Born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, U.S.A., CE 1837 March 7.
Died in New York, New York, U.S.A., CE 1882 November 20.
[Click here for a page of family photographs.]
Henry Draper, a doctor by trade, was a prominent American amateur scientist and an early pioneer of astronomical photography. His intellectual energy and technical skill, complemented by a fortunate birth, enabled him to achieve much in his relatively short career. Draper's father, John William Draper, was an accomplished doctor, chemist, and professor at New York University. Draper's mother was the former Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira Gardner, whose own father was personal physician to the emperor of Brazil. Draper had an older brother, John Christopher, who became a noted physician and chemist like his father, and a younger brother, Daniel, who distinguished himself in meteorology. John William Draper was greatly interested in the chemical effects of light; among other accomplishments, he took the first daguerreotype of the Moon in the winter of 1839-1840 and one of the first human portraits in 1840. Young Henry Draper assisted his father in photographing microscope slides for a textbook at the age of thirteen and used similar techniques for his own medical thesis on the spleen in 1857. Since he could not receive his degree before turning 21, Draper spent a year abroad. These travels included a tour of Lord Rosse's observatory in Ireland, which at the time housed the world's largest telescope, the 72-inch ``Leviathan'' reflector. Draper returned home determined to exploit photography for astronomical purposes. He pursued this goal with vigor, even building an observatory on his father's estate at Hastings-on-Hudson. These activities did not prevent him from fulfilling his professional duties however, first as a physician at Bellevue Hospital, and later as both a professor and dean of medicine at NYU.
Draper was married in 1867 to Anna Mary Palmer, a wealthy socialite who proved
as able a laboratory assistant as she was a hostess. Their home often
entertained a stellar cast of scientists and celebrities. Draper received
numerous awards, including honorary law degrees from NYU and the University of
Wisconsin, a Congressional medal for directing the U.S. expedition to
photograph the 1874 transit of Venus, and election to both the National Academy
of Sciences and the Astronomische Gesellschaft. In addition, he held
memberships in the American Photographic Society, the American Philosophical
Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American
Association for the Advancement of Science. At the height of his career, while
pursuing increasingly sensitive photographs of the Orion nebula, Draper took
ill after a hunting trip to the Rocky Mountains and died of double pleurisy.
His wife later established the Henry Draper Memorial to support photographic
research in astronomy. The Memorial funded both the Henry Draper Catalog, a
massive photographic stellar spectrum survey carried out by Annie Jump Canon
and Edward Charles Pickering which is still in wide use today, and the Henry
Draper Medal, which continues to be awarded for outstanding contributions to
Aside from the star catalog bearing his name, Henry Draper is best known for obtaining the first photograph of an astronomical nebula, recording the Great Nebula of Orion on the night of September 30, 1880. This image was not very impressive, but Draper improved upon it rapidly, and further refinements were achieved by Andrew Ainslee Common and Isaac Roberts in England after Draper's untimely death. Other firsts for Draper include the first stellar spectrum photograph, which he took of Vega in August 1872, the first wide-angle photograph of a comet's tail, and the first spectrum of a comet's head, both of these with Tebbutt's Comet in 1881. In addition, Draper obtained many high-quality photographs of the Moon in 1863, a benchmark spectrum of the Sun in 1873, and spectra of the Orion Nebula, the Moon, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and numerous bright stars. He also invented the slit spectrograph and pushed the state of the art in photography, instrumental optics, and telescope clock drives, the steadiness of which is essential for long photographic exposures. He wrote a textbook on chemistry and published much of his astronomical work, including monographs on telescope design and spectrum analysis. Draper even suggested building observatories in the Andes to avoid atmospheric turbulence and haze, an idea which has come into its own in recent decades.
Although photographic sensitivity rose steadily throughout Draper's lifetime,
it did not surpass that of the eye until the 1880s. Consequently, the
technology was useful only as a recording tool, not as a means of discovery,
and it was viewed with indifference by many professionals. This situation
changed in time, with faint stars being charted by the likes of Prosper and
Paul Henry in France, and with America's Edward Emerson Barnard capturing the
elusive nebulosities of the Milky Way. Yet without the push given to celestial
photography by Henry Draper and others of his day, modern astronomy, and the
view it has provided of our place in the universe, would not be possible.
Whitney's article provides a detailed list of Draper's scientific publications.
de Vaucouleurs and Gingerich both give reproductions of Draper's photographs of
the Orion Nebula.
Steven J. Gibson
University of Calgary