Top banner


Harvard in Peru III

J. Donald Fernie

One must wonder what were Solon Bailey's feelings when, on February 25, 1893, he found himself once again in Arequipa, Peru, in charge of Harvard's astronomical station there. The site was one he had chosen two years earlier after exhausting years of exploration, and which he had hoped would yield great results. Instead, in the intervening two years the station had been in the hands of William Pickering, brother of the Harvard Observatory's director, Edward Pickering. William had completely wasted the station's resources and brought great disrepute to Harvard's work there. Now Bailey had to again take over, William having been—with considerable difficulty—recalled to Cambridge.

It was a daunting task. Bailey found the station close to ruin, both financially and in its equipment. Assistants and servants had been given carte blanche to run up bills in the town. William and his family had not stinted themselves either. Telescopes were grossly maladjusted, owing to William's attempts to adapt them to purposes for which they were not designed. The seismograph recorded a major earthquake every time the door to its room was opened, some weather instruments had never been set up, and the all-important clocks were seriously unreliable, some with parts missing.

Bailey was equal to the task. Under his wise and firm leadership, the station slowly regained its stability and its good working order. The golden years of astronomy in Arequipa finally began. The main work was to photograph the Southern skies (repeatedly in interesting areas) with various instruments and thereby to derive the positions, magnitudes and spectra of stars and other objects. It must have seemed dull, routine work to many, but it led to some of the most profound developments in astronomy during the 20th century. It was photographs from Arequipa, for example, that led to the discovery of the Cepheid period-luminosity law, a cornerstone of modern cosmology.

One thing Bailey decided against, however, was observing Mars at another of its nearer passages. On the previous such occasion William Pickering, using the Arequipa equipment, had claimed in widespread newspaper reports the most absurd results about lakes and canals on Mars. Writing with some irony to Edward Pickering, Bailey reported:

I have given very brief attention to Mars. I have concluded that my time will be better spent in other lines, especially as the northern observatories will doubtless give so much attention to it and see all there is to be seen, if not more, and also I fear that I have not the creative faculty sufficiently developed to make a mark as an observer of Mars.

Instead Bailey turned his attention to meteorology. The main reason was that the money used to run the Arequipa station had come from the Boyden Fund, a gift that the donor had stipulated must be used to fund an astronomical observatory at a mountainous site above lower-level atmospheric disturbances. Arequipa, at an elevation of not much over 2,400 meters, barely qualified as such, especially with the Andes towering nearby. Was there a better site at a higher elevation not far off? Bailey soon found the question could not be immediately answered, because Peru then lacked almost any systematic meteorological data. He therefore determined to set up an array of roughly east-west weather stations running from Mollendo on the Pacific coast right across to the eastern side of the Andes, some in valleys, others on mountains.

More easily said than done! Bailey noted in one of his reports: "In Peru, outside of one or two large towns, there are no highways suitable for vehicles of any kind. Travel and traffic, except that done by the few railways, are carried on entirely on the backs of horses, mules, donkeys, and llamas."

But characteristically there was no question of Bailey staying in Arequipa while others did the hard work. Although now in his 40th year, Bailey was soon out on horseback getting things done. As his obituarist would eventually note,

... there were adventures such as swinging from peak to peak over a deep valley in a cage suspended by a single cable, or descending rapidly from elevations of 10,000 feet in a hand car with gravitation as the motive power, or passing nights on desolate mountains where perhaps the only sounds were the "ripple of the [river] far below, and the flapping of the condor's wings".

Tackling El Misti

Bailey's greatest interest, though, was much nearer Arequipa itself. The most notable sight for a newcomer was beautiful snow-capped El Misti, a dormant 5,800-meter volcano only 19 kilometers beyond the town. Bailey must have realized that putting a manned observatory at that altitude was impractical, but the weather data would be useful, and there were always the lower slopes.

Figure 1. El Misti looms . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Just climbing El Misti was a major undertaking. It had been climbed at least as early as 1784, when a party of priests had succeeded in erecting an iron cross on the peak, but others had died in the effort. Conditions could be extreme. One party of climbers, Bailey reported, had "arrived at the summit during a frightful tempest, with terrific thunder and lightning.... The bodies of those present were electrified, so that when they lifted their hands, they could hear the discharge of the electricity from the tips of their fingers." Another pair had climbed at temperatures near –24 degrees Celsius, their hands lacerated and bloody from the ice and lava rock.

Bailey himself had set out to climb El Misti during his earlier stay in Arequipa, but mountain sickness had left him unconscious just below the 5,000-meter level, and it had been necessary for his companions to carry him down. He writes that

the forms in which this malady manifests itself are oppression of the lungs and difficulty in breathing, more or less violent headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and faintness, sometimes reaching entire unconsciousness, nervousness, sometimes tending to delirium, and rarely hemorrhage from the nose, eyes, and ears.

Pulse rates, he found, typically went from the normal 70 per minute to well over 100, even after a good rest.

However, Bailey had also made two significant observations: first that mountain sickness became much more pronounced when the victim was nearing exhaustion from the climb itself, and second that mules seemed less affected by altitude than humans. He thus concluded that if a rough path could be cleared to some point well up on the mountain, it might be possible to ride mules to that point and then set off in fresh condition to tackle the remaining portion on foot. The local people scoffed at the idea, but Bailey had such a path constructed and found he could take mules to the 5,600-meter level—the highest level to which mules had ever been taken, so far as he knew. Even so, the remaining 200 meters were not easy.

Panting for breath, stopping to rest at every three or four steps, often struggling on hands and knees, we kept on, hardly believing there could come an end, when, suddenly, we were there. There was no introduction; we did not come to the crater; the crater came to us. The whole view was spread out before us in an instant as if a curtain had been drawn. All things conspired to produce surroundings which few have seen and none described. The great altitude, the enormous craters, the sulphurous vapors, the drifting clouds, the deep shadows cast by the setting sun, the inexplicable but deep depression of spirits caused by exhaustion and illness, combined to produce the profoundest sense of awe.

It had taken the expedition eight days to get there.

So Bailey in due course had his meteorological station atop El Misti—the highest such station in the world, he noted with satisfaction. Even so, the weather records had to be collected and the instruments reset every week or so, and it turned out there was only one person on Bailey's staff who could do this regularly without suffering the dreaded mountain sickness. Still, writing to Pickering in October 1893, Bailey expressed satisfaction and looked forward "to the time when scientists will regularly ascend to great heights for meteorological study, by means of captive balloons or flying machines."

Revolvers and Revolution

It was about this time that new problems began to appear. There were increasing rumors in Arequipa that Peru was in for a revolution. At first Bailey was quite jocular about it, writing to Pickering that he might "have to remove the lenses and use the telescope tubes for cannon." Later, his tone became more serious. "We have two or three revolvers and with the addition of a few good clubs, I think we should be able to keep off any drunken rabble...." He went on to say they were laying in provisions to withstand a siege, ordering heavy wooden shutters for their windows and doors, preparing to bury the telescope lenses in a deep hole beneath the floorboards of the house (while hoping any necessity for that would happen in the cloudy season), et cetera. Pickering responded enthusiastically, advocating they pour buckets of hot water from the upstairs windows on any persons attempting to force an entrance.

There was rioting in Arequipa in late 1894, but the first real taste of trouble came in January 1895, when Bailey, his wife and young son were traveling to Mollendo by train. "... we heard a tremendous shout of 'Viva Pierola'. I looked out only to see a crowd of men armed with rifles and revolvers come rushing around the train and into the car. The car was at once filled with cries of 'Jesus Maria' and 'Por Dios'...." However, the revolutionaries behaved "with great moderation," and apart from locking the passengers in the train "offered us no indignity whatever." At Mollendo the passengers remained locked in while the rebels captured the town, which was almost immediately, there being only 15 soldiers guarding it. The Baileys spent the night in the house of the shipping agent there, Bailey and their host standing guard all night with club and revolver respectively.

Soon after the Baileys' return to Arequipa, the town was besieged, the telegraph line cut, and savage fighting broke out. The Americans put their emergency plans into operation, and after burying the telescope lenses (it was the cloudy season), ran the American flag up over the house and settled down to wait things out. Each night, though, one of them would creep out in the darkness to retrieve the day's weather records, even though there was rifle fire only 15 meters away on occasion. They were never attacked.

When it was all over and the revolutionaries had won, Bailey decided it would be prudent to establish friendly relations with the new president-to-be by inviting him for a tour and reception at the observatory. "The expense was moderate, about twenty dollars," he reported to Pickering, "and as Pierola is sure to be the next president, if he lives, I think it was a wise act."

And so the Arequipa station settled down to long years of steady work. Bailey himself developed an estimable scientific reputation for his work on variable stars in globular clusters, and today his name is best remembered for the class of such stars named after him. His travels were not over, though. In 1908, again at Pickering's request, he traveled through much of South Africa in search of a site possibly better than Arequipa. This at a time when that country had yet not been fully established as such, and was still recovering from the Anglo-Boer War of a few years earlier. Bailey did choose a site, but it was not until 1927 that Harvard decided to close its Arequipa station and move to South Africa instead.

It is not entirely clear what factors entered into the decision to close the station in Peru. That it was cloudier than initially thought seems to have been the principal reason. There is a story, though, told me by a colleague familiar with Arequipa, that in the later years observing was largely in the hands of an employee who developed a drinking problem and thereafter would all too often simply enter 'cloudy' in the observing log before heading for the downtown bars. I wouldn't bet on it, though.

Edward Pickering died in 1919, and Bailey became acting director of the observatory at Harvard for two years before Harlow Shapley was appointed. Shapley had the highest regard for Bailey, both for the accuracy of his work and because it was he who first suggested Shapley study variable stars, through which Shapley arrived at his epochal studies of the size of our galaxy and our position in it.

William Pickering outlived his brother by nearly 20 years, spending the later part of his life running an observatory in Jamaica, from which emanated a stream of reports on canals, snow-capped mountains and vegetation on the Moon. In fact "I have seen everything practically except the selenites themselves running around with spades to turn off the water into other channels!"

Solon and Ruth Bailey loved their years in Arequipa. One colleague recalled that "many Arequipa friends as well as American visitors enjoyed the informal teas on the Observatory balcony over the garden, constantly full of luxuriant flowers, with the beautiful view of the rushing Chile River, up to majestic El Misti, framed in the tropical sky."

Solon died in 1931 at the age of 76 at his home in Norwell, Massachusetts. One obituary notes that "he won the respect of all by his wide sympathy, his justice, his never-failing kindness, and his complete lack of self-seeking." One is reminded of a remark by Edward Pickering many years earlier that "science is an ennobling pursuit only when it is unselfish." No less, he might have added, is that true of life itself.

© J. Donald Fernie


I thank Sidney van den Bergh for the story of the alcoholic observer who may have skewed the cloud records at Arequipa. It was told to him there many years ago by someone who had been familiar with the station.



Bottom Banner