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In the spirit of this weekend’s National Philanthropy Day, we want to extend a thank-you to the UW’s first major donor: former UW regent and Wisconsin governor Cadwallader C. Washburn. If his last name sounds familiar, that’s because it’s bestowed upon his namesake observatory, which sits atop the aptly named Observatory Hill on — you guessed it — Observatory Drive. The Washburn Observatory was built with the generous $43,000 donation Washburn made to the University of Wisconsin in 1877. Washburn made this gift for the express purpose of building and furnishing an observatory after he helped the Wisconsin legislature pass an act mandating the funding of astronomy instruction at the university. Washburn’s observatory boasted the third-largest telescope in the U.S., bested by those of the Naval and Dearborn Observatories (but 0.6 inches wider than Harvard’s). While it’s not clear why Washburn, who was no astronomer, opted to endow an observatory and helped to create legislation to fund an astronomy department at the UW, we have him to thank for the observatory’s 80-plus years of scientific study and discovery, and for its continued availability to the public to see the stars and the cosmos, up close and personal, for themselves.

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