John Jefferies, the founding Director of the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy (IfA), passed away in Tucson on January 18th, at the age of 98. He had the remarkable vision of developing astronomy in Hawaiʻi at a time when the potential of the high mountains sites like Haleakalā and Maunakea was largely unrecognized in the state.

Jefferies, born in 1925, was an Australian-American solar physicist recruited to join the newly formed solar program at the University of Hawaiʻi in 1964. The main facility at that time was the Mees solar observatory on Haleakalā. Although he was known for his theoretical work, he built up a rocket program to study the sun. He went on to establish the IfA, create an international research program, and lead the development of Maunakea into the best observatory site in the Northern Hemisphere.

“In the formative years right after statehood, Gov. John Burns had a strong wish to open up possibilities for the islands to more than just welcoming visitors,” Jefferies recalled during the IfA’s 50th anniversary. Hawaiʻi’s high peaks were getting attention for their potential for astronomical research, and when NASA launched the idea of a telescope in Hawai’i to support its space program, it received competing proposals to do this from both Harvard and the University of Arizona. “I recognized from the beginning that Maunakea had the potential to be a pre-eminent international site,” Jefferies says. “And somewhat tentatively I prepared a competing proposal on behalf of UH.”

As it turned out NASA favored the UH proposal and by the early spring of 1965, Jefferies was awarded $3 million to build a major facility in Hawaii, which we now know as the 88-inch or 2.2 meter telescope. The state of Hawaiʻi would provide support buildings at Hale Pohaku, a road, and a power line as well as state government positions for astronomers and engineers.

“It was as though a curtain was drawn back on a new brilliant world of opportunities,” he said. “We had been a little program in solar physics … but here was the whole world of astronomy opening to us through the acquisition of this telescope. It was a wonderful feeling.”

During his 16-year tenure as Director, Jefferies oversaw the development of a new generation of telescopes on Maunakea, In addition to the UH 88-inch telescope, these included the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope (CFHT), which was the first international partnership on Maunakea, the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.

John Jefferies (front row center) at the signing ceremony for the tripartite agreement to develop the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope.

“The CFHT was the first of these and it marked the entry of Maunakea into the big, international, leagues of astronomy, and was a key step forward in the growth of the IfA,” Jefferies said in a 2017 interview. The agreement guaranteed telescope time for UH astronomers, which (with similar agreements with later users) was an essential step in making the Institute into the major astronomy program that it has become.

In 1967, Jefferies was named first director of the new Institute for Astronomy. It was clear that a dedicated building would be needed to house this burgeoning program but it was not to be until 1975 that construction finally began on a facility in Manoa, an intimate design of three buildings around an expansive courtyard. “On its completion in 1977, we all felt a sense of elation,” Jefferies said. The building was everything we hoped for and its celebration was the first of many held in the courtyard on velvet Hawaiian nights.”

Jefferies was also renowned for his theoretical breakthroughs in solar physics. Former IfA Director Rolf Kudritzki, who, as a young astronomer, was inspired by Jefferiesʻ advances, explained, “In his scientific work John Jefferies developed fundamentally new methods to describe the physics that leads to the formation of spectral lines in the light of stars caused by the chemical elements. This laid the foundation for generations of scientists who study the physical properties of stars in the Milky Way and in galaxies further away”.

In 1984, Jefferies left Hawaiʻi to become the first Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, headquartered in Tucson Arizona.

Last year, an asteroid discovered by the IfA’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakalā was named in honor of Jefferies. The asteroid, now officially designated (357243) Jefferies = 2002 OQ37, was discovered on Oct. 18, 2011 and named on October 16, 2023 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for assigning names to celestial bodies such as stars, planets, comets, and minor planets, including asteroids.

John Jefferies at IfAʻs 50th anniversary in 2017.