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Percival Lowell in his Flagstaff observatory.

Percival Lowell in his Flagstaff observatory.

This is Percival Lowell, founder of Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory and early-day astronomer. He spent the better part of a lifetime probing the solar system — gazing into the lens of this Clark 24-inch refractor telescope (now a registered national historic landmark) from atop Mars Hill in Flagstaff.

Born of affluent parents (the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, bears the family name) in the Boston suburb of Brookline in 1855, Lowell’s upbringing mirrored his family’s wealth and social position. Young Percival was sent to preparatory schools in France and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard.

Lowell recalled that his interest in astronomy dated to his youth. He read books about astronomy and gazed at the stars through a telescope on the roof of the family home. With little formal training in the discipline, Lowell decided at age 39 to devote the remainder of his life to astronomy — particularly the study of Mars — and during the next two decades, he amassed data, photographs, books, scientific papers and articles about the planet. He was convinced life existed on Mars.

Using the rudimentary equipment available, he could see what appeared to be ice caps, oceans, lakes and even continents on the planet. Given the stimulus of such observations — incorrect as they would prove to be — it did not require a great leap of imagination to assume the existence of life forms on Mars.

In 1894, when the planet was close to Earth, Lowell dispatched A.E. Douglass to the Western United States to find a site for an observatory. Tucson was given serious consideration, but ultimately Flagstaff was chosen and Lowell Observatory built.

Lowell was not a man to hide his wealth and lived in Flagstaff in opulent grandeur. He was rarely seen except as he appears in this photo — in a starched white shirt and three-piece suit. Those fortunate enough to share his table dined lavishly. Lowell set himself a grueling work schedule of regular observations of Mars. In 1897, the huge workload finally caught up with him, and he suffered a breakdown from nervous exhaustion.

Not until 1901 was he well enough to return to his work, which continued unabated until his death in 1916. In addition to his observations of Mars, Lowell contended there was a planet beyond Neptune. Fourteen years after his death, in 1930, the then-declared ninth planet in the solar system — Pluto — was discovered at Lowell Observatory, ensuring that the institution bearing his name would be immortalized in history books the world over.

— Arizona Capitol Times archive. Photo courtesy Lowell observatory, Flagstaff.

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