Former Adams House Master and Astronomy Professor William Liller ’48, ‘Enamored

Former Harvard Astronomy professor and Adams House Master William Liller ’48 couldn’t take his eyes off the stars.

In the early 1970s, Liller could be found early in the morning at Harvard College Observatory measuring the sizes of stars, putting in “more than his share of the work” each day to aid his graduate students, according to William R. Forman, one of Liller’s Ph.D. advisees.

“You would get there at 10 … and there would be this long list of plates that he’d already been through,” Forman said. “He was not there yelling at us, ‘You got to do more.’ No, he was just showing us that he was doing it, and we better get to work.”

Liller died Feb. 28 at 93 of a brief illness, according to his son, John A. Liller ’83.

William Liller was born in 1927 in Philadelphia, Pa. His undergraduate career at Harvard was altered by the effects of World War II. During registration, rationing cards were collected to be used in dining halls, Liller wrote in Adams House’s alumni magazine, “The Gold Coaster,” in its spring 2011 issue.

He joined the Astronomy Department, which at the time was “very much depleted by the war effort, was missing several of [its] best known professors,” he wrote. Liller was drafted as a Navy radio technician in July 1945, which halted his undergraduate career for almost a year.

Liller graduated from the College in 1949 with a degree in Astronomy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan on the topic of planetary nebulae in 1953, and remained there as an associate professor until 1960.

With the offer of a full professorship and the chairmanship of Harvard’s Astronomy department, Liller returned to Cambridge in 1960. He chaired the department from 1960 to 1964 and from 1965 to 1966.

In 1959, Liller and other astronomy professors began working on a project for NASA to create and launch a satellite that would monitor the sun; he continued the project at Harvard. A failure came in 1964 when a fire started in the rocket that destroyed it.

Aside from his own academic work, Liller served as an advisor to seven Astronomy Ph.D. students, most of whom became distinguished scholars in the field.

Christine Jones ’71, one of his advisees in the early 1970s, performed astronomical research and observations alongside Liller. Together, they co-wrote several papers on unfolding research in x-ray astronomy.

Jones — now a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory — remembered that during one research trip to Chile, Liller welcomed the former president of Chile at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Liller decided to give the guest a tour of the southern sky, directing the view of the telescope so the president could see all that was the best to see.

Bruce W. Carney, physics and astronomy professor emeritus and former provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recalled Liller as an “easy-going” and helpful advisor during his Ph.D. years.

Carney, who visited Liller post-graduation when conducting research in Chile, recollected that his former advisor was “well-respected” by colleagues and peers. Carney added that Liller helped connect him with luminaries in the field when those academics came to Cambridge.

“When people asked who my advisor was, and I said, ‘Bill Liller,’ they were pleased, they smiled,” Carney said.

Even with all the work he put in for his advisees, Liller always wanted to assure the credit went to the students.

“He was never willing to be the first author of the paper,” Forman said. “He always thought that was the appropriate role of the student, even when he did a lot of the work.”

Forman, who is married to Jones, credits Liller with helping to launch both his and his wife’s careers.

Despite Liller’s stature in the field, he was “down to earth” and “very approachable,” Forman added. Forman attributed this partly to Liller’s role as a House Master — a position now called Faculty Dean — of Adams House for several years, during which listening to the concerns of students was a top priority.

Liller, right, with Harvard Astronomy professor Fred L. Whipple at Liller's birthday symposium in 2002.

Liller, right, with Harvard Astronomy professor Fred L. Whipple at Liller’s birthday symposium in 2002. By Courtesy of William Forman

An Adams House resident during his own undergraduate years, Liller quickly re-entered the House’s community when he returned to Cambridge, first serving as a non-resident tutor and then a House associate.

When offered the House Master position in 1968, Liller…

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