William Liller




Dr. William Liller, formerly of Belmont and Cambridge, MA, and recently of Renaca, Vina del Mar, Chile, died peacefully in his sleep at 93 years old on February 28, 2021 after a brief illness.

Dr. Liller was born in Philadelphia, PA on April 1, 1927 to Catherine Dellinger Liller and Carroll Kalbaugh “Pete” Liller. After his mother passed away, he and his father moved to Atlanta, where his father was a partner in the advertising firm Liller, Neal, Battle.

Always fascinated by the night sky, Bill knew from a very young age that he wanted to be an astronomer. In 1944, after completing high school at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, PA, he attended Harvard University, where he studied astronomy and played on the baseball team. In 1945, his education was interrupted for a year when he was drafted into the Navy and enrolled in the Radio Technician program. Bill received a bachelor's degree in astronomy from Harvard in 1949, and he continued his studies at the University of Michigan, where he received his PhD in 1953. He stayed on at Michigan as an associate professor in astronomy until 1960.

He returned to Harvard in 1960 when he was offered a full professorship and the astronomy departmental chairmanship. Happy to be back at his alma mater, he stayed at Harvard until 1981, and was well-liked by his students and colleagues. During this time, he received several awards for his work including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 and the Robert Wheeler Chair of Applied Astronomy. In 1968, he also appeared as a guest astronomer on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, who was an amateur stargazer.

During his career, Dr. Liller was a member of several professional organizations. These included the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

In 1968, Dr. Liller became the Master of Adams House at Harvard. He and his family resided in Apthorp House in the middle of Harvard Square during the tumultuous times of the late 1960s. He was also instrumental in converting the Harvard house system into coeducation, as Adams House became the first coeducational dorm in 1970. Bill greatly enjoyed the chance to get to know the students outside of the classroom and was often involved in their extracurricular activities including music, acting in house performances, and playing catcher for the intramural house baseball team. However, he realized that he needed to focus more time on his professional research and resigned as House Master in 1973.

On numerous occasions, Dr. Liller visited the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile to carry out his astronomical research. In 1981, he decided it was time for a change and moved to Chile full-time, as he was offered a job doing research at the Instituto Isaac Newton. He became what he called a “born-again amateur astronomer”, observing from his backyard telescope and discovering the newest objects in the night sky, including two minor planets, a comet, and more than four dozen novae and variable stars. (In addition, the minor planet 3222 Liller was named in his honor.) Finally, he wrote several books and articles focusing on how backyard amateur astronomers could become more involved in the astronomical world.

In 1986, Dr. Liller was sent by NASA to Easter Island to observe Halley’s Comet, where he discovered a new passion for archaeoastronomy and the culture and history of the island. He became a member of the Easter Island Foundation, providing resources and expertise in setting up a public library and a research and cultural center on the island. At the time of his death, Dr. Liller was a Director Emeritus of the Foundation.

From an early age, Bill was interested in music, especially classical, and earned almost enough credits to concentrate in music. He also enjoyed making his own instruments, and was most proud of his clavichord, which he brought with him to Chile. He also enjoyed following sports, especially professional tennis and the Boston Red Sox.

Dr. Liller was predeceased by his eldest daughter Tamara Liller, and is survived by Tamara's partner Mark Whitcomb of Centreville, VA. He is also survived by his son, John Liller and wife Kim Kastler of Grafton, MA, and his daughter, Hilary Ward and her husband James of Topsham, ME, his five grandchildren Karina, Benjamin, Kristy, Anna, and Colin, and two great-grandchildren.

At this time, there are no memorial services planned. His family is asking that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the William Liller Scholarship Fund at The Easter Island Foundation, P.O. Box 6774, Los Osos, CA 93412, or their website www.islandheritage.org.

Past affiliation(s) within the IAU

  • Past Member of Division C Education, Outreach and Heritage (until 2021)
  • Past Member of Division F Planetary Systems and Astrobiology (until 2021)
  • Past Member of Division H Interstellar Matter and Local Universe (until 2021)
  • Past Member of Commission C3 History of Astronomy (2016-2021)
  • Past Member of Commission C4 World Heritage and Astronomy (2016-2021)
  • Past Member of Inter-Commission C1-C2-C3-C4 WG Astronomy in Culture (WGAC) (2016-2021)
  • Past Member of Commission 15 Physical Study of Comets & Minor Planets (until 2015)
  • Past Member of Commission 34 Interstellar Matter (until 2015)
  • Past Member of Commission 41 History of Astronomy (2003-2015)
  • Past Member of Commission 46 Astronomy Education & Development (2015-2015)
  • Past Member of Commission 41 WG Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture (2015-2015)
  • Past Member of Division III Planetary Systems Sciences (until 2012)
  • Past Member of Division VI Interstellar Matter (until 2012)

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