They named a crater on Mars for Richard Anthony Proctor. The British astronomer (1837–1888) not only popularized his subject, he enjoyed making controversial claims: that there could be life on other planets; that the moon was dead, the Earth doomed. He predicted that, in the spring of 1897, a comet would hit the sun and destroy our solar system.
“In the English-speaking world from 1870 to 1890,” writes Michael J. Crowe, “Richard Proctor was the most widely read writer on astronomical subjects — rarely has astronomy had a more eloquent expositor.”
Proctor also penned essays about card games, especially poker and whist, chess, handicapping horse races, sea monsters, and the pyramids. Typical of his unconstrained era — what Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner called the “Gilded Age” — his mind knew no boundaries, and his critics often charged him with writing “trash” for money, vigorous self-promotion, and dabbling in the “alluring peripheries of science.”
In the popular imagination, however, Proctor may have been known more for his second marriage — and the famous “double death” that inspired it.
In 1879, Proctor’s wife took ill. To escape dank Liverpool, he made a lecture tour of Australia. At the same time, Robert and Sallie Crawley, of St. Joseph, Missouri, went to Australia for Robert’s failing health. The couples met and became friends. Proctor’s wife died. Less than a week later, Sallie’s husband died. The bereaved found consolation in each other. Before they left Australia, their friendship had grown into love. They married in May, 1881.
The stuff of romance, the story also had a practical appeal. Unlike most English-American matches, wrote the St. Joseph Gazette, this one didn’t glitter with excess: “There is no millionaire connected with it. Mrs. Proctor has only her beauty and worth as a dowry, and Prof. Proctor, although he has been very successful as an author and a lecturer, is by no means one of the rich men of the world.”
Not everyone took the sensible romance to heart. Commenting on the arrival of “Proctor’s comet,” the Sedalia Dispatch opined: “it should be remembered that Richard Proctor has recently married the second time, and is, therefore, naturally inclined to take a gloomy view of the situation.”
Proctor’s daughters from his first marriage, Mary and Agnes, joined the household. He and Sallie had two more children. Both died of diseases. To improve his health — and spirits — Proctor moved to Marion County, an expanse of lakes and mosquito-infested marshes in north- central Florida. He contracted yellow fever in 1888 and died. He was 51.
Daughter Mary — wrongly identified in newspaper accounts as his wife — took up Proctor’s crusade. She toured America, giving slide-show lectures on astronomy and advocating a proper memorial for her father. As a tribute to her efforts, a crater on the moon bears her name. And as a tribute to her father — and possibly for her attempt to build an observatory-memorial on San Miguel Mountain, the 2565-foot peak 12 miles southeast of San Diego — nearby Proctor Valley is named for him as well.
Mary didn’t plan on lecturing. Based on articles written for her father’s magazine, Knowledge, she was invited to give six talks about astronomy in Chicago. She wrote them out, but when she arrived, the podium had no lamp. She’d have to speak from memory. Mary had been a teacher, but had never lectured before such a large group on such a complicated subject — or without notes, or in the darkness necessary for her slide show. She took several deep breaths, gave her talk in unadorned English, and was a success. “Since then,” [New York Times] “her platform career has been uninterruptedly prosperous, much of which is due to her making her talks descriptive and picturesque, rather than technical.”
Mary Proctor’s tour of 1890 included a lecture at the San Diego College of Letters in Pacific Beach. The school, which opened in 1888, stood where Pacific Plaza stands today: 16 acres on Garnet Avenue from Lamont to Jewel and up the hill to Diamond. Founders chose the site for its “unequalled climate” and because it was miles from the city, “where the students would be exposed to many temptations.” The school had major academic ambitions, some brochures touting it as the Harvard of the West.
Pacific Beach was a special stop for Mary, since the college had hired her father, before he died, as its professor of astronomy.
She accompanied her lectures with a stereopticon, a “magic lantern” slide projector that beamed images of the moon and the planets onto a large screen. She spoke in quiet tones to audiences hushed by close-up views of what had been heretofore only bright specks.
Mary gave several lectures around San Diego. After each, she expressed her dream of a memorial-observatory for her father — and why it should be on a West Coast mountain.
Until this time, American observatories resided in “telescope houses,” in the heart of East Coast cities. But winter snows and growing numbers of streetlights made nighttime viewing difficult. Mountaintops became the solution. One of the first, James Lick Observatory, on Mt. Hamilton above the Santa Clara Valley, opened in 1888. Astronomers wanted a site at Mt. Wilson, in the San Gabriels. Plans fell through.
Mary chose San Diego for Southern California’s first, and most important, observatory. (At James Lick, she said, “radiations reflected from the valley cause a constant disturbance.”) She would consider several peaks. One was San Miguel.
“What is the name of that shapely mountain we have in view?” Charles Dudley Warner asked when visiting Coronado. Told San Miguel, Warner said that the conical eminence, with low hills at its base, reminded him of Mt. Vesuvius looming over Naples. Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands added to his impression, “rising like Ischia and Capri” in the Gulf of Naples.
Many others, impressed by the lofty peak, and pristine Sweetwater Dam below, dreamed of developing the area. One was Alfred Huntington Isham. Like Mary’s father and the Gilded Age, Isham blurred the boundaries between fact and fancy.