David Dunlap Observatory     

The Legacy Continues:
C. A. Chant and the David Dunlap Observatory

by C. H. Russell
PHOTOS to accompany this article. 139663 bytes
Reprinted with permission of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
From the RASC Journal, V.93, No.1, February 1999.

For over sixty years, the Dunlap Observatory north of Toronto has been one of Canada's premier astronomical institutions. Though it bears the name of the late David Dunlap, a wealthy lawyer and mining entrepreneur, the observatory is as much the legacy of Dr. Clarence Chant (1865-1956). Referred to by many as "the father of Canadian astronomy," Dr. Chant is best known for his contributions to astronomy education in Canada. He was a central figure in establishing the Department of Astronomy at the University of Toronto, introducing optional astronomy courses to the mathematics and physics curriculum in 1905. Chant was the faculty's sole astronomer until 1924, when one of his former pupils, Dr. Reynold K. Young, joined the department. Over the next ten years, Chant focused his remarkable energy on the establishment of the Dunlap Observatory, retiring upon its completion.

Clarence Augustus Chant was born on 31 May 1865 to Christopher Chant (a cabinet maker) and Elizabeth Croft at Hagerman's Corners, Ontario. Though he grew up under the innumerable stars of the rural night sky, there is little evidence to suggest that Chant developed early an interest in astronomy. Indeed, while attending Markham High School in 1882, Chant actually forgot about the transit of Venus, an eagerly anticipated event for which his schoolmaster had made preparations to observe. As a boy, however, he became fascinated with the workings of farm machinery, an interest that perhaps sowed the seeds of his future devotion to physics. Moreover, throughout his secondary school education he demonstrated "a certain facility" for mathematics. 1

After completing his studies at Markham High School, Chant attended St. Catharines Collegiate Institute and the York County Model School in Toronto. Still uncertain as to a career choice, Chant left the city 1884 to work as a teacher in Maxwell, Osprey Township, for three years. Though successful and well-liked as a teacher, Chant returned to Toronto in 1887 to attend University College in the University of Toronto. There he studied mathematics and physics under the guidance of Professor James Loudon, an important figure in Chant's career. Through Loudon's connections, Chant secured a position in the federal civil service in Ottawa upon graduating in 1890. After a year as a temporary clerk in the Auditor General's office, Chant realised that his prospects were limited, and wrote to Loudon in the summer of 1891 about the possibility of obtaining a position at the university. Loudon offered him a Fellowship and in 1892 Chant was appointed a lecturer in physics. He never looked back.

At that time, astronomy had no home of its own at the university; from 1890 to 1905, instruction in astronomy was available only to fourth-year students seeking honours in mathematics and physics. Before 1890, it was merely a component of natural philosophy studies.

Chant's appointment occurred in the same year that the university became federated with Victoria College, a Methodist institution that included astronomy courses in its curriculum. Victoria College was influenced greatly by the ideas of Egerton Ryerson, who believed that training in the sciences, particularly "the knowledge of the laws of the universe," was essential to a good education. 2 The union did not produce an astronomy department at the university, however, and the subject remained under the umbrella of the mathematics department.

After Chant joined the university, we see evidence of his keen interest in astronomy. Attracted by newspaper notices, Chant approached and was admitted to the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto in December 1892. That group was renamed the Toronto Astronomical Society in 1900, and became the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 1902. Chant served as its president from 1904 to 1907, and was editor of its Journal for many years.

The 1890s were active years for Chant. He taught physics and worked towards his Master's degree, which he received in 1900, and filled in for an ailing Loudon from 1895 to 1897. Despite his demanding schedule, he found time to enrich his life by attending concerts, lectures and plays. In 1894 he married Jean Laidlaw, by whom he had two daughters, and travelled to Germany in the summer of 1898 to study light theory. In late 1899 he directed operations for the first wireless telegraph message in Canada, sent from one end of a lecture hall to the other at University College.

After receiving his graduate degree in 1900, Chant was granted a one-year leave of absence to pursue a doctorate in physics at Harvard. He returned to Toronto in 1901 with a Ph.D., having devised a new method of measuring the lengths of electric waves.

Throughout the 1890s Chant came to lament "how little the University was doing for astronomy." 3 Eager to "improve this condition of things," Chant proposed the introduction of separate astronomy courses in 1904, the same year he was installed as the president of the RASC. 4 The Senate of the university applauded Chant's initiative, and in 1905 six astronomy courses were added to the undergraduate calendar as an option for fourth-year students. That success was immensely gratifying to Chant, who noted in his memoirs the "great pleasure" he later felt, knowing that "[a]t one time. . .all the astronomers in Canada. . .had been my personal students." 5

With an astronomy curriculum now in place, Chant understandably yearned for a well-equipped observatory on the university grounds. Astronomy students had to make do with limited access to a six-inch refractor that was installed in the old Toronto Meteorological Observatory in 1882 to observe the transit of Venus. Unfortunately, there was no suitable location on the university campus for even a small facility. Chant began his quest for an off-campus site as early as 1906, and began obtaining quotes for observatory equipment from companies such as Warner and Swasey in Cleveland, the same company that provided the mount for the telescope at the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, opened in 1905. After five years, Chant found what he judged to be a perfect spot for an observatory, a ten-acre site owned by the City of Toronto. Located north of the city (near present-day Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue), the land had been purchased by the City for the building of the failed Isolation Hospital. Chant began talks with the City of Toronto to allow the construction of the "Royal Astronomical Observatory." The City was receptive to the idea, and it generated some excitement in the local press. It was not to be, however; World War I put the project on hold until 1919, after which a shortage of funds dashed all hopes for the observatory's completion.

Disappointed but determined, Chant pursued Toronto's wealthy for financial support, but to no avail; as far as the sciences were concerned, the philanthropic spirit of Canada's well-to-do did not match that of their American counterparts. While large, privately-endowed observatories were numerous in the United States, Canada had only two institutions, both children of the federal government: the Dominion Observatory and the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, opened in 1918. That, however, was about to change.

In 1921 Chant delivered a public lecture on Wennecke's Comet, which had recently glided across Canada's skies. Among those in attendance was David Dunlap, who, bitten by the astronomy bug, expressed an interest in Chant's efforts regarding the establishment of a large observatory. Before making any firm financial commitment, however, Dunlap died in October 1924 at age sixty-one. Chant's dream of a large observatory did not perish with Dunlap, though; Chant approached his widow, Jessie Dunlap, in late 1926 with the idea of erecting an observatory as a monument to her husband. Mrs. Dunlap embraced the proposal warmly, promising to "keep it in [her] heart for consideration, for it appeals to me tremendously." 6 After meeting with Chant she agreed to finance the scheme, pending the settlement of her husband's estate.

Over the next four years Chant worked closely with Dunlap to iron out the details of the project, on which he invited her input. They chose to keep the undertaking out of the public eye until all was ready. One of the details to be worked out was the new observatory's location. The site favoured by Chant in 1911 was unsuitable as it now laid inside the city. Among the new sites considered was one three miles south of Aurora, Ontario, about 1,000 feet above sea level and 500 feet above the Toronto site. Though favourable from an astronomical point of view, it was rejected as it was too distant from the university. Another potential site, near Hogg's Hollow north of Toronto, was good but not easily accessible. After inspecting topographic maps with fellow astronomer Reynold Young, Chant decided that a rise in the land just south of Richmond Hill was ideal. Upon seeing the site for the first time, Jessie Dunlap exclaimed "this is the place!" and authorised its purchase for $28,000.00. 7 In May, 1930, Dunlap gave the funding final approval and announced the project to the press.'

With the project on secure financial footing, Chant proceeded with the ordering a 74-inch reflecting telescope from Grubb, Parsons and Company in England. The telescope would be the second largest in the world, surpassed only by the 100-inch instrument at Mount Wilson in California. Owing, however, to the death of the project's overseer in Britain, Sir Charles Parsons, Chant chose to have the mirror cast at Corning Glass Works in the United States to avoid delay. The mirror, twelve inches thick and weighing 5,000 pounds, was poured in the presence of Mrs. Dunlap and Chant in June 1933, then sent to Grubb-Parsons to be ground and polished. The mounting too was built in England, as was the observatory's copper dome- sixty-one feet in diameter and weighing eighty tons- and the main building that houses the large telescope. The structure took two years to complete and cost a total of $59,000.00. It arrived in Toronto on July 31, 1933 where it was reassembled by the Dominion Bridge Company, the company that later lowered the twenty-three ton telescope (without mirror) through the dome's fifteen-foot-wide slit, using a special crane. The finished mirror arrived in May, 1935.

The DDO's administration building, designed by Toronto architects Mathers and Haldenby, was finished in the same year at a cost of $109,160.00. It is capped by three smaller domes, the northern-most of which housed the 6-inch refractor from the old meteorological observatory.

Chant's vision of a world-class observatory became a reality on his seventieth birthday. On May 31, 1935, the opening ceremony was attended by such notables as Sir Frank Dyson, former Astronomer Royal of England, and Mackenzie King, who praised the David Dunlap Observatory as "a gift to science all over the world." 8 Chant retired the same day and moved into nearby Observatory House, where he spent his remaining years. Reynold Young became the observatory's first director. In the ensuing years, Chant witnessed with satisfaction the growth of the observatory. Under Young the DDO began the compilation of a photographic resource base and initiated a study of the radial velocities of some 500 stars. The DDO staff expanded to include such noted astronomers as Dr. Frank Hogg, Ruth Northcott and Jack Heard. The staff was also complemented by Hogg's wife, Dr. Helen Hogg, and Peter Millman. Helen Hogg's work focused on globular clusters and Millman carried out meteoric research. In the meantime Chant set to work on writing his autobiography, published in 1954. He passed away at Observatory House on November 18, 1956, near the institution he had laboured hard to build.

Chant's creation flourished throughout the following decades, however, and kept pace with the burgeoning store of astronomical knowledge around the world. The DDO added to its ranks more radio and theoretical astronomers, and in the 1960s constructed a radio telescope in Algonquin Park. By the mid-1980s, however, budgetary constraints placed that instrument's future in doubt; sadly, the dish was abandoned in 1991. At the close of the 1960s, the DDO found itself plagued by light pollution from the ever-expanding city of Toronto, an ongoing concern. The observatory responded by going international and erecting in 1971 a 0.6M telescope at Las Campanas in Chile. This opened the southern skies for the University of Toronto, and it was at Las Campanas that the first naked-eye supernova to occur in over three hundred years, 1987A, was identified.

As the DDO looks forward to the year 2000 and its sixty-fifth anniversary, it does so hindered by city lights, no longer at the vanguard of observational astronomy. Nonetheless, it faces the new millennium with an undiminished importance of purpose: to remain the foremost institution in Canada for training the professional astronomers of the future the great legacy of Clarence Augustus Chant.

  1. Clarence Chant, The David Dunlap Observatory Papers, Box 010, Folder II, leaf 36
  2. Egerton Ryerson, On the Course of Collegiate Education (1842), quoted in Richard Jarell, 1988, The Cold Light of Dawn: a History of Canadian Astronomy (Univ. Toronto Press: Toronto), p.71
  3. Clarence Chant, op.cit., folder XIII, leaf 289
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., leaf 291
  6. Ibid., box XIII, Jessie Dunlap to Clarence Chant, December 9, 1926.
  7. Clarence Chant, 1954, Astronomy in the University of Toronto: The David Dunlap Observatory, (Univ. Toronto Press: Toronto), p.40
  8. "Special Convocation Observed," The Globe, June 1, 1935, p.14
Copyright 1998 by C. H. Russell

C.H. (Mike) Russell is a freelance writer who is presently working on a novel and a short story collection about the working class of east-end Toronto. Born and raised in Toronto, where he lives, he earned his B.A. in History and English from the University of Toronto, and his M.A. in Canadian History from York University. His interests lie in the areas of history, astronomy, cycling, and philately, as well as writing (naturally!).

Mounted March 22 1999