Harlan James Smith was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1924. He was the son of Paul and Anna McGregor Smith of Wheeling Island. He was interested in astronomy from a young age, and his interest was furthered by the donation of a 6-inch reflecting telescope to the Wheeling public in 1935. He graduated from Wheeling High School in 1942 and went on to earn his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in astronomy from Harvard University.
After a brief stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Smith joined the faculty of Yale University in 1953. He moved to the University of Texas at Austin in 1963, where he served as the first Texas-based director of the McDonald Observatory and chairman of the university's astronomy department. Under his leadership, the McDonald Observatory grew to become an international scientific attraction and the university's astronomy department became the largest in the nation.
Smith made significant contributions to astronomy in the areas of pure research and public outreach. He discovered the optical variability, and thus small size, of quasars; studied the influence of solar wind on radio emissions from Jupiter; and discovered the existence of a class of variable stars known as dwarf Cepheids, or Delta Scuti stars. He also helped create "StarDate," a two-minute syndicated daily radio broadcast about planetary happenings, and wrote and produced the award-winning "Story of the Universe" educational film series.
Smith was a recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the space organization's highest civilian award. He died in 1991 at the age of 67. (https://tinyurl.com/229rkvnw) (https://tinyurl.com/4ej5nf46)