the result of great sagacity, experimental skill, and an immense amount of labor. It was too unexpected and surprising to command the ready assent of eminent physicists and astronomers, while its experimental proofs were on such an expensive scale that the processes could not be easily repeated. But the opinion has undoubtedly gained strength that the discovery is valid, and by reference to a recent work by Professor Young on "The Sun" and the "Popular Astronomy" of Professor Newcomb, it will be seen that the weight of authoritative opinion is in favor of its reality.

Henry Draper was a man of medium height, rather stoutly built, with the appearance of vigorous health. His manners were agreeable, he was a lively and a witty talker, and a very fluent and instructive lecturer. He was enthusiastic in his passion for science, and persistent and tenacious in carrying out his elaborate plans of research.

In 1867 he married the daughter of Courtlandt Palmer, Esq., a cultivated lady who entered with a kindred enthusiasm into all his studies, and rendered the most faithful and efficient service in his delicate and arduous investigations. So thorough was her understanding of the problems he was engaged upon, and so considerable her share in the manipulatory practice, that it is hoped she may be able to complete and publish his more important unfinished work. At the death of his father-in-law, Professor Draper became a trustee of the large estate, and was henceforth much absorbed in business. But, though in command of very liberal means, his passion for science was too strong to be diverted by new solicitations, and he set a noble example by making use of his ample resources to carry on the work of scientific research on a scale that is but rarely attempted because of its great expense.