February 21, 2020 — Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, who led the Vatican Observatory as its director for 28 years, died on Feb. 11, 2020, in Syracuse, New York, from bladder cancer at age 87.
He was considered one of the most respected and influential Jesuit scientists in the world. Research was an important part of Fr. Coyne's legacy in astronomy. His work included the study of the lunar surface that helped guide NASA as it planned the Ranger missions and the Apollo crewed missions to the moon.
He published more than 100 articles in reviewed scientific journals and was the author and editor of a number of books. Parallel to his scientific research, he developed an interest in the history and philosophy of science and in the relationship between science and religion.
Fr. Coyne was born on January 19, 1933, in Baltimore. After graduating in 1951 from a Jesuit-run high school near Baltimore, Fr. Coyne entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.
He completed his bachelor's degree in mathematics and his licentiate in philosophy at Fordham University in 1958 and his doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University in 1962.
He earned his licentiate in sacred theology at Woodstock College in Woodstock, Maryland, and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1965.
Fr. Coyne first joined the Vatican Observatory staff as an astronomer in 1969. His appointment as Vatican Observatory director in 1978 came under the brief tenure of Pope John Paul I. That same year he also became associate director of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. For a year beginning in 1979 he was acting director and head of the observatory and the university's astronomy department.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican Observatory's current director, recalled the first words from Fr. Coyne when he joined the observatory staff: "Do good science."
"He created a space where we were all free to pursue that science," Br. Consolmagno said. "He acted as a firewall between us and the vagaries of the Vatican. He made us welcome and he made our collaborators and visitors welcome."
Fr. Coyne created an atmosphere that attracted young astronomers from around the world and established a program for adjunct scholars who could be affiliated with the observatory, use its facilities and spread its name without living on-site. The arrangement opened the door for women to join the staff, he said.
"George did a lot to promote women in astronomy," Br. Consolmagno said, explaining how his predecessor initiated the biennial Vatican Observatory Summer School for astronomy graduate students. Nearly half of the students were women, and the program helped develop young astronomers in the developing world, he said.
Fr. Coyne also served from 2007 to 2011 as director of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
He most recently was on the faculty of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he taught astronomy while holding the McDevitt Distinguished Chair of Religious Philosophy.
"We are deeply and profoundly saddened by the passing of Fr. Coyne. His influence on so many fronts was profound," Linda LeMura, Le Moyne's president, said in a statement. "Le Moyne was privileged to have him here for the past eight years, and he spent the final years of his life doing what he loved — teaching young people about astronomy," she said.