Karel Hujer

Karel Hujer

(1902 - 1988)

A Memorial Tribute to an

Astronomer and Humanitarian

An Introductory Reminiscence

I had the great good fortune when I was in the third grade, just after the launch of Sputnik I, of coming under the influence of Karel and Harriet Hujer. This happened as the result of my older brother, James H. McAlister III, who was pursuing a geology major at the University of Chattanooga and therefore rather naturally took UC's course in introductory astronomy. One night, Jim asked me if I would like to go with him to visit the University's observatory where his professor had invited his class to go look through the facility's 20-inch telescope. I remember walking up the curved stairwell to the "Telescope Room" as it was labeled from the first floor entry way and entering into a cylindrical chamber where this incredible thing peered up through a slit in the domed ceiling to the night sky. It was magical. I vividly recall an intensely beaming and shortish man with an exotic accent talking to Jim and his classmates and at one point saying something specifically to me. That's it. It was my first visit to the Clarence T. Jones Observatory. I was ten years old and the subsequent course of my life was determined that night.

As it turned out, the Observatory was located on a hill in the Brainerd area of Chattanooga just a few blocks from my home. My next visit happened a few months later on a Saturday morning when my buddies and I were playing 'army' on the rocks below the Jones Observatory. A young man called down to us asking if we'd like to come look at the sun. That sounded just fine, so we did, and he showed us a projected image of the sun complete with sunspots. (That man, Jerry Sherlin, is still a dear friend of mine who after a career in the Air Force is now teaching astronomy at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado.) By then I was hooked. For the next 13 years, I would spend the majority of my Friday nights participating in the public programs at this wonderful place, the Clarence T. Jones Observatory. During those years, I had the privelege of knowing Bruce and Art Jones (sons of the Observatory's founder), Llewellyn Evans (a truly remarkable man about whom I am preparing a link below), Bobby Thompson (who would one day manage the Observatory for the University), and Ralph L. Buice, Jr. (who I assisted in timing artificial satellite passages whose transits over Chattanooga he calculated himself). I and a group of high school friends - Tom Adkins, John Brooks, Bill Clemons and Dean Cress - spent untold nights at the Observatory during the 1960's, and I know none of us will ever forget that handsome structure on the hill above Brainerd Junior High School.

But, it was the Hujers who influenced my life second only to the impact of my parents. Dr. Hujer was an absolutely unique individual who existed on an intellectual plane far removed from the vast majority of us. He loved astronomy with a devout passion and often would gently admonish noisy school kids visiting the Observatory to behave as if they were in church. Indeed, his love for astronomy was highly coupled to his deep spiritualism and devotion to Christianity, although he was a student of all the world's religions. As a young man pursuing his graduate work, Karel was fortunate to obtain an appointment at the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago during the late 1920s when it was still one of the world centers for astronomy. He worked under the direction of Otto Struve, a member of a great dynasty of astronomers who was a leading force in the emergin field of astrophysics internationally. Karel's first few papers, which are accessible from this website, dealt with a leading problem of the time, the measurement of the properties of binary stars using the then developing techniques of photographic spectroscopy.

By nature, Karel Hujer was opposite in temperament to his mentor Struve and completely lacking of the kind of intense career drive that so often accompanies the most successful of academics. His gentleness and spirituality led him more towards studying the history and philosophy of science and its impact on humanity, and so his scholarly record is dominated by studies in a wide variety of topics with an emphasis on the Copernican Revolution. Having seen the Nazi occupation of his home country, Czechoslovakia, and the later domination by the Soviet Union, Karel was intensely committed to pacificism and human rights in general and to the return of freedom to his homeland. And so, much of his energy was spent in speaking and writing on those topics in parallel to his academic pursuits. I have attempted to gather together here all of his writings, scholarly and political, that I can find.

Karel was blessed to find Harriet Hunt during a pre-WWII visit to Chicago and to have her join him as his wife. While she shared his spiritual and pacifist interests, Harriet was a force to be dealt with and wonderfully complemented Karel's gentle and self-effacing manner. She drove him everywhere, made sure he ate right, and encouraged him in all that he did. A visit to their home was always a memorable experience. Karel would talk about his latest writing project or bring out one of his journals to recall a trip to Peru in the 1920s (from which I now have the glass lantern slides he took at Machu Pichu) or to show the salutations recorded during their most recent trip to Europe, a destination for them almost every year that I knew them until Karel developed heart problems. Their modest home was itself an intriguing place to enter. The living room was filled with books and interesting paintings. An illuminated terrestrial globe provided entertainment in place of a television although the Hujers finally did relent and buy a small TV for watching the news. If one was lucky, Karel might invite you back into his study, once a porch that had been walled in to become a sanctum sanctorum crammed with books and a desk in the windowed corner where Karel wrote his papers and editorials and looked out on his treasured garden.

My own career as an astronomer is largely due to the influence of both of the Hujers. He made it possible for me to attend UC/UTC on a work/study scholarship as his assistant. I went off to graduate school in 1971 but continued to correspond with the Hujers and to visit them on trips to Chattanooga. He continued his writings and always sent me a copy of his latest newspaper article, usually copied on the back of a letter. Karel Hujer passed away on June 10, 1988. Harriet, who loved her Karel dearly and wrote two small volumes of poems about him after his death, joined him less than two years later. I was honored by being asked to address her memorial service.

In these ever-passing years, I have appreciated more and more what it meant to have Karel and Harriet Hujer as my mentors. Although it primarily focuses on the writings of Dr. Hujer, this website is a small act of acknowledgement, love, and thanks to them both.

--- Harold A. McAlister, Regents Professor Emeritus of Astronomy & Director Emeritus of the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy, Georgia State University and Director Emeritus, Mount Wilson Observatory

Biographical Information on Dr. Karel Hujer

Karel Hujer was born on September 18, 1902, in Zelezny Brod, Czechoslovakia, to a family of horticulturists, a profession that no doubt led to his early love of nature and fed his deep spirituality. The growing of plants was to be the primary source of his relaxation throughout all of his eighty-five years of life. He loved to travel, to teach and to intermingle with people from all walks of life to whom he would share his wonder of the Universe and his concern for humanity. Anyone who ever met him during his travels all over the world or at any of the thousands of Friday night sessions he hosted to the public at the University of Chattanooga's Clarence T. Jones Observatory could never forget his sincerity, intensity and deep humility. Karel's beloved wife Harriet wrote a set of biographical notes soon after his death on June 10, 1988. Harriet's notes are here.

Perhaps the single most significant period of Karel Hujer's life was the two weeks he spent at Mahatma Gandhi's ashram in Wardha in 1935. He wrote a recollection of that visit in November, 1948, no doubt in memory of Gandhi who had been assassinated earlier that year. I have transcribed Karel's moving and charming recollection of that visit from an eight-page type written carbon copy here.

Dr. Hujer's Scholarly Publications

Karel Hujer published many scholarly works during his career, beginning in the late 1920's with his first astronomical research papers appearing in The Astrophysical Journal. In his very first paper, he was co-author with the famous Otto Struve, director of the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory where Karel was pursuing advance postgraduate study. In his first three papers, Karel listed his first initial as "C" in an early effort to Anglicize his name, a practice that he soon dropped. After his Yerkes years, Karel's academic interests turned away from basic research in astrophysics to topics in the history and philosophy of science, and he attended many international conferences where he presented papers on a wide variety of topics that often appeared in the proceedings of those conferences. A bibliography of Karel Hujer's scholarly papers that are presently known to me can be found here.

Other Articles by and About Karel Hujer

Karel Hujer was a prolific writer of letters, reviews and invited opinion pieces, and he contributed frequently to newspapers in Chattanooga and other venues around the world. A common theme of his writing derived from his dispair over Soviet communism and its utter disregard for human rights. He dreamed that his beloved Czechoslovakia would one day throw off the yoke of it Soviet masters, a dream he was not to see fulfilled in his lifetime. Here are articles from my collection and elsewhere that he wrote intermingled with articles written about him. I welcome contributions from others of articles that I do not have.

Recognition from the Czech Republic

Karel loved his native Bohemia with a passion that was only heightened by the tyrannical years of Soviet occupation. He attended the 13th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Prague during August 1967, just months before the "Prague spring" of 1968 and was thrilled by the brief liberal political period under Alexander Dubcek before the Soviet tanks rolled in on August 21, 1968. Karel died more than a year before the "Velvet Revolution" that led to the establishment of the Czech Republic on January 1, 1993. He was always optimistic that his beloved country would obtain its freedom. Among his many interests, Karel loved to collect postage stamps. His letters and postcards were always ornamented with special-issue stamps that added to the delight in reading his words always carefully written in his tight and lovely handwriting. What a thrill it would have been for him to know that the Czech Republic would issue a stamp in honor of the centennial of his birth in 2002. I stumbled across that stamp on the internet and let UTC know of the honor. This led to a brief article in the Chattanooga Times - Free Press. The official description of the issue from the Czech postal service can be found here for those who read Czech. Images of the stamp and its first day issue postcard are shown below. Click on each to see a larger version.

I attended the IAU General Assembly in Prague during August, 2006, 39 years after Karel and Harriet were there. In attempts to honor Dr. Hujer at the meeting, which was made famous for demoting Pluto (I voted in the minority) I included an introduction recognizing Dr. Hujer in my presentation to a symposium on binary stars and I wore his badge from the 1932 IAU General Assembly then held in Cambridge, England. I was very surprised when my former student Dr. Brian Mason (of the U.S. Naval Observatory) told me he saw a book about Dr. Hujer for sale at the meeting. I immediately went to investigate and found a wonderful compilation of his writings (in Czech) entitled RNDr. Karel Hujer: clanky a uvahy by P. Simice (with apologies for omitting the correct punctuation). The cover of that book is shown below and more information is given here.

Karel Hujer Stamp
First Day Issue also commemorates Karel's home town Zelezny Brod. Note that he is facing in another direction than shown on the stamp itself.
A translation of Dr. Hujer's writings into Czech by the Hujers' friend Pribyslav Simice.

Karel Hujer's Journals

Dr. Hujer diligently kept a "journal" in which he recorded his travels and invited those whom he met to sign, preferably with a inscription surrounding their meeting. In addition to his collection of astronomy books, Harriet specified that I should receive his journals upon her death. These journals comprise some 14 volumes with the earliest entry dated August 8, 1932, being a full page inscription by Gabrielle Camille Flammarion, widow of the famous French popularizer of astronomy, Camille Flammarion, whom Karel had admired and visited as a very young man at Flammarion's observatory at Juvisy. The journals are a who's who of astronomy with dozens of entries and signatures by the most famous astronomers of the early twentieth century. Einstein signed twice. Other important signees include Aldous Huxley, Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Alexander Kerensky. Two astronomical examples are given below.

From a visit to Pasadena in February, 1933, at a time when Einstein was being recruited by Caltech. A visit to Mount Wilson occurred when Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason had 100-inch telescope time.
A visit in Albert Einstein's Princeton, NJ home in June, 1950.


Here are some photographs of Karel at various times during his life and at various places around the world and always accompanied by Harriet after their marriage in 1939. I would be happy to add more from contributing readers. Click on each image to see a larger version.

Karel and Harriet in their yard at 216 Hillcrest Avenue on a beautiful spring Chattanooga day. (Borrowed from the website www.mikolasales.org.)
Karel attending a General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Prague, August, 1967. He is at the left end of the third row. Harriet is mostly obscured to his left.
A "headshot" of Dr. Hujer, probably done for UTC, dated February 1974
The Hujer are seen standing on the third of fourth step of the right staircase in this group photo of the participants at the Symposium on the Tercentenary of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, July 18, 1975.
Karel as a young astronomer at the Yerkes Observatory c. 1928 posing with the Bruce spectrograph mounted on the Yerkes 40-inch refracting telescope, still the world's largest lens-based telescope. (from an article in an unknown Czech publication written by Dr. Hujer.)
Karel is chatting with Dr. Robert Atkinson of Indiana University at the Greenwich Tercentenary.
Karel and Harriet in front of their home on Hillcrest Avenue. Photo by H.A. McAlister, c. 1984.
Karel with the Indian poet and man of letter Rabindranath Tagore, who became Asia's first Nobel laureate with the award of the literature prize in 1913. Karel spent three weeks with Tagore in 1935.
Karel in his living room from a photo taken by the Chattanooga News Free Press, August 1987. This was Harriet's favorite photo of him after he died.
Dr. Hujer with Hal McAlister posing at the 20.5-in Jones Observatory telescope in 1967.
Dr. Hujer with his hand on the finder telescope of the 20.5-in Jones Observatory reflector in late 1960's.
A meeting hosted by the Barnard Astronomical Society of the Southeastern Region of the Astronomical League in 1965. The group is posing in front of Hunter Hall at the University of Chattanooga.
Dr. Hujer at the ancient Beijing Observatory in the 1930's.
Karel's famous ring shows up nicely in this formal pose from the 1970's.
Karel standing outside Hooper Hall at UC on Oak Street. His office included the bay window over his right shoulder.
Karel and Harriet from the early 70's.

Karel Hujer's personality, demeanor and world view were beautifully captured in this poem by Edith Lovejoy Pierce:

To Karel Hujer

You are at home in the Pleiades
"Peace," you murmur,
Your eyes on Arcturus.
Your hands wander absently
Among the man-made evils here below.
War is but an artificial shadow
Against your sightless palms.
Starshine has painted with light
The clear lens of your face.

--- from In This Our Day, Poems by Edith Lovejoy Pierce, (Harper & Brothers: New York), p. 50, 1944.

Relevant Links

Clarence T. Jones Observatory

Barnard Astronomical Society

Launched: 5 Jan 2008
Updated: 8 Jan 2008
Reader comments, corrections and contributions are welcome: Contact H.A. McAlister

web counter