Historical Lens: Donald (Don) R. Cowen (1921-1987)

    Date Posted: 
    Tuesday, April 21, 2020

    By Tammy Orr

    Did you know the Optical Sciences Center (OSC) once had a staff scientific illustrator?

    Imagine that after months of research, you have finally achieved results worthy of publishing in a scientific journal. To really make your work really standout, you decide to include a few illustrations and schematic diagrams. This added dimension to the article could expand your audience and help give your work the recognition it deserves. But how do you go about doing this? Well, most likely, you would turn to one of the many 3-D Computer Aided Design (CAD) software programs available today.

    But if you had been a professor or student at OSC in the mid 1960s to the early 1980s—in the era of printed media (rather than digital) designed for printing on paper (rather than electronically)—you may have sought the help of scientific illustrator, Don Cowen.

    Don’s art career began in his native country of Australia, where he received juried acceptance into the School of the National Art Gallery of Victoria in 1939. He studied there for two years until his induction into the Armed Forces, subsequently spending five years of active service in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war ended, Don studied for eight years in art schools in Australia, and two years in London and Paris. During this time, he showed paintings in numerous exhibitions and also worked in the theatre and ballet. In 1956, he participated in the annual “Show of Sixes” invitational to leading Australian artists. Shortly afterward, Don left Australia and settled in Tucson, Arizona.

    Once in Tucson, Don was commissioned several times by the University of Arizona to do illustrations and paintings. In 1965, Don was hired by the director of OSC, Aden B. Meinel, as a scientific illustrator. But, Don was not only a talented and skilled illustrator; he also continued to pursue his longtime interest as a fine art muralist. Many of his works were the conjunction of science and art—an expression of the creative intellect of Man. Examples can be seen around the University and throughout Tucson.

    OSC’s Meinel Building

    Displayed on the fifth floor of the Meinel Building is a mural depicting “Imaging,” as envisioned by Don in 1967. And on the seventh floor, Aden’s formal portrait hangs next to those of his successors as director. In 1970, Don painted this portrayal of OSC’s visionary founder from a black and white photo. But, perhaps the most recognizable of Don’s artistic endeavors is the striking glass-and-steel sculpture that graces the front of the building.

    The Optical Sciences Center was established in 1964, with Aden Meinel as its first director. Shortly afterwards, construction of OSC’s first building began (to be completed in late 1969). From his office on the third floor of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Aden watched across the mall as a structure arose from a vast pit. While watching the progress, Aden began to give some thought as to what kind of sculpture they could put within the portico of the new building. He was hoping for something that said “optics” in no uncertain terms; then remembered seeing large pieces of Pyrex on the banks of the Chemung River in Corning, NY.

    I had selected a few for re-melting into the Kitt Peak 84-inch [telescope mirror]. Now I wondered if I could get one of these large chunks for an ‘artwork’ for the porch of OSC. They were rather spectacular, the surface being conchoidal cusps where the glass had been broken when the melting furnace was mined for this glass. The glass was of historic interest, being from the time when that same furnace was used to melt the Pyrex for the 200-inch telescope. It wasn’t the exact same composition, but it provided a nice tie between the 200-inch epoch and the new epoch of advance telescopes that OSC was entering.

    - (Aden Meinel, Echoes from a Simpler Time, p. 83)

    Provided here is a PDF scan of a June 15, 1979 OSCillations article detailing the creation (and challenges) of this widely recognized showpiece that now greets visitors at the front door of the Wyant College of Optical Sciences.

    Man and the Universe, Tucson Convention Center

    Don Cowen's "The Man and the Universe"

    Don Cowen's "Man and the Universe"

    In 1972, a bequest from the estate of the late Grace H. Flandrau became available to the University. It was decided to devote the funds to a facility dedicated to increasing public understanding and appreciation of science—a major planetarium for Arizona. Don was commissioned to paint a 9-foot by 17-foot mural for the main lobby of the newly constructed Flandrau Planetarium. Taking Don over a year to complete, the mural entitled, “Man and the Universe,” depicts the history of astronomical thought from pre-history to the present. Unveiled in December 1975 at the planetarium’s grand opening, the mural afforded the opportunity for detailed and leisurely study by visitors for many years. This mural now hangs in the Tucson Convention Center.

    Appearing in the mural is the figure of Galileo (1564-1642), who studied the heavens with a 1-inch refracting telescope. Next to him is astronomer and mathematician Tyco Brahe (1546-1601), with his hand on the shoulder of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Kepler’s independent research and observations of the orbit of the planet Mars led to the later development, through Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) of the theory of gravitation. Above Newton’s outstretched hand is seen a large telescope built by Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), which was a forerunner of today’s giant reflectors. Also included in the mural is Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826), holding a prism that projects the spectrum of the hydrogen atom from the sun.

    Archimedes and the Battle of Syracuse, Albert B. Weaver Science-Engineering Library

    In 1978, Aden and Marjorie Meinel visited Syracuse, Italy—on the east coast of Sicily—site of the Siege of Syracuse by the Roman Republic in 213-212 BC. Excited by the sense of history they had felt while there, the Meinels suggested that Don paint a mural to celebrate the 2,200th anniversary of the battle, observed in 1988. The mural, “Archimedes and the Battle of Syracuse”— depicting the height of the battle in 212 BC—was completed in 1981 and is displayed in the University’s Weaver Science-Engineering library. Some historians believe that at this battle the Greek defenders of the city defeated the invading Roman fleet by an application of “solar energy.”

    According to the story, when the king of Syracuse asked the famed philosopher-scientist Archimedes to devise a way to defend the city, he saw the possibility of using solar energy. The harbor at Syracuse is an eastward-facing semicircle, and Archimedes felt sure the Roman commander would choose to attack it on a clear, sunny morning, when the sun would be in the defender’s eyes. So, he lined the harbor with soldiers holding some sort of reflective material to turn the sunlight back upon the Roman fleet. The light and heat—intensified by the solar array—set ships on fire, causing the Romans to flee in confusion.

    In Don’s painting, the soldiers lined the walls of the harbor, holding shield-sized reflectors—possibly, stretched hide burnished with silver leaf. From each reflector, a beam of sunlight is directed to one point of the lead ship, creating a giant solar concentrator. At the right edge of the mural, the burning ships in the harbor suggest the general pandemonium created by this unique defense.

    Don retired from OSC and scientific illustration in 1983 to devote full-time to fine art painting and teaching. He holds the distinction of being OSC’s only ever full-time scientific illustrator.