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Barbara Bell (1922-2017)

Barbara Bell, longtime astronomer at Harvard College Observatory, died on 25 September 2017 at age 95. Born on 1 April 1922 to George Irving Bell Sr. and Hazel Seerley Bell of Evanston, Illinois, Bell obtained her bachelor’s degree in 1944 from Radcliffe College. She received her Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1951 from Harvard, completing an investigation of silicon lines in the solar spectrum, titled “A Study of Doppler and Damping Effects in the Solar Atmosphere,” under the direction of astronomer Donald Menzel.

Thus began a fifty-year affiliation with the Harvard College Observatory, later the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She conducted research into a variety of solar and planetary phenomena, working with colleagues including Menzel, Harold Glazer, Robert Kurucz, Giancarlo Noci, and John Wolbach, among others. Kurucz recalls, “From 1984 until she could no longer walk up the hill to the observatory, we worked together to interpret very high quality solar spectra taken at Kitt Peak. … We would compute the spectrum through the visible and infrared, try to identify the atomic and molecular lines in the observed spectra, and determine their strengths. We published our preliminary results in 1995 and those results were widely used by astronomers for studying other stars as well as the sun.”

In her later career, Bell developed a keen interest in the history of ancient Egypt, studying contemporary accounts of droughts and flooding of the Nile and possible concurrences of these event with solar activity and periods of social decline. Her journal articles on the subject drew widespread attention among historians researching the fall of various Egyptian dynasties.

Bell’s friends and colleagues cite her mental acuity as well as her kindness and positivity. She donated generously to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in furtherance of spectroscopic studies. Bell is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, Illinois.

Obituary written by: Alan Hirshfeld (UMass Darthmouth)

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BAAS Citation: BAAS, 2017, 49, 040