Joel H. Metcalf Biography (Part 4)

Joel Hastings Metcalf

Part 4: A Legacy of Discovery

In 1910, Metcalf moved to Winchester, Massachusetts, where he continued his work as a preacher and found an eager audience, as demonstrated by his sermons being published in the local newspaper, the Winchester Star, on more than one occasion[1]. Of course, astronomy remained at the heart of his life and he never faltered in his pursuit of furthering the science, through both his own discoveries and his work for Harvard. However, Metcalf was forced to put his seemingly ceaseless survey of the sky on hold during his relocation from Taunton to Winchester and his own telescopes were not used for several months during this period[2].

He had consistently demonstrated a talent for impressive discoveries, some of which defied the perceived limits of the science, and he was held in high regard because of it at Harvard. Indeed, once he reestablished himself in Winchester, according to one account about Metcalf’s continuing astronomical work in his new home, “[w]hen a Winchester photograph revealed anything of interest it was at once brought to Cambridge for verification[3]”. Additionally there was his peerless lens-crafting work that greatly benefitted the capabilities and endeavors of the Observatory. Metcalf was considered an important, and one could even argue essential, asset to the work of the Observatory. No one recognized the value of Metcalf’s talents more than Charles Pickering, and as the years passed “Relations resembling that of son and father arose between him[Metcalf] and Professor Pickering[4]”. As a result of the collaboration and friendship between Pickering and himself, Metcalf was able to contribute, in addition to his 16-inch doublet, which had proved so invaluable to the Observatory, a 10-inch photographic triplet telescope. So close were the two that, upon Pickering’s death in 1919, one newspaper article notes that his funeral services “were conducted by Rev. Joel Hastings Metcalf, of Winchester, an astronomer and lifelong friend of Prof. Pickering[5]”. Metcalf also wrote a touching tribute to Pickering in volume 57 of an Academy of Arts and Sciences publication, an organization of which he was a proud member, following Pickering’s passing[6].

The Metcalf 10-Inch Triplet, courtesy of DASCH Website

Metcalf’s personal success in the field of astronomical discovery continued steadily during these years. On August 9th, 1910, and again on September 2nd, 1913, in the constellations Hercules and Lynx, respectively, Metcalf discovered his next two comets[7]. Both discoveries were made in South Hero, Vermont, using his own comet-seeker telescope at the same camp where he did much of his work with lenses. It wasn’t until the summer of 1919, however, that Metcalf made another truly spectacular breakthrough in his work. It was on the evening of August 21st, 1919, that Metcalf discovered a fourth comet, last seen in 1847 by the German astronomer Brorsen, which was then renamed Brorsen-Metcalf. The following evening, August 22nd, Metcalf found himself scouring the night sky with his comet seeker when he spotted, in the constellation Bootes, his fifth comet, and one the would bear his name alone. There seems some confusion about the date and timing, but within the span of August 20-22 Metcalf had also discovered a third comet, but could not receive credit as “the object was periodic Comet Kopff, making its first predicated return, and it had been recovered a few weeks earlier[8].” Regardless, the discovery of two comets in three nights, or three comets in two days depending on the source one is checking[9], was a truly remarkable feat. Fittingly, these two comets were the last Metcalf discovered, and the brief span of time in which he accomplished this, at the time unprecedented, remains an enduring milestone of astronomy even today and a monumental accolade that capped a magnificent career.

Photo courtesy of

Metcalf’s life came to an abrupt end on February 4, 1925, in Portland Maine, where he had relocated following military service in World War I in 1918 and further travels abroad, as he had devoted himself to doing post-war humanitarian work in Eastern Europe. His 12” doublet was passed to Harvard following his death for continued use, and was moved to Oak Ridge in 1938[10]. Additionally, at the time of his death Metcalf was working on construction of a 13-inch triplet lens which was, fittingly for man known for pushing the possibilities of astronomical science, the largest of its kind ever attempted. His death would put this project on hold for a time, as his work was singular and difficult to duplicate or modify without significant care and expertise, as one might expect from his accomplished career. Such was his talent and notoriety for his work that it was remarked by Bailey “It is doubtful whether at the present time in this country there is anyone who can complete the work on this lens and bring it to the degree of perfection which Mr. Metcalf would have achieved.[11]” The lens would later be finished by Robert Lundin, of none other than Clark and Sons, and would later be used by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell observatory in 1930 to discover the planet Pluto[12]. It seems appropriate that Metcalf’s final endeavor would contribute to yet another great astronomical discovery and serve to further secure his place as a man of both passion and precision in his field.

A contemporary photo Metcalf’s 13-Inch Triplet, finished by Lundin and used to discover Pluto in 1930

Metcalf’s work over the course of his life won him much recognition and many accolades, including five medals for his discoveries of comets. These medals included the ninety-fourth Donohoe Comet Medal bestowed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1920 for his August 22, 1919 comet discovery[13], as well as other award from various organizations. What seems so extraordinary about Metcalf was that he possessed a limitless enthusiasm for astronomy that translated into his many discoveries, instruments, and praises. At the heart of all of this was a man who loved the field, treating it as both art and science and finding kindred spirits at Harvard and other institutions or organizations where like-minded individuals labored to expand the bounds of scientific discovery. Solon Bailey describes Metcalf’s fervor in his tribute written for Popular Astronomy magazine upon Metcalf’s passing in 1925, saying “[w]hen on the track of some new discovery, his enthusiasm was infectious.[14]” For Metcalf, it seemed there was always some new discovery to look forward to, some new boundary to push, it didn’t matter how limited his resources or how much time or effort had to be put forth to accomplish a task. In a strange way his untimely death, while working on a new, groundbreaking lens, fits with his restless, energetic disposition. Metcalf never stopped; he never tired of a science that seemed to offer limitless possibilities and joy to be taken in pursuing them. His own daughter Rachel fondly remembers the frequent nights spent with her father, on a hill with his instruments, scanning the sky for some new finding that he could share with his cadre of astronomical compatriots and admirers. Years after his passing she would look to the sky and say “It has been many years since I have been telescope making or comet seeking with father, but every black velvet night I still think, ‘What a wonderful night for comets.[15]’”


Acknowledgments: I would like to acknowledge David Sliski, former Plate Stacks assistant, Louise Rubin,of the John G. Wolbach Library, and especially Maria McEachern, also of the John G. Wolbach Library, for providing tremendous research assistance, editing support, and guidance throughout this project.

[1] Metcalf, Joel H., “Unitarian Church”, The Winchester Star: April 5, 1912-June 28, 1912” Found at:

[2] Pickering, Edward C., Sixty-Sixth Annual Report of the Director of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College for the Year Ending September 30, 1911, Harvard University, 1912, pg. 7

[3] Cannon, Annie J., “Joel Hastings Metcalf (1866-1925)”, Proceedings of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 69, No. 13 (Feb., 1935), pp. 522-523

[4] Cannon, Annie J., “Joel Hastings Metcalf (1866-1925)”, Proceedings of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 69, No. 13 (Feb., 1935), pp. 522

[5] “Prof. Edw. C. Pickering Noted Astronomer”, Cambridge Chronicle, 8 February 1919

[6] Metcalf, Joel H., “Edward Charles Pickering (1846-1919)”, Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 57, 1922, pg. 502-506

[7] Didick, Richard R., Joel Hastings Metcalf: Minister, Humanitarian, Astronomer”, The Comet’s Tale: Newsletter of the Comet Section of the British Astronomical Association, Volume 9, No. 1 (Issue 17), 2002 April, pp. 10-11

[8] Bortle, John, “A Remarkable New England Amateur”, Sky and Telescope: October 1989, pg. 436

[9] Bailey, Solon I., Seventy-Fourth Annual Report of the Director of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College for the Year Ending September 30, 1919, Harvard University, 1920, pg. 2

[10] “MA Series: 12 inch Metcalf Doublet”, Telescope Gallery, DASCH Project,

[11] Bailey, Solon I., “Joel Hastings Metcalf”, Popular Astronomy: Volume 33 No. 8, October 1925, pg. 494

[12] Bortle, John, “A Remarkable New England Amateur”, Sky and Telescope: October 1989, pg. 436

[13] Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 32, 1920, pg. 82

[14] Bailey, Solon I., “Joel Hastings Metcalf”, Popular Astronomy: Volume 33 No. 8, October 1925, pg. 494

[15] Stoneham, Rachel Metcalf, “Joel H. Metcalf, Clergyman-Astronomer”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 47, January 1939, pg. 28

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