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Guide to the Papers of Jesse L. Greenstein, 1923-1992
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms
  • Related Collections

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Jesse L. Greenstein papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1923-1992
    Collection number: Consult repository
    Creator: Greenstein, Jesse Leonard, 1909-2002
    Extent: 50 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Archives.
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: These papers document the career of Jesse L. Greenstein, a Harvard educated astronomer who came to the California Institute of Technology in 1948 to run the astronomy program. While at Caltech he did research on stellar composition and high resolution spectra using the Palomar telescope. The papers consist of correspondence, technical material, professional organizational material, class and lecture notes, and subject files. They emphasize Greenstein's research on the discovery of peculiar stars and the study of their composition from their spectra.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item, box and file number], Papers of Jesse L. Greenstein. Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    Jesse L. Greenstein began transferring materials to the Caltech Archives in the mid-1970s. Additional batches of material arrived throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. A further supplement of 6.5 linear feet was donated by the Greenstein heirs in July 2003, along with selected medals.

    Processing History

    This collection was processed by Carol Finerman and David A. Valone, with assistance from Carlo Cossu, in May 1995. The July 2003 supplement is unprocessed; please consult repository for further information.


    Jesse Leonard Greenstein was born in New York City, where his family ran a prosperous real estate business. Although he was expected to join the family business, Greenstein had other interests. As a boy he was an avid reader and an enthusiastic student. His interests ranged from classical languages and literature to science. When he was eight years old his grandfather presented him with a brass telescope and a tripod, and his interest in astronomy flourished. He was soon lecturing to his friends about the planets and stars. Something of a child prodigy, he skipped through the New York public schools and went on to attend a private high school, the Horace Mann School for Boys, from the ages of 11 to 15. His interest in science continued to grow, and when he entered Harvard at age 16, he was committed to pursuing a life in science.
    Greenstein received his AB degree from Harvard in 1929, just a few months before the stock market crash. By that time he was already working on his Master's degree in astronomy, which he received the next year. The continuing economic crisis, however, forced him to return to New York to aid his family through the bleak years of the early 1930s. Greenstein recalls these stressful years as having a decisive effect upon his character: he learned the skills of management, communication and financial planning under the most extreme conditions. During these years in New York, Greenstein became acquainted with the physicist I.I. Rabi, who kept Greenstein in touch with the world of science by inviting him to do volunteer work in his lab at Columbia. At Columbia, Greenstein also met astronomers J. Schilt and W. J. Eckert, who kept him in touch with the developments in the field. By 1934, Greenstein felt that he could leave the family business and return to graduate work in astronomy. He returned to Harvard and received his PhD three years later.
    Upon the completion of his degree in 1937, Greenstein received a National Research Council Fellowship that permitted him to choose a site for his work. Greenstein's choice was the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Yerkes bore the stamp of its builder, George Ellery Hale, and was just entering a golden age under the leadership of Otto Struve. Yerkes was a center of both theoretical and observational astronomy, and was at that time just completing the construction of a new 82-inch reflector at McDonald. At Yerkes, Greenstein began work on nebular spectrography in collaboration with the young theorist L. G. Henyey. Together, they discovered diffuse galactic light, the scattering of starlight by dust in the Milky Way. After making these significant contributions to the field of interstellar matter, Greenstein switched over to working on high resolution stellar spectra. This spectrographic work led to new insights on the atomic composition of stars.
    Greenstein continued to work at Yerkes throughout the Second World War. In 1948, he accepted an offer from Caltech to take over the leadership of astronomy at the Institute, particularly the new 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar. Prior to Greenstein's arrival, Caltech had essentially no astronomy department, although it had a tradition of work in astrophysics and a close association with the Mount Wilson observatory initiated by Hale. At Caltech, Greenstein proved to be as good an administrative leader as a researcher, building up astronomy at Caltech into one of the premier programs in the nation. The catalog of Greenstein's accomplishments over the next thirty years is impressive and is richly documented in the collection of his papers. He continued his research into stellar composition and high resolution spectra using the Palomar telescope. He also became deeply involved in the leadership of the astronomical profession, both as a mentor for a new generation of astronomers and as an administrator on numerous national and professional scientific organizations.
    To all his varied activities, Greenstein brought a warmth and charm which made him an effective leader and a superb spokesman for science. Throughout his long career in science, he was supported by his wife of many years, the former Naomi Kitay, his boyhood sweetheart.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Papers, 1923-1992, of Jesse L. Greenstein, consisting of a large assortment of material preserved over the course of his long career as an astronomer, teacher, and administrator. Greenstein began transferring materials to the Caltech Archives in the mid-1970s, beginning with batches of his correspondence and working files. In 1982, an initial sorting of this material was undertaken, and a rough listing of the contents of 72 boxes was produced, spanning the period from 1936 to 1969. At that time the collection was roughly divided into sections classified as "Correspondence", "Scientific Research" and "Professional Committees and Organizations" along with additional sections of class and lecture notes and subject files. Additional batches of material arrived throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, bringing the collection to 107 boxes.
    In 1993, processing began on the expanding collection, beginning with the correspondence. During the this time, a final batch of three storage boxes of material was received from Professor Greenstein, including material dating up to 1992. This was roughly sorted and the correspondence was interfiled with the previously processed material. The remaining material from this last accession remains in two large storage boxes at the end of the collection. Once the 1992 correspondence was sorted and interfiled, the sorting and processing of the rest of the correspondence was carried out. The remainder of the collection remains only roughly processed. Material in the sections other than the correspondence, therefore, is not always systematically arranged. Scholars should scan the list of file names in order to spot material that might be of interest to them and not rely upon the rough categorization that reflects the growth of the collection in time.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.
    California Institute of Technology
    Harvard University
    Peculiar stars--Constitution
    Peculiar stars--Research
    Peculiar stars--Spectra

    Related Collections

    Atrophysics Archive