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Harvard in Peru III

J. Donald Fernie

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

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