Agnes Scott College

Anne Barbara Underhill


June 12, 1920 - July 3, 2003

Contributed by Stellan Aalto, Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter NH

Anne Barbara Underhill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on the 12th of June 1920. She was the only girl in her family, growing up alongside one twin brother, and three younger brothers. She was accomplished from a young age, excelling in high school sports, and winning the Lieutenant Governor’s medal, a medal awarded to a select few of the top students in her province. After her mother’s death when Underhill was eighteen, she aided in raising her younger brothers.

In 1942, during the midst of World War II, Underhill graduated from the University of British Columbia, receiving a BA diploma in chemistry. She continued her education at the university and received a master’s degree in physics and mathematics in 1944. After working for the NRC for a year, she continued her education briefly at the University of Toronto before moving to study at the University of Chicago where she would obtain her PhD in 1948. Her thesis was the first model for multi-layered stellar atmospheres. Underhill also received multiple fellowships from the University Women of Canada and worked with Otto Struve, developing her interest in the life cycles of stars. She was also awarded the U.S National Research Fellowship and worked in the Copenhagen Observatory before joining the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory where she would work as a research scientist until 1962.

In 1962, Underhill became a Professor of Stellar Astrophysics at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands where she stayed until 1970. During this period, she studied the optical spectra of OB stars and was a key thesis advisor to many notable students such as Mart de Groot. In 1970, Underhill was offered a position as the head of the Laboratory for Optical Astronomy at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Here, she worked shortly on the Ultraviolet Explorer satellite project and interpreted UV spectra of early-type stars.

Underhill returned to Canada after her retirement in 1985. She remained a prominent figure in early-type star research and continued to defend her views concerning the youth of Wolf-Rayet stars though the larger scientific world disagreed. Many of her controversial opinions such as co-rotating structures in OB and WR stellar winds have now gained wider acceptance. In 1985, Underhill received the D.S Beals award and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She also received a D.Sc. from the University of British Columbia in 1992. Over 50 years in the field, Underhill published more than 200 papers in journals, symposiums, and books. In 2003 at the age of 83, Underhill passed away. Her legacy lives on through her impacts and discoveries in astronomy and through memories with her friends, family, and former colleagues.


  1. Roman, Nance Grace. "Obituary: Anne Barbara Underhill"", Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2003)
  2. Willis, Allan. "Honorary Member: Dr. Anne Underhill", Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
  3. "Alumni: Anne B. Underhill, 1948", Astronomy & Astrophysics, The University of Chicago.