Otto Struve

The Russian-born American astronomer Otto Struve (1897–1963) was one in a long line of noted astronomers in the Struve family dynasty. Of Danish and German heritage, he survived the Russian Revolution of 1917 and played a key role in establishing several of the most important observatories in the United States.

Otto Struve

Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy Stock Photo

Four years after the Communist takeover of Russia in 1917, Otto Struve arrived in the United States, possessing training in astronomy but with neither financial resources nor a command of the English language. He took advantage of the opportunities now available to him, acquiring a top-flight graduate education and making his mark at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. For much of his career, Struve divided his time between research and administration, proving to be adept at both. He was interested in the field of spectroscopy (the predecessor of today's radio astronomy) and helped advance the technology available for observing such phenomena as double stars and nebulae. He also spearheaded the development of the McDonald Observatory in west Texas, still one of the most important U.S. astronomical facilities. The descendant of a long line of Russian astronomers, Struve was also active as an educator and, without children of his own, carried on his family's traditions by training the next generation of American astronomers.

Came from Family of Astronomers

Struve was born in Kharkov, in the Sloboda Ukraine region (now Kharkiv, Ukraine) of what was then the Russian Empire, on August 12, 1897. Together with a sister, he was one of two surviving children born to Elizaveta Khrystoforovna and Gustav Wilhelm Ludwig Struve; a younger brother died of tuberculosis and a sister drowned. Astronomers in the Struve (pronounced “Stroo-veh” ) family dated back to his grandfather, Otto Wilhelm von Struve (1819–1905), and included Struve's father. The dynasty was founded by Danish mathematician Jacob Struve (1755–1841), and his offspring immigrated to Germany, and then to Russia through several generations. Several of Struve's uncles directed major German observatories, and his father (who went by the name Ludwig) was a professor of astronomy in Kharkov, raising his son to speak both Russian and German. Although he was afraid of the dark, Struve began to accompany his father to the local observatory at age eight, and by ten he had made original observations with a telescope.

Struve graduated with honors from the Kharkov Gymnasium, a college preparatory high school, in 1914. Academically inclined, he made plans to enroll at Kharkov University, but his plans were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Elevated above the infantry due to his family connections, Struve traveled to St. Petersburg to attend a school for artillery field officers. From there, he was sent to the front, where Russians were battling the troops of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and he saw action as a junior officer.

Struve resumed his education in 1917, but his homeland was now radically changed. Russia's hereditary monarchy had been purged and Tsar Nicholas II and his family forced from power (they would later be executed). Russia's new Bolshevik rulers had withdrawn the country from the war, but factions now battled for control and a communist dictatorship under Josef Stalin would be the result. In 1919 Struve completed his degree at Kharkov University and began teaching in Kharkov. His plans were postponed once again, however, when civil war broke out in Russia between the “Red” Bolsheviks and the forces of the nonCommunist White Russian army.

Joining the White Russians, Struve once again found himself in the thick of the fighting. At one point his horse was shot out from under him, but he survived. Conditions deteriorated rapidly after the Bolsheviks gained the upper hand in 1920; although hoping to rejoin his family, he was forced to join several comrades on a flight to Gallipoli, Turkey. While wintering on this peninsula in the Aegean Sea, they lived in a refugee camp where many of their group became seriously ill; often they subsisted on Red Cross rations. In the spring, Struve made his way to the Turkish capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). Now an indigent, he survived by taking odd jobs, at one point working in a lumberyard and sleeping in a small tent together with other former Russian officers.

American Astronomer Offered Help

Although Frost wrote a letter to Struve, offering him an assistant's job, Struve's living situation as an itinerant made delivery of the letter difficult. By chance, however, Struve met a White Russian soldier who knew of the existence of Frost's letter. Struve, who spoke no English, answered Frost's letter by translating word for word from a dictionary and using German sentence structure (which differs substantially from that of English). When he sought help in delivering his response from an English-speaking YMCA desk clerk, the clerk was an American who was able to contact Frost. In March of 1921, Struve received Frost's offer of a job at the Yerkes Observatory and was able to obtain a visa and funding for his trip to Chicago from the U.S. Consulate in Turkey.

Disembarking in New York City in October of 1921, Struve traveled to Chicago and met Frost several days later, clad in the green jacket, purple pants, and orange shoes he had purchased in a New York City thrift shop. From this unpromising beginning, he made rapid progress. Communicating with Frost in German (up until World War I it was widely used in science) and admitting to no experience in the technology, he was assigned to a spectroscopy project and quickly familiarized himself with the field.

While mastering English, Struve worked as a stellar spectroscopy assistant, helping a handful of students in discussing the field and using the minimal tools available in the observatory. Spectroscopy is the study of visible white light through the use of a prism, which disperses wavelengths into the colored bands that signify differing frequencies. Using the telescopes and other tools at the observatory, he identified a new pulsating star as well as several asteroids, publishing his discoveries in 1922. To expand his knowledge, Struve traveled to the University of Chicago for classes and in December of 1923 received his Ph.D. The following year, he became an instructor at the college level. He earned his U.S. citizenship in 1927, the same year he was appointed an assistant professor of astronomy. When Frost retired in 1932, Struve succeeded him as director of Yerkes Observatory. He remained in that post until 1947, also holding the title during that period of professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

Spearheaded McDonald Observatory

While at Yerkes, Struve and a colleague had recognized the need for a large new reflector telescope (a telescope that forms an image with a large magnifying mirror), but the university was reluctant to allocate money for the project. When he leaked word that Harvard University was interested in hiring him, the university changed its position. Struve scouted a location in the remote West Texas hills and supervised the construction of the new McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. By 1936 the new observatory was mostly completed, affiliated with the University of Texas, and astronomical work had begun there. The observatory was dedicated in 1939; for some years it would be the second-largest in the United States and, as its director, Struve lured several top European astronomers to America by offering them the opportunity to work there. He sometimes commuted from Williams Bay to Fort Davis in a single day, driving to Chicago, flying to Big Spring, Texas, and driving 200 miles to the observatory before working the night after his arrival.

That commute fit Struve's hard-driving personality. He was able to combine administration and research because he energetically devoted long hours to both, sometimes skipping meals. Humorous and so enthusiastic about astronomy that he would discuss it with anyone, he also had little patience for colleagues less intense than he. In the early 1950s, he began to suffer stress symptoms, such as insomnia, due to the long hours he devoted to his dual posts. Taking a position as chair of the astronomy department at the University of California at Berkeley, he gained access to the large Mount Wilson Observatory and supervised the activities of a large group of graduate students. He also served for several years as president of the International Astronomical Union. An advocate of international cooperation among scientists, Struve had several chances to return to the Soviet Union but never did, perhaps frustrated by a Russian astronomy textbook that treated him in a derogatory fashion because he worked in the United States.

Despite enjoying his tenure at the University of California, Struve missed the challenges of running a large observatory, and he returned briefly to Yerkes before assuming the directorship of the new National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, in 1959. While there, he supported Project Ozma, a pioneering effort to listen for radio signals that might be emanating from civilizations outside Earth's solar system. Before the development of space travel beyond earth orbit, belief in extraterrestrial life was rare among scientists. Struve resigned his post at Green Bank after two years, citing health problems: he had contracted hepatitis A and now suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. In the early 1960s, he held visiting professorships at the California Institute of Technology and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

In May of 1925, while working as an instructor at the University of Chicago, Struve married Mary Martha Lanning, who he had met three years before, while she was working as a secretary at Yerkes Observatory. A talented vocalist, Lanning was planning to leave the observatory and take a job as a singer, but she turned the job down in favor of marrying Struve. They had no children, and as no other branches of the family produced famous scientists, the Struve astronomy dynasty came to an end.

Over his career, Struve received nine honorary doctorates and top scientific honors in several countries, including the Draper Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 1950. He died in Berkeley on April 6, 1963. The McDonald Observatory remains in use and produces the daily StarDate broadcast for the U.S. National Public Radio network. In 1966, the University of Texas honored Struve by naming the observatory's telescope the Otto Struve Telescope.


Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 13, Scribner's, 2008.


New York Times, May 4, 1959, “No. 1 Star Gazer: Otto Struve” ; April 9, 1963, “Dr. Otto Struve, Astronomer, 65: Director of Observatory, a Leading Researcher, Dies.”


National Academies Press, (November 18, 2017), Kevin Krisciunas, “Otto Struve.”

SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System,…75..501P (November 18, 2017), John G. Phillips, “Otto Struve, 1897–1963.” □

(MLA 8th Edition)