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View From Mars Hill: In Remembrance of Carolyn Shoemaker

Carolyn Shoemaker in front of the building named in honor of her husband Gene, USGS Flagstaff Science Center.

From the Arizona Daily Sun, August 21, 2021

The world lost a legend on August 13 with the passing of Carolyn Shoemaker. A housewife-turned scientist, she once held the record for most comet discoveries by an individual and also found hundreds of asteroids.

Born Carolyn Spellman in 1929, she grew up in Chico, California. She studied history, political science, and English literature at Chico State University. She taught for a short time but didn’t like it. No matter—she soon was occupied with the duties of a mother after marrying her brother’s college roommate at the California Institute of Technology, Gene Shoemaker.

While Gene’s career as a geologist took off, Carolyn stayed at home to raise the couple’s three children. Gene went on to become one of the most celebrated scientists of his era. He studied impact craters around the world, proved the impact origin of Meteor Crater, and brought the United States Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Branch to Flagstaff.

In 1980, Gene found himself with a new research assistant—Carolyn. The children now all graduated from high school, 51-year-old Carolyn now looked for something fulfilling on which to spend her time. Gene suggested she help him with his research on comets and asteroids, and she soon became proficient at searching for these diminutive bodies.

32 Comets and Hundreds of Asteroids

Carolyn went on to discover or co-discover 32 comets and more than 500 asteroids. Her most famous find came in 1993 when she teamed with Gene and astronomer Davie Levy to discover Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which the following year dramatically collided with Jupiter in an event observed by astronomers around the world.

In 1997, the couple was involved in an automobile accident that left Gene dead and Carolyn severely injured. She carried on the research for years, splitting her time between the USGS and Lowell Observatory. She also became a popular guest at star parties and other amateur astronomy events around the world.

For her efforts, Carolyn garnered many awards and was bestowed an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University. She remained active in the scientific community even after retirement, serving on Lowell Observatory’s Advisory Board, participating in astronomical events such as the 2018-2019 Flagstaff Lunar Legacy celebration, and speaking to groups.

Leonard Nimoy and Carolyn Shoemakers at 24-inch Clark Refractor, Lowell Observatory, 1998
Leonard Nimoy interviews Carolyn Shoemaker at Lowell Observatory’s 24-inch Clark Refractor, 1998.

Up until a couple years ago, she maintained residence in her beloved home on Hidden Hollow Road that she and Gene built over the course of several decades. She had a deep personal connection to the house, having handpicked the many river rocks used in the structure. Health concerns eventually led to her moving into the Peaks Senior Living Center a couple years back.

Carolyn was a kind and gracious person, known as much for her cheerful personality as the astronomical discoveries she made.  She died 24 years after Gene and though the world mourns her loss, she is now reunited with her cherished partner in the heavens.