George Phillips Bond: HCO and The Civil War

William Cranch Bond, a Boston clockmaker and the founding Director of the Harvard College Observatory, died on January 29, 1859. In less than a month, his son and longtime assistant, George Phillips Bond became the Observatory’s second Director and the Phillips Professor of Astronomy at Harvard College. At the height of his career, the younger Bond was struggling personally. He moved into the Observatory house with two young daughters, after his wife died in December 1858. His youngest daughter passed away earlier that year. He was thirty-four years old when he accepted the position, and by most accounts, the same age when he contracted tuberculosis, then called consumption. Bond’s six-year tenure as Director coincided with the steady decline of his own health, and with the bloodiest war in American history.

Dana House, c. 1895. The original location of the Harvard College Observatory.

Early in the morning of April 12, 1861, Confederate troops opened fire on a federal garrison in Charleston Harbor. By the following afternoon, Major Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to the South and evacuated all Union troops. It was the beginning of the Civil War. Far from any of the physical fighting, citizens of Boston still keenly felt the war’s impact. The 20th Massachusetts, called “the Harvard regiment” for the number of Harvard-educated men in its ranks became “the Bloody 20th” by 1865. Of all Union regiments to engage in battle (almost 3,000 in total), the Harvard regiment had the fifth highest number of casualties. In 1863, just two years after the start of the war, more than half of the living graduates of Harvard College were enlisted in either the Union or Confederate armies, including two of George Phillip Bond’s assistants. At a time when there were only 18 full-time faculty at Harvard College, the loss of any personnel was significant.

Donati’s Comet by W.C. Bond, 1858.

Funding challenges plagued Observatory staff from its founding. Bond’s father worked unpaid for the first seven years of his tenure. The Civil War exacerbated the financial issues. In a letter to J. Ingersoll Bowditch, Bond lamented the Observatory’s inability to publish. By his own estimation, he had enough research to fill ten volumes of 300 to 400 pages each. To do so, would require at minimum $20,000, which was so far beyond the Observatory’s annual allocations, it was ridiculous. To maintain daily operations, Bond had an annual budget of $200, which didn’t include any allocation for fuel in the winter. The publication of the Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College required $600, and it was only thanks to a private gift in 1862 that Bond was able to publish the 3rd volume with his famous monograph on Donati’s Comet. In his 1864 Director’s Report, Bond argued that the successes of each succeeding year only served to add to “the accumulation of unpublished results.” The Observatory’s inability to publish was “a serious drawback to the usefulness of the institution,” and discouraged “the labors of everyone associated in its active operations.” Prior to the war, supplemental funding from wealthy donors made up some of the difference, but as Bond expressed to William Mitchell, in light of the ongoing war, “the present is not a time to make an appeal to them.”

Asaph Hall

Instead, Bond helped pay for some of the physical upkeep of the Observatory grounds out of his own pocket. His personal efforts to stretch every dollar meant that Bond gave up coffee and cancelled his newspaper service. In the absence of fuel, he worked all day in his overcoat. After Asaph Hall left Cambridge for an appointment at the U.S. Naval Observatory, the third of his four assistants to leave in two years, Bond remarked that now he had “at least the consolation of having very little to lose.” The situation was grim. To make matters worse, by the winter of 1864, Bond’s failing health limited his ability to work.

In the mid-19th century, Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States, which is all the more significant at a time when the average life expectancy for those who survived infancy was just 48 years old. Prior to the discovery, widespread acceptance, and medical response to germ theory, infectious and endemic disease posed a much higher threat to the general populace. Tuberculosis was rampant, but other diseases like typhoid, typhus, dysentery, smallpox, scarlet fever, cholera, and malaria were also widespread. During the Civil War, disease killed almost twice as many men as combat. Tuberculosis offered its victims a slower death, which at the time, made it a more romanticized way to die in comparison to contemporary alternatives. British poet Lord Byron famously remarked, “I should like to die from consumption.” Despite its prevalence, Tuberculosis wasn’t treated as a contagious disease until after 1865, the year George Phillips Bond died.

Without fuel, the cold, drafty rooms where Bond worked had a negative impact on his already fragile health. As Director, Bond had to continually assert the academic value of the Observatory even as his scarce financial resources made publication all but impossible. In the absence of three of his four assistants, his workload increased as his health failed, and the challenges Bond faced in maintaining the Observatory during wartime doubtlessly shortened his own life. In his final weeks, he worked obsessively to complete a longstanding project on the nebula of Orion, but as evident in one of his last letters to Asaph Hall, his prospects were bleak. Bond wrote, “In truth, I am becoming resigned to the idea that most of it is destined to oblivion. I had planned to accomplish something considerable, and this is the end.” He was thirty-nine years old when he died.

Despite his early death, Bond’s contributions to the field are significant. Among other accomplishments, his work with John Whipple on early astronomical photography earned him the title,  “the father of celestial photography.” Ironically, there is no known image of Bond today.

Orion Nebula – Hubble 2006 Mosaic 18000

**Enslaved and free Black people in the 19th century did not have equal opportunities to pursue an advanced education or to participate in scientific discourse. This article highlights a singular perspective during the Civil War relating to the history of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, but astronomical inquiry does not belong to any singular race or people. For further reading, Gloria Rall’s article, “The Stars of Freedom” (Sky & Telescope vol. 89, no. 2 (1995): 36), analyzes the astronomical meaning of the folk song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, written and sung by enslaved people in North America.


Bond, George Phillips. “Report of the Committee of the Overseers of Harvard College Appointed to Visit The Observatory in the Year 1863: Together with Report of the Director.” Boston: Press of Geo. C. Rand & Avery S Cornhill, 1864.

Ireland, Corydon. “Blue, Gray, and Crimson.” Harvard Gazette. Harvard Gazette, March 13, 2019.

Jones, Bessie Zaban. Boyd, Lyle Gifford. Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839-1919. Harvard University Press, 1971.