SAAO - South African Astronomical Observatory
21.05.2001 00:00 Age: 17 yrs
Category: SAAO Press Releases

A W J Cousins (1903 - 2001): a scholar and a gentleman

Alan Cousins as a teenager with his first homemade telescope.

Alan Cousins in 1986 at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town.

Alan William James Cousins was born on 8 August 1903 at Three Anchor Bay which is now a suburb of Cape Town. He was the eldest of four children, his parents having settled in South Africa towards the end of the 19th century. His maternal grandfather, Sir James Murray was the initiator and first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and his paternal grandfather was a missionary in Madagascar and translated the Bible into Malagasy. His father, Clarence Wilfred Cousins, became a senior civil servant in South Africa, holding at different times such important posts as Director of the Census and Secretary for Labour.

Between 1917 and 1921, Alan studied at Pretoria Boys High School. He entered the University of the Witwatersrand in 1922 on a Barnato Scholarship to study electrical engineering, graduating in 1925 with a B.Sc. (Eng) and the Vice-Chancellor's medal for best student. After graduating, Alan spent a year at the C.A. Parsons engineering firm in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England, then returned to South Africa to work for the Electricity Supply Commission (ESKOM) in power-generating stations in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban until 1947.

He had a life-long interest in astronomy, publishing his first scientific paper in 1924 (at age 21) in the prestigious British Journal "Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society". During his time with ESKOM, he continued to make astronomical observations as an amateur, contributing data to the American Association of Variable Star Observers and the British Astronomical Association. During the early 1940s, he was based in Durban where he took an active role in the revival of the Natal Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA), serving as secretary of the centre for several years, and being elected President of ASSA for 1944-45. This brought him into contact with R.H Stoy, then Chief Assistant, later H.M. Astronomer, at the Royal Observatory in Cape Town. In 1947, Alan was offered and accepted a post at the Royal Observatory (later to become the South African Astronomical Observatory) where he worked for, literally, the rest of his life.

The main part of his astronomical career was dedicated to establishing accurate measures of "standard stars" in the Southern sky. These are necessary to enable different observatories, at different times, to produce standardised results. Fifty years ago, these were woefully inadequate, especially in the Southern hemisphere, but the work of Alan Cousins and his co-workers during the latter half of the 20th century substantially rectified this situation and, additionally, led to the discovery of many previously unknown variable stars.

His work was recognised by the astronomical community, both in South Africa and world-wide. In 1963, he was awarded the Gill medal of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa - " ... in recognition of his services to the establishment of an accurate system of photometry in the southern hemisphere and of the high quality of his photoelectric observations of variable stars ... ".

During 1967-70, he served as President of Commission 25 of the International Astronomical Union (Stellar Photometry) and in 1971 he was awarded the Jackson-Gwilt medal of the (British) Royal Astronomical Society "... in recognition of fifty years of distinguished service to observational stellar astronomy."

In 1972, Alan Cousins officially retired, but he continued to work in an emeritus position at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), contributing very significantly to the field of standard stars and standard systems. In 1992, he was able to show that the bright southern star, gamma Doradus, was varying with two periods of variation simultaneously, thus establishing it as the prototype of a whole new class of variable star which is now being studied in detail by astronomers internationally.

In the early morning of May 11, 2001, Alan Cousins died peacefully in his sleep, three months short of his 98th birthday. Coincidentally, the May 11 edition of the "Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society" carries a paper by Alan Cousins and John Caldwell (also of SAAO) on the effects of the atmosphere on measurements of stars in ultra-violet light. To the last he was concerned about accuracy. His truly remarkable and unequalled baseline of publication - 77 years - was devoted to careful and precise measurement - and to making that possible for others.

He was a scholar and a gentleman. He was at the top of his scientific field for decades and whilst lesser scientists might have felt that they disappointed him by failing to meet the high standards he set for himself, he never showed that in any way. He was gentle, courteous, helpful and generous with his time. He loved his family, his church, his work and his country. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him well.

Contact: Dr Dave Kilkenny