Elected in 1979
“Innovation and design of optical devices for diverse, unusual, and exacting requirements.”
BY WILLIAM T. PLUMMER AND STEPHEN D. FANTONE
JAMES GILBERT BAKER, renowned astronomer and optical physicist and longtime associate in research at the Center for Astrophysics of Harvard and Smithsonian Observatories, died at his home in Bedford, New Hampshire, on June 29, 2005. He was 90 years old.
Jim was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on November 11, 1914, the fourth child of Jesse B. Baker and Hattie M. Stallard. After graduating from duPont Manual High in Louisville, he attended the University of Louisville, where he majored in mathematics; an astronomy professor, Dr. Moore, often allowed him to use his telescopes. Jim also fabricated mirrors for his own telescopes and helped form the Louisville Astronomical Society in 1931. While he was still a student, he met his future wife, Elizabeth Katherine Breitenstein, of Jefferson County, Kentucky. In 1935, he received a B.A. and was a Woodstock Society medalist.
In 1936, Jim received his M.A. in astronomy at the Harvard College Observatory and was appointed a Junior Fellow (1937–1943) of the prestigious Harvard Society of Fellows. During an Astronomy Department dinner in 1942, the director of the observatory, Dr. Harlow Shapley, asked him to give an impromptu talk. According to The Courier-Journal Magazine, immediately following the talk “Dr. Shapley stood up and proclaimed an on-the-spot departmental meeting and asked for a vote on recommending Baker for a Ph.D. on the basis of the ‘oral exam’ he had just finished. The vote was unanimous.”