In Memoriam: Carolyn Shoemaker, 1929–2021

Carolyn Shoemaker

American astronomer and co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, Carolyn Shoemaker, passed away on August 13, 2021, at the age of 92.

“Carolyn was quite extraordinary,” noted Lisa Gaddis, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute. “Although her scientific career began after she and her husband Gene raised their family, she became one of the world’s foremost discoverers of comets and asteroids. She was smart, witty, and just so practical; she was an example to younger women and budding scientists everywhere as someone who made a difference in her own way. Later in life, she was celebrated widely for her many scientific accomplishments, but as a friend and colleague to many across the world, she also will be remembered for her kindness and humor. She will be deeply missed.”

Born in Gallup, New Mexico, to Leonard and Hazel Arthur Spellmann, Carolyn Shoemaker went to Chico, California, along with her family, where she and her brother Richard grew up.

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, political science, and English literature from Chico State University, but she had little interest in science until she met and married geologist Eugene M. (“Gene”) Shoemaker. She later stated that the stories of his work inspired her. Notwithstanding her relative inexperience and lack of a science degree, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had no problem with her joining Gene’s team there as a research assistant. She had shown herself to be unusually patient and proved exceptional stereoscopic vision, which was a precious quality for looking for objects in near-Earth space. Her work involved the search for near-Earth asteroids and comets so that the potential risks of an impact for the future of life on Earth could be understood.

Her passion for her work sustained her through the painstaking work of combing through exposed films, searching for asteroids and comets. “My real love for the night skies developed while observing at Palomar Observatory in California, and that love has never diminished.” Carolyn Shoemaker once spoke about her feelings when she finds the latest comet, “I want to dance.”

Shoemaker received an honorary Doctor of Science from Northern Arizona University (NAU), Flagstaff, Arizona in 1990; the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1996; became a Cloos Scholar at Johns Hopkins University in 1990; and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996. Affiliated at times with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center, Lowell Observatory and NAU, she once held the record for the most comets discovered by an individual.

Shoemaker received the Rittenhouse Medal of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society in 1988 and the Scientist of the Year Award in 1995. She and her husband Gene won the James Craig Watson Medal by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1998.

The Hildian asteroid 4446 Carolyn, discovered by colleague Edward Bowell at Lowell Observatory in 1985, was named in her honor.

Text courtesy of US Day News; Mary Chapman, USGS Astrogeology; and Lisa Gaddis, LPI