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Astronomy & Astrophysics

Kingston's First Eclipse Chaser: Samuel A. Mitchell

Professor Mitchell and colleagues observe the 1923 total eclipse.

Photo: Professor S. A. Mitchell (second from right) and his son, A. C. G. Mitchell (far left), with colleagues from the Paris Observatory and University of Virginia observe the 1923 total eclipse near San Diego, California.

Early Life, 1874-90

Samuel A. Mitchell was born in Kingston on April 29, 1874, the sixth of ten children of John Cook Mitchell and Sarah Chown Mitchell. His father was a successful contractor and real estate investor. His mother was a homemaker and active in the Methodist church. The family lived on William Street near the Sydenham Street Methodist Church. Mitchell’s childhood was a pleasant one. Later in life, he recalled:

“I can imagine no more healthy nor delightful spot for a boy to grow up than Kingston. In the winter there were hills just built for coasting and tobogganing and plenty of ice for skating. In summer there was the whole wide waterfront for swimming and boating of all sorts.”

Queen’s University, 1890-95

Mitchell attended local public schools and entered Queen’s in 1890 at the age of 16, receiving a Governor General’s scholarship. He enjoyed sports and played football and hockey during his years at Queen’s. He was also a member of several clubs and on the staff of the Queen’s Journal

Mitchell excelled in mathematics and physics, winning the gold medal in mathematics when he graduated with an MA degree in 1894. After graduation, he was appointed a tutor in physics and then an instructor in mathematics. 

Two influential mentors were the Reverend James Williamson (1806-95) and Professor Nathan F. Dupuis (1836-1917). Reverend Williamson taught Mitchell astronomy and spent many hours with him in the student observatory. When Williamson became ill in Mitchell’s final year, he entrusted him with the key to the observatory so that he could continue to wind the clocks and make observations. In late 1894, Professor Dupuis, Mitchell’s mathematics professor, strongly encouraged him to continue his graduate education at Johns Hopkins University. 

Johns Hopkins, Yerkes Observatory, and Columbia, 1895-1913

Mitchell entered Johns Hopkins with the intention of studying mathematics and minoring in physics and astronomy. He soon decided to focus on astronomy under the supervision of Charles Lane Poor (1866-1951). He received his PhD in 1898 and accepted a research assistant position at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin with the distinguished astronomer, E. E. Barnard (1857-1923).

Mitchell recalled the year spent working with Professor Barnard as “one of the finest years of my whole life…”. The two astronomers would often spend the entire night working in the observatory, even on bitterly cold winter nights. Mitchell was inspired: “If Barnard’s enthusiasm for research could keep him at the telescope with such bitter temperatures, why should not I, at the age of 24, not take pattern from the older man?”

In 1899, Mitchell accepted the position of instructor at Columbia University, where he taught geodesy and astronomy. During summer breaks, he would return to Yerkes to do research. Also in 1899, he married Milly Gray Dumble of Houston, Texas. They had one son, Allan C. G., born in 1902.

Leander McCormick Observatory, 1913-45

In 1913, Mitchell was appointed Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Leander McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia, where he remained until his retirement in 1945. He was an authority on solar eclipses and observed ten total eclipses from 1900 through 1937, travelling more than 100,000 miles. (See map below.) He was also well-known for his work on measuring the distances to stars using the stellar parallax method. His research led to the publication of more than 2,000 stellar parallaxes.

In 1923, Mitchell published his major work, Eclipses of the Sun. He revised and updated it through the 1930s and 1940s. The fifth and final edition was published in 1951. The library holds copies of the 1st, 2nd and 5th editions, all with inscriptions by the author. 

Mitchell was a member of several societies including the American Astronomical Society, Royal Astronomical Society (fellow), American Philosophical Society (fellow), and American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow). He received several awards and honorary degrees including an LLD from Queen’s in 1924 and the James Craig Watson Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1948 for his observations of solar eclipses. 

Map of Mitchell's Ten Eclipse Expeditions

Retirement, 1945-60 

In 1945, Mitchell became director emeritus of the McCormick Observatory. He wrote a history of the observatory in 1947 that included recollections about his childhood in Kingston and experience at Queen's. He died on February 22, 1960 in Bloomington, Indiana at the home of his son, Allan, and was buried in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Allan C. G. Mitchell followed in his father's footsteps. As a boy and young man, he accompanied his father on sabbaticals and eclipse expeditions. He studied physics at the University of Virginia, graduating in 1924. He received his PhD in physical chemistry from Caltech in 1927 and spent several years conducting research in Germany and at the Bartol Research Foundation. He was a professor and head of the Department of Physics at New York University from 1931-38 and Indiana University from 1938 until his untimely death in 1963. At Indiana, he established a nuclear physics laboratory and led the construction of one of the earliest cyclotrons. During the Second World War, he directed research in support of the Manhattan Project. His research interests included neutron scattering and nuclear spectroscopy. He authored or co-authored more than 70 research articles and two books.

Eclipse Paintings by Howard Russell Butler

Many eclipse expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included artists who would make quick sketches of an eclipse that later they turned into detailed drawings or paintings. Early editions of Eclipses of the Sun included paintings of the 1918 and 1923 eclipses by Howard Russell Butler (1856-1934), a well-known landscape and portrait painter who also painted the Northern Lights, eclipses, and planets. Butler’s eclipse paintings were displayed for many years in the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Later editions of Eclipses of the Sun were illustrated only with black and white photographs.

Below are Butler's sketch of the 1918 eclipse from his 1923 book, Painter and Space, and the completed painting. He had less than two minutes to complete his sketch: "As a portrait painter I have usually asked for ten or twelve sittings of two hours each: now I was asked to render my subject in 112 seconds."

Sketch and painting of the 1918 total eclipse by H. R. Butler.


Abbot, C. G. (1962). Samuel Alfred Mitchell, 1874-1960. Biographical Memoirs. National Academic of Sciences. 

Allan C. G. Mitchell (Obituary). (1964). Physics Today, 17(1), 124. 

Butler, H. R. (1923). Painter and Space; The Third Dimension in Graphic Art. New York: Scribner's Sons.

Mitchell, S. A. (1924). An Eclipse Expedition to California. The University of Virginia Alumni Bulletin, 17(1), 1-13.

Mitchell, S. A. (1924). Eclipses of the Sun (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. 

Mitchell, S. A. (1926). The Recent Total Eclipse of the Sun. Kingston: Queen's University.

Mitchell, S. A. (1937). Nature's Most Dramatic Spectacle. National Geographic, 72(3), 361-376.

Mitchell, S. A. (1947). Leander McCormick Observatory of the University of Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.

Oliver, C. P. (1960). Samuel Alfred Mitchell, 1874-1960. Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 72(427), 288-290.  


Text and eclipse expedition map: Michael White

Library display: Tracy Vyse and Michael White