Tadeusz Boleslaw Ślebarski

Quick Info

14 August 1914
Komorowice, Poland
7 February 2003
Kirkcaldy, Scotland

Tadeusz Ślebarski was a Polish-born astronomer who taught for many years at the University of St Andrews.


Tadeusz Boleslaw Ślebarski was born on 14 August 1914 in Komorowice, Poland. This village is in Bielsko-Biała in southern Poland. He was the son of Władysław Zygmunt Ślebarski and Helena Zuzanna Gacek. Władysław Ślebarski was born in Brzeszcze, Poland, on 13 July 1886. He became a school teacher and he married Helena, who was born on 1 June 1890 in Komorowice, on 8 August 1913. Tadeusz was their first son and a second son, Władysław Jan Ślebarski, was born in Komorowice on 12 April 1916. Władysław, Tadeusz's father, had enlisted as a volunteer in the Austrian army in 1914 to fight for a free Poland and was sent to the eastern front. At that time the family were living in Malec where Władysław was a temporary teacher. In 1915 Tadeusz's mother left Malec and, with her young son, returned to the family home in Komorowice where her second son was born. On 13 July 1916 Tadeusz's father was killed during the fighting of World War I. Helena was left to bring up her two young boys on her own, an extremely difficult task at that time.

Tadeusz Ślebarski was to become my [EFR] father-in-law so, throughout this biography I will refer to him as Tadeusz.

Tadeusz and his brother Władysław finished their secondary education in the Adama Asnyka High School in Bielsko-Biała. Tadeusz then entered the Jagiellonian University in Kraków where he began his studies in mathematics and astronomy. The professor of astronomy at the Jagiellonian University was Tadeusz Banachiewicz (1882-1954) who had been appointed to the chair in 1919. Banachiewicz was delighted with his young pupil Tadeusz, who was called up for military service in 1938 before completing his studies. He joined the Polish Army in 1939 and the German invasion of Poland in that year ended any chance that he might return to his studies. Tadeusz escaped from Poland while Banachiewicz was arrested by the Nazis, along with other members of the Faculty of the Jagiellonian University, on 6 November 1939. Banachiewicz was taken to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp near Berlin where he spent three months.

Quite how Tadeusz managed to escape to France is not known but he was evacuated from France in 1940 and arrived in St Andrews with other members of the Polish Army and stationed in the St Andrews area for the remainder of the war. He was, therefore, among the first of the Poles who had escaped after the German invasion of Poland to arrive in St Andrews and they were housed in the University Observatory which had been completed in December 1939. In November 1943 Tadeusz entered the University of St Andrews and was awarded an M.A. in 1945. He continued to take honours courses in mathematics (namely Geometry, Algebra, Analysis and Special Functions) and astronomy. He was taught mathematics by Walter Ledermann, a German Jew who had escaped from the Nazis in January 1934, Dan Rutherford, and the Regius Professor of Mathematics Herbert Turnbull. There were only six mathematics students in his class, and one of his fellow students was Sandy Green who went on to become one of the leading British mathematicians. Tadeusz was taught astronomy by Finlay Freundlich, a German with a Jewish wife who had also fled from the Nazis. Tadeusz graduated with an honours degree in 1947 after an outstanding performance in astronomy.

Tadeusz married Giuliana Salvatoré (born 1915 in Scoonie, Leven, to Vincent Salvatoré (born 1889) and Francesca Ferdinando (born 1890)). Their daughter Helena Francesca was born on 12 June 1945. I [EFR] married Helena in 1970.

At the beginning of the academic year 1947-48 Tadeusz began his studies as a research student in astronomy but six months later, in April 1948, he was appointed as an Assistant in Astronomy after the first assistant, Ian Campbell, resigned to take a position with the Admiralty. In October 1950 he was promoted to Lecturer in Astronomy and in 1951 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. One of his tasks at the Observatory was to monitor each day the two Master Clocks, one of which recorded Greenwich Mean Time and the other Local Sidereal Time, using the Greenwich Time Signal and record how much they deviated from their correct settings.

Jaroslav Cisar (1894-1983) joined the Department for a short while in 1951 and after that went to the Mills Observatory in Dundee but continued to observe in the St Andrews Observatory. Tadeusz learnt the skills of astronomical photography from Cisar and began his own observing programme in January 1954. Tadeusz observed asteroids, or minor planets. Finlay Freundlich, by now Napier Professor of Astronomy, was forced to retire due to his age in 1955 but continued as Directory of the Observatory and an assistant lecturer for two further years. Walter Stibbs (1919-2010) was appointed as the next Napier Professor of Astronomy. A quite difficult situation arose for Tadeusz since he had been very close to Freundlich and extremely grateful to him for appointing him as an assistant in 1948. Stibbs, worrying that Freundlich was still exerting an influence on the Department of Astronomy, insisted that Tadeusz had no further contact with Freundlich.

In 1962 Stibbs encouraged Tadeusz to apply for a research fellowship at Yale University Observatory in the United States. He was awarded a one year fellowship, extendable for a second year and took up the position at Yale in January 1963. There he continued his work on the orbits of minor planets but family reasons forced him to return home after only eight months in August 1963. He continued the work on computing orbits of minor planets over many years. Although he worked extremely hard on this project and produced outstandingly accurate results, for some reason he never published them or even communicated them to the Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the USA.

Tadeusz was promoted to Senior Lecturer in October 1966 and continued to hold this position until he retired in 1979. He continued to live in St Andrews and died on 7 February 2003. Among his hobbies were philosophy, chess and playing the violin.

Not only did Tadeusz become my [EFR] father-in-law in 1970, but several years before that he taught a course that I attended as an undergraduate in 1964-65. This was a course on mathematical astronomy where I learnt spherical trigonometry for the first time. Tadeusz was an extremely clear lecturer with an obvious love for mathematics and its applications to astronomy. His lectures were carefully prepared and he clearly enjoyed teaching and interacting with students. In the same class with me was Fred Watson who became a well-known astronomer and the author of a number of popular astronomy books. Watson writes [2]:-
Slebarski was a well-respected man, gentle in manner and generous in spirit. He was known throughout the university simply as Mr Slebarski, and his lectures were models of clarity because, having a less-than-perfect command of English, he wrote absolutely everything on the blackboard. ... Slebarski has a special place in my own history, because a quarter of a century after his appointment ... he became my research supervisor when I embarked on a Master's degree at St Andrews. We worked ... on asteroid orbits, and I used the Scott Lang Telescope to make my observations. With his customary good nature, Slebarski tolerated the fact that I was far from a model student. I still remember his delight when, years later, I finally submitted my thesis and graduated with the degree.

References (show)

  1. R Hilditch, Stars over St Andrews. 75 years of observational astronomy at the University Observatory, St Andrews, Scotland.
  2. F Watson, Star-craving mad. Tales from a travelling astronomer (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013).

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update August 2017