Biography and History

Lyman Spitzer was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1914. Educated at Phillips Academy, Yale University, and Cambridge, he received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1938. During World War II he participated in underwater warfare research. In 1947 he was appointed chairman of the Astrophysics Department at Princeton University, beginning a long and fruitful tenure. In 1952 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University.

In his theoretical work, Professor Spitzer focused on the formation of stars from interstellar matter. His work in this area, with its concern with ionized gases, led him into the area of plasma physics. Spitzer was one of the first to point out that a magnetic field might be used to control plasma in a laboratory environment. In the area of observatory astronomy, Spitzer helped push forward the use of telescopes in satellites, and was an early advocate of the Hubble Telescope. He wrote several books, including Physics of Ionized Gases (1962), Dynamical Evolution of Globular Clusters (1987), and Searching Between the Stars (1982), a collection of lectures. He died in 1997.

Source: From the finding aid for C0682


  • Astronomers -- United States -- 20th century..
  • Astrophysicists -- New Jersey -- Princeton..
  • Astrophysical Sciences Department Records. 1835-2017 (inclusive), 1867-1966 (bulk).

    Call Number: AC157

    The papers of the Astrophysical Sciences Department represent the original observation records, correspondence, and teaching documents of Princeton astrophysicists from 1835 to 1988.

  • Lyman Spitzer Papers. 1936-1997 (inclusive), 1960-1979 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0682

    Princeton professor of astronomy (1947-1982), chairman of the Dept. of Astrophysical Sciences, and director of the Princeton University Observatory, Lyman Spitzer was also primarily responsible for founding the University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory. His papers include design studies, technical plans and programs, various reports, correspondence, notes, and observations relating to his involvement in the development of the study of space astronomy at Princeton.