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Latimer J. Wilson papers

Identifier: Ms-0516

Scope and Contents

The bulk Latimer Wilson papers consists of Wilson's research notebooks of his observations of Mars and Jupiter, created between 1909 and 1947. The notebooks contain color and black and white sketches, photos and detailed notes. Additional loose sketches of planets, mostly Mars and Jupiter, are also included. The papers contain correspondence with amateur astronomers, as well as notable professional astronomers such as Clyde Tombaugh, Hugh Johnson and Walter Haas. Additionally, there are publications written by Wilson and others on various astronomical topics. More than 1,000 black and white photographs, mostly of the planets Jupiter and Mars, are also included.

The collection has been kept in the original order in which it was received.


  • 1903-2001, and undated

Conditions Governing Use

Open. All materials in this collection are available for research under supervised conditions in the Research Room.

Biographical / Historical

Latimer James Wilson was an artist, author, photographer, educator and amateur astronomer who gained a reputation among professional astronomers for his meticulous observations and passion for planetary science. He was born December 1, 1878, in Nashville, Tennessee, and died May 17, 1948, also in Nashville. Between 1908 and 1948, Wilson was consumed with planetary observation and he created dozens of detailed handwritten notebooks filled with sketches, calculations, notes and photographs.

Little information is available concerning Wilson's early years. He attended Peabody College in Nashville, then studied at the Art Institute of Buffalo, New York, and received a scholarship to the Art Student League of New York City. The January 1938 issue of Amateur Astronomy noted that his passion for the stars was developed because of his mother, Jesse Latimer, who had frequently viewed the "beauties of the firmament through the telescope of the great Barnard" (American astronomer E. E. Barnard). In 1908, Wilson began to develop a serious interest in astronomy, building his own four-inch, single-lens, refractor telescope. By 1912, he completed the primary astronomical instrument that he would use for the remainder of his life, a 12-inch Newtonian reflector. In 1913, Frederick C. Leonard, founder of the Society for Practical Astronomy (SPA), appointed Wilson director of the Planetary Section. The SPA collapsed during World War I, however, Wilson continued observing, sketching and photographing the planets, especially Mars and Jupiter. He was best known among his peers for his visual and planetary sketch work.

During World War I, Wilson worked for the Eastman Kodak Company, improving techniques and materials for astronomical photography. It was around this time that he met and married Lurana Rownd in Rochester, New York. The same day they were married, April 6, 1915, an entry in Popular Astronomy acknowledged her work for calculating longitudes and plotting drawings of the planet Jupiter for an astronomical report written by Wilson. Lurana's 1952 obituary mentions that she played leading roles in community theater and taught at Rochester Collegiate Center, Maryland College, and Southern College. She had a master’s degree in education. She was active in the American Association of University Women, lectured on politics, and initiated the founding of the Susan B. Anthony Women's Republican Club.

Lurana and Latimer were not married long. In 1930, Latimer was divorced, working as a writer, and living in Franklin, Kentucky, according to the federal census. It is likely that the couple did not have children as none were listed as survivors in either Lurana’s or Latimer’s obituaries.

Wilson corresponded with many amateur and professional astronomers throughout his life. One notable correspondent was Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto. Tombaugh remarked that it was reading the works of Latimer Wilson that “fired his ambition to acquire a more powerful telescope.” In 1924, a correspondence between Wilson and Tombaugh began, primarily on the subject of telescopes and planetary observation. In his memoirs, Tombaugh stated that Wilson gave him directions to build his first telescope.

Wilson was working as a lecturer at the Watkins Art Institute in Nashville in the late 1930s when he was elected to serve as the first director of the Brainerd Observatory (now the Clarence T. Jones Observatory) in Chattanooga. The observatory, now a part of the University of Tennessee Chatanooga chemistry and physics department, has had a close relationship with the Barnard Astronomical Society, an amateur astronomical society in Chatanooga. Wilson resigned the directorship after only two months due to difficulties commuting between Nashville and Chatanooga.

For much of his life, Wilson was employed as a professor, writer, or an illustrator. He illustrated and wrote for newspapers, catalogs, magazines, and books. He wrote and illustrated his first book, "My Trip to New York," in 1906. He illustrated a published edition of Oscar Wilde’s book "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." He also wrote regularly for various astronomy magazines including Amateur Astronomy, The Strolling Astronomer, and Popular Astronomy.

Latimer Wilson died May 17, 1948, of a heart attack. His death certificate indicated he was 69, divorced and employed as an instructor at Watkins Art Institute.

Much of the preceeding biographical information was taken from correspondence found in the Walter Haas papers (NMSU Ms0499) and in a tribute to Wilson written by amateur astronomer Frank Vaughn that appeared in the October 1, 1948 issue of the Strolling Astronomer. Referring to Wilson’s papers, Vaughn wrote, “It is hoped that these records and drawings will be preserved, as it is most likely that as time passes they will be valuable adjuncts to consideration of planetary problems.”


7.5 Linear Feet (13 Hollinger boxes, and 1 over sized flat box)

Language of Materials



Research notebooks, drawings and photographs created by amateur astronomer Latimer James Wilson, 1903-1948. The bulk of the collection consists of Wilson's notebooks with observations, drawings and photos of the planets Mars and Jupiter. Other planetary research, publications, drawings, and more than 1,000 photographs by Wilson are also included. Letters between Wilson and other notable amateur astronomers make up the correspondence.


The papers are arranged in six series: correspondence, 1915-1947; notes and sketches from observations, 1910-1947; research notes, 1909-1939; published works, 1912-1939; loose sketches, 1933; and photographs, 1930-1948.

Custodial History

The Latimer J. Wilson papers were donated to New Mexico State University Library in 2003, as part of the personal and professional papers of Dr. Clyde Tombaugh. The exact provenance of the collection is not entirely clear. Information has been gleaned primarily from correspondence between astronomers Frank R. Vaughn and Walter Haas, located in the Walter Haas papers (NMSU, MS 0399). After his death on May 17, 1948 in Nashville, Tennessee, Wilson’s "equipment, books and papers were given to the Barnard Observatory, and to the Barnard Astronomical Club" by Wilson's sister, Jessie Clements, according to Frank Vaughn. A letter from Vaughn to Haas on May 23, 1949, states, "A recent communication from Dr. Carl K. Seyfert, Director, Barnard Observatory, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 4, Tennessee, in answer to earlier inquiry via Mrs. Clements, expresses willingness by Dr. Seyfert to turn over to you for study all planetary observations made by Latimer Wilson, presumably for any period you would like to keep them, though probably not permanently as they are part of a memorial to Wilson."

Although there is no documentary evidence, it appears that Walter Haas did take possession of the Wilson papers. Seyfert, a noted American astronomer, was killed in an automobile accident in 1960. Haas later may have passed the papers on to Dr. Clyde Tombaugh at New Mexico State University. The papers were discovered with Dr. Tombaugh's papers when his NMSU office was being cleared out, according to astronomer Reta Beebe, who passed them on to the NMSU Library Archives and Special Collections. Beebe said it was determined the Wilson papers formed a complete, separate collection from Tombaugh's papers. Her recollection was that the papers had been given to Tombaugh by Latimer Wilson's son, however, it appears that Wilson did not have children.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Teddie Moreno (April-August, 2018)

Identification of untitled planetary sketches was made through the assistance of NMSU College of Arts & Sciences Associate Dean of for Research, Dr. Jim Murphy
Guide to the Latimer J. Wilson papers
Finding aid by Teddie Moreno
August 2018
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Repository Details

Part of the New Mexico State University Library Archives and Special Collections Repository

Branson Hall
PO Box 30006
MSC 3475
Las Cruces New Mexico 88003 USA