Lyman S. Spitzer, Jr.

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Lyman Strong Spitzer, Jr.

Birthdate: (82)
Birthplace: Toledo, Lucas, Ohio, United States
Death: March 31, 1997 (82)
Princeton, Mercer, New Jersey, United States
Place of Burial: Princeton, NJ, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Lyman Strong Spitzer, Sr. and Blanche Carey Spitzer
Husband of <private> Spitzer (Canaday)
Father of <private> Spitzer; <private> Griffin (Spitzer); <private> Saul (Spitzer) and <private> Spitzer
Brother of Lydia C Rheinfrank; Luette Eaton and <private> Spitzer

Occupation: Professor of Astronomy, Princeton University
Managed by: Valerie Ann Koenigsfeld
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Lyman S. Spitzer, Jr.

Lyman Strong Spitzer, Jr. (June 26, 1914 – March 31, 1997) was an American theoretical physicist and astronomer best known for his research in star formation, plasma physics, and in 1946, for conceiving the idea of telescopes operating in outer space. Spitzer invented the stellarator plasma device and is the namesake of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. As a mountaineer, he made the first ascent of Mount Thor with David Morton.

Early life and education

Spitzer was born in Toledo, Ohio, and graduated from Scott High School. He then attended Phillips Academy in 1929 and went on to Yale College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1935 and was a member of Skull and Bones. During a year of study at Cambridge University, he was influenced by Arthur Eddington and the young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Returning to the U.S., Spitzer earned his MA from Princeton University in 1937 and his PhD in 1939, under the direction of Henry Norris Russell.


In 1965, Spitzer and Donald Morton became the first men to climb Mount Thor 1,675 m (5,495 ft), located in Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. As a member of the American Alpine Club Spitzer established the "Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Climbing Award" which gives $12,000 to several mountain climbing expeditions annually.


Spitzer's brief time as a faculty member at Yale was interrupted by his wartime work on the development of sonar. In 1947, at the age of 33, he succeeded Russell as director of Princeton University Observatory, an institution that, virtually jointly with his contemporary Martin Schwarzschild, he continued to head until 1979.

Spitzer's research centered on the interstellar medium, to which he brought a deep understanding of plasma physics. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was among the first to recognize star formation as an ongoing contemporary process. His monographs, "Diffuse Matter in Space" (1968) and "Physical Processes in the Interstellar Medium" (1978) consolidated decades of work, and themselves became the standard texts for some decades more.

Spitzer was the founding director of Project Matterhorn, Princeton University's pioneering program in controlled thermonuclear research, renamed in 1961 as Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He was an early proponent of space optical astronomy in general, and in particular of the project that became Hubble Space Telescope.


Spitzer died suddenly on March 31, 1997 after having completed a regular working day at Princeton University. He was survived by wife Doreen Canaday Spitzer, four children, and ten grandchildren. Among Spitzer's four children is neurobiologist Nicholas C. Spitzer, who is currently the professor and vice chair in neurobiology at UC San Diego.



Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1953)

Henry Norris Russell Lectureship (1953)

Bruce Medal (1973)

Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1974)

James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics (1975)

Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1978)

National Medal of Science (1979)

Franklin Medal (1980)

Prix Jules Janssen of the French Astronomical Society (1980)

Crafoord Prize (1985)

Named after him:

Asteroid 2160 Spitzer

Spitzer Space Telescope

Lyman Spitzer Library in Davenport College, Yale University

Lyman Spitzer Building at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in Princeton, NJ

Answer to the final question on NTN Buzztime's Showdown on September 16, 2008.

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Lyman S. Spitzer, Jr.'s Timeline

June 26, 1914
Toledo, Lucas, Ohio, United States
March 31, 1997
Age 82
Princeton, Mercer, New Jersey, United States
Princeton, NJ, USA