Latimer Wilson: An Astronomical Being

To describe amateur astronomer Latimer James Wilson at a glance is uncomplicated. He was an observer, a photographer, a writer, and an illustrator. To describe him as an individual will take a deeper look into the history of his complicated life. How did this Tennessean’s life work come into the possession of the NMSU Library Archives and Special Collections (ASC)?

Latimer Wilson was born 142 years ago in Nashville, Tennessee. His mother, Jesse Latimer, was also a stargazer who viewed the night sky, by a chance meeting, through the telescope of American astronomer E.E. Barnard. She fostered and shared her planetary appreciation with Latimer during his youth. Little information is available concerning Wilson’s early years. He attended Peabody College in Nashville, then studied at the Art Institute of Buffalo, New York, and received a scholarship to the Art Student League of New York City. Between 1908 and 1948, planetary observation consumed Wilson and he created dozens of detailed handwritten notebooks filled with sketches, calculations, notes, and photographs.

image of planetary drawings

Research notebooks of drawings by Wilson. Photo by Dennis Daily

In 1908, Wilson began to develop a serious interest in astronomy, building his own four-inch, single-lens, refractor telescope. By 1912, he completed the primary astronomical instrument that he would use for the remainder of his life, a 12-inch Newtonian reflector. In 1913, Frederick C. Leonard, founder of the Society for Practical Astronomy (SPA), appointed Wilson director of the Planetary Section. The SPA collapsed during World War I, however, Wilson continued observing, sketching, and photographing the planets, especially Mars and Jupiter. He gained a respected status among professional astronomers for his meticulous observations and passion for planetary science.

During World War I, Wilson worked for the Eastman Kodak Company, improving techniques and materials for astronomical photography. It was around this time that he met and married Lurana Rownd in Rochester, New York. The same day they were married, April 6, 1915, an entry in Popular Astronomy acknowledged her work for calculating longitudes and plotting drawings of the planet Jupiter for an astronomical report written by Latimer Wilson.

Lurana surely took a backseat to Latimer’s hobby of stargazing. Lurana and Latimer were not married long. In 1930, Latimer was divorced, working as a writer, and living in Franklin, Kentucky, according to the federal census. That same census year, Lurana was living in Rochester, New York, with her mother and counted as head of household, writer and her marital status was listed as widow. Although (probably) to her chagrin, Latimer lived another 18 years after that census report. There were no children listed as survivors in either Lurana’s or Latimer’s obituaries.

Wilson was employed as a lecturer at the Watkins Art Institute in Nashville in the late 1930s when he was elected to serve as the first director of the Barnard Observatory (now the Clarence T. Jones Observatory) in Chattanooga. The observatory, now a part of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga Chemistry and Physics department, has had a close relationship with the Barnard Astronomical Society, an amateur astronomical society in Chattanooga. Wilson resigned as director after only two months due to difficulties commuting between Nashville and Chattanooga.

When one researches the amount of observation notes, photographs and drawings created by Latimer from the 1909 until his death in 1948, it is easy to see that his curiosity in astronomy was more than a way to pass the time. A letter written to Walter Hass, founder and director of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO), from Frank Vaughn in 1946 states, “Two things he seems to take care of: himself and his optical equipment.” Vaughn’s letter goes on to describe Wilson’s sparsely furnished home, scattered with coal ashes and cigarette butts.

In addition to Haas, and Vaughn, Wilson corresponded with many other amateur and professional astronomers throughout his life. One noteworthy correspondent was Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto. Tombaugh remarked that it was reading the works of Latimer Wilson that “fired his ambition to acquire a more powerful telescope.”

hand drawn colored map of planet Mars

Map of Mars by Latimer Wilson, 1928 Ms 407 Register of the Clyde W. Tombaugh Papers 1908-2000

In 1924, a correspondence between Wilson and Tombaugh began, primarily about telescopes and planetary observation. In his memoirs, Tombaugh stated that Wilson gave him directions to build his first telescope. The creation of his very first telescope when he was just 20 years old had set Tombaugh on the path of remarkable discovery.

Black & White photo of Latimer Wilson

Latimer J. Wilson Obituary photo Tennessee Banner May 18, 1948

Sparse biographical information or records about Wilson’s life are available. Most easy to find is his death record. Latimer Wilson died May 17, 1948, of a heart attack. His death certificate indicated he was 69, divorced and employed as an instructor at Watkins Art Institute. It did not quantify his kind and humble nature, nor did it reference his generosity and countless contributions to professional astronomers who relied on his observations and photography to note significant astronomical events. Several astronomy journals acknowledged these qualities and paid tribute to Wilson after his death. However, none pay suitable homage to the man like his own collection of letters, drawings and photographs do.

The Latimer J. Wilson papers were donated to ASC in 2003, as part of the personal and professional papers of Dr. Clyde Tombaugh. The exact provenance of the collection is not entirely clear. To view more details about this collection and its provenance see the Guide to the Latimer J. Wilson Papers 1903- 2001 in the Rocky Mountain Online Archives (RMOA).

Thank you to Kathleen Feduccia, Special Collections Division, Nashville Public Library, for supplying a copy of the obituary printed in the Tennessee Banner newspaper.

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