Robert Burnham (1931-1993)


There are (at least) two Robert Burnhams who have made a name for themselves in astronomy. One was an editor of Astronomy magazine and the author of a number of popular books, while the other lived and worked in Flagstaff, Arizona, devoting his life to the Lowell Observatory there and creating the three-volume classic Burnham's Celestial Handbook, self-publishing it in loose-leaf binders in 1966. It was eventually published in a book format by Dover Publications in 1978.

Burnham had no formal astronomical education but spent 21 years working for the Lowell Observatory on a survey of stellar proper motions. In 1978 the survey was almost complete, and Burnham was advised that the Observatory would have no further funding for his continued employment. Unfortunately Burnham did nothing about this, and in December 1979 the Observatory regretfully let him go - the only position available to him was that of a janitor at the Observatory, which he refused. Burham's personal circumstances deteriorated after this and he eventually died in poverty and obscurity in San Diego, California. Authorities in San Diego knew nothing about him beyond the fact he had served in the US Army, and his remains were cremated and interred in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.

While his Handbook was well-known, most of his readers assumed he was the editor of Astronomy magazine, and it was two years before his own family learned of his death, and yet another year before his sister learned where he had been buried. She knew nothing of his astronomical reputation and it wasn't until 1997 that his death was more widely reported.

A plaque in his memory was dedicated at Lowell Observatory on August 15, 2009.

See also:
"Robert Burnham Jr. Gone but not forgotten" Jeffrey Dale, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, v.92 p.18-19, February 1998
"Sky Writer" Tony Ortega, Phoenix NewTimes September 25 1998
Wikipedia article
Robert Burnham Dedication Program
and of course, Google