John Jefferies, founding director of the UH Institute for Astronomy, dies at 98

John Jefferies, the founding director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, died Jan. 18 in Tucson, Ariz., at the age of 98.

Born in 1925, Jefferies steered IfA to the forefront of scientific achievement and helped pioneer Maunakea astronomy.

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“His legacy will forever illuminate the path for future astronomers,” said Doug Simons, director at IfA, in a UH press release. “We owe a debt of gratitude to this trailblazer who shaped the astronomical landscape in Hawaii and beyond. His commitment to advancing our understanding of the cosmos has left an indelible mark on IfA.”

UH recruited Jefferies to join its newly formed solar program in 1964. The revered astronomer is renowned for his theoretical breakthroughs in solar physics, according to UH.

“In his scientific work, John Jefferies developed fundamentally new methods to describe the physics, which lead to the formation of spectral lines in the light of stars caused by the chemical elements. This laid the foundation for generations of scientists who study the physical properties of stars in the Milky Way and in galaxies further away,” said Rolf Kudritzki in the press release. Kudritzki is former IfA director who moved to Hawaii from Berlin, drawn by inspiration from a textbook written by Jefferies on hot and luminous stars.

Jefferies would go on to build up a rocket program to study the sun and establish the IfA, which today is one of the largest university astronomy programs in the world, with observatories on Maunakea on Hawaii Island and Haleakala on Maui.

“He had the remarkable vision of developing astronomy in Hawaii at a time when the potential of the high mountains sites of Haleakala and Maunakea was largely unrecognized,” said Alan Tokunaga, a UH astronomer emeritus.

During his 16-year tenure as director, Jefferies oversaw the development of a new generation of telescopes on Maunakea including the UH 2.2-meter telescope, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, two 24-inch UH telescopes, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.

This led to Maunakea becoming the prime observatory site in the Northern Hemisphere, according to UH.