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DONALD BARBER was best known as an astronomer who worked at the Norman Lockyer Observatory at Sidmouth, Devon, from 1936 until his retirement in 1961, but he retained his earlier interests in biophysics and he continued to look for connections between biological and astronomical phenomena. His other principal interests were in photographic science and in railway photography, and he made significant contributions to both.

Barber was the youngest of the three sons of John Gutteridge Barber and Annie Simmonds, and was born in Exeter in 1901. He won scholarships to Hele's School, Exeter, and to the Royal Albert Memorial College, which became the University College of the South West of England at Exeter. He was awarded an external degree in physics by London University in 1925 and then did research on a new form of voltaic cell and other aspects of instrumentation under Professor F.H. Newman.

In 1928 he was seconded to the Seale-Hayne Agricultural College at Newton Abbot to organise a department of physics. He was subsequently appointed visiting lecturer and acted as consultant to the Advisory Unit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that was based at the college. This led to research on the hot-water treatment for eel-worm disease of narcissus bulbs. He was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1928.


His major change of direction came in 1936 when W.J.S. Lockyer, who had succeeded his father as director of the Norman Lockyer Observatory and who was a visiting lecturer at the University College of the South West, asked Barber to assist in the work of the observatory. Unfortunately, Lockyer died suddenly before Barber had taken up his appointment. Barber worked with the new director, Donald L. Edwards, on some astronomical observing projects, but his own research continued to be mainly on measuring and photographic techniques.

His work came to the attention of the Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Spencer Jones, who was a member of the Research Committee of the Observatory, and as a consequence Barber was awarded a Martin Kellogg Research Fellowship at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, California. He carried out a photometric investigation of the green light from the night sky and was able to confirm a suspected relationship between night-sky brightness and geomagnetic activity.

He returned to England in 1941 and spent the next four years on the staff of the Kodak Research Laboratories at Harrow, Middlesex. His work on photographic physics was classified, but it included an extensive programme on marine photometry that was carried out at Sidmouth during 1943-44.

After his return to the observatory Barber followed up the work that he had started at the Lick Observatory, continued the long-term spectrophotometric programme on the colour temperatures of early- type stars that he had started in 1937 and produced a steady stream of published papers on a wide variety of topics. He was appointed Superintendent of the Norman Lockyer Observatory after the death of Edwards in 1956. By this time the University College of the South West had become Exeter University and control of the observatory had passed to the university, as the private funds available to the observatory had become insufficient to maintain a viable programme of work.

Barber was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. He was interested in cyclic patterns in the weather and in 1991 he claimed that the predictions of cold spells that he had made in 1963 had been vindicated. After his retirement in 1961 Barber turned to his attention to his other interests and he published papers on some unusual topics, such as the seasonal changes in the metabolic activity of birds and humans. He also tried to explain the occurrence of an unknown type of bacterium in the rain-water used for washing photographic plates at the observatory in terms of the transport of the bacteria through space from Venus. At the time this was regarded as nonsense by many of his contemporaries, but such ideas have since been put forward by Fred Hoyle in his books on diseases from space.

The death in 1972 of Donald's wife Doris stimulated him to write up the results of the spectrophotometric programme and the resulting monograph, Objective-Prism Spectrophotometry of Early-Type Stars (1973) received high praise from Professor H.H. Plaskett, then Regius Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, who wrote that "It is a remarkable achievement that Mr Barber, single-handed, has brought to a successful conclusion a piece of work comparable to that of [W.H.] Greaves and his colleagues with at their disposal all the resources of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich." In 1987 Barber was awarded an honorary degree of Master of Science by Exeter University.

Barber had started taking photographs while still a schoolboy and he took a particular interest in railway photography. He gained his Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society in 1938 for a set of lantern slides showing railway subjects in colour. One of the slides is believed to be the first colour photograph of a moving train to be shown at the RPS. He was elected a Fellow of the RPS in 1940 for his work on photographic physics; about 25 of his scientific papers are devoted to photography. In 1988 he had the rare distinction of being made an Honorary Fellow of the RPS for his contributions to photography.

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