Bart J. Bok (1957-1966)

Publication date
Monday, 9 Oct 2017

Bart Bok was born in the Netherlands in 1906 and spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. Before becoming Director of Mount Stromlo, Bok spent 27 years from 1929 working as an astronomer at the Harvard Observatory in Boston. Bok was interested in the structure of the Milky Way, and focussed on determining the galaxies size and shape. He and his fellow astronomer wife Priscilla wrote a well-respected textbook, The Milky Way, which remained in print for many decades. It was politics rather than astronomy that ended Bok’s Harvard career. In the 1950s in America, the depths of the Cold War, international scientific collaboration was looked upon with suspicion. Bart Bok openly supported his mentor and the incumbent Director, Howard Shapley, who was questioned about his role in organisations such as UNESCO. Bok had been considered a natural successor to the Directorship, but when Shapley retired he was overlooked for the position.

Seeking a fresh start, Bok accepted the Mount Stromlo Directorship in 1957. Bok’s immediate job was to increase the efficiency of the telescopes acquired by Woolley. The mirror for the new 74-inch telescope was misaligned, and needed to return to England for repair. The construction of a Coude spectrograph considerably enhanced the 74-inch telescope’s capabilities. The Great Melbourne Telescope also required significant refurbishment. An increasing problem for Mount Stromlo was the light pollution from nearby Canberra. Bart Bok was instrumental in establishing a new, dark-sky Observatory for the University at Siding Spring, near Coonabarabran. Bok ordered two brand new telescopes, a 40-inch and a 16-inch, and both were operational by the Observatory’s official opening in 1965.

Bok was an enthusiastic and popular Director. He boosted the Observatory’s public outreach by starting star-gazing nights and encouraging visitors. By the end of his tenure, there were almost 40 000 visitors to the Observatory a year, prompting a request to the local radio station to stop advertising Mount Stromlo as a tourist attraction. Following his time at Mount Stromlo, in 1966 Bart Bok returned to the United States with his wife Priscilla to take the position of Director at Arizona’s Steward Observatory.