ann20018 — Announcement

Derek McNally (1934–2020)
25 May 2020
Derek McNally (1934–2020)

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Derek McNally, IAU General Secretary 1988–1991, astronomer and passionate advocate for the protection of dark and quiet skies.

Born in Belfast in 1934, McNally began his studies at Queen’s University Belfast, achieving his Bachelor of Science in 1956. It was during his Master’s degree that he was first drawn to astronomy. Having initially been heading towards nuclear physics, he was taken with Fred Hoyle’s book Frontiers of Astronomy. “I thought to myself ‘that sounds better than heat recovery’,” he quipped in an interview for the book The International Astronomical Union: Uniting the Community for 100 Years.

His enthusiasm and aptitude would take him far, beginning with a PhD at Royal Holloway College in London, during which he became an assistant lecturer in mathematics. After obtaining his doctorate in 1961, he moved to the University of London Observatory (now University College London Observatory), where he would spend several decades of his career, interrupted only by a year-long fellowship in 1963–1964 during which he worked with the renowned astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar at the Yerkes Observatory. Though he initially worked and lectured on positional astronomy, he later became interested in star formation, with the advent of digital computers.

Introduced to the IAU by Edith Müller and Patrick Wayman, McNally became President of Commission 46 Astronomy Education & Development 1973–1976. During his term as IAU General Secretary 1988–1991, he exercised sensitivity with regard to the challenges he faced, including international science relations during the Cold War, and oversaw the beginnings of a process of modernising that has shaped the IAU of today.

McNally suggested that the Commissions, which were often created, dissolved and merged to reflect the evolution of astronomical science, be organised under six Divisions, creating a structure with some permanence but also with flexibility to accommodate frequent changes. This structure was later implemented and remains in place today. He was also keen to support women astronomers and to address the gender imbalance within the IAU, making arrangements for an evening meeting on promoting women in astronomy at the XXIst General Assembly in Buenos Aires in 1991. We are happy to report that such a meeting has been held at every GA since then.

The XXIst GA was made particularly memorable by the fire that broke out at the conference centre on the day that the first results from the Hubble Space Telescope were to be presented, as well as the accounts and elections of the new officers. McNally spoke with great admiration for the way his Argentinian colleagues quickly organised alternative spaces for meetings, including closed cafés and a theatre.

Following his time as General Secretary, McNally worked extensively with UNESCO and the UN, advocating on behalf of the IAU in the fight against light pollution. He was a passionate ambassador for astronomy, emphasising the importance of dark and radio-quiet skies at UNESCO meetings and serving as chairman of the International Science Council (ICSU) Working Group on Adverse Environmental Impacts on Astronomy between 1993 and 1997.

Derek McNally is remembered by his friends and colleagues for his impressive grasp of mathematical physics and his great sense of humour. He will be greatly missed by the astronomical community and we express our sincere sympathies to his family at this time.

More information

The IAU is the international astronomical organisation that brings together more than 13 500 professional astronomers from more than 100 countries worldwide. Its mission is to promote and safeguard astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development, through international cooperation. The IAU also serves as the internationally recognised authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and the surface features on them. Founded in 1919, the IAU is the world's largest professional body for astronomers.


Lars Lindberg Christensen
IAU Press Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 320 06 761
Cell: +49 173 38 72 621

About the Announcement



Derek McNally (1934–2020)
Derek McNally (1934–2020)