Hynek, J(oseph) Allen (1910–1986)
Prominent astrophysicist and authority on UFOs. Hynek
was born on May 1, 1910, in Chicago, Illinois. He attended the
University of Chicago, from which he received both his B.S.
(1931) and Ph.D. degrees (1935). In 1942 he married Miriam
Curtis.
Following graduation he took a position on the faculty at
Ohio State University, where he remained until 1956. He
worked for four years with the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory
(1956–60) and then became the director of the Dearborn
Observatory at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois,
where he served until his retirement in 1980. In 1964 he
also assumed duties as director of Northwestern University’s
Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center.
Hynek approached the UFO question as a skeptic but eventually
became convinced that some of the reports could not be
explained away by conventional means. During his early days
at Northwestern, several graduate students, including Jacques
Vallee, encouraged his interest in the question. In 1965 he was
quoted as suggesting that UFOs might be extraterrestrial craft
and calling for more scientific attention. When in 1966 Hynek
was asked to speak on the subject of a flurry of UFO sightings
in Michigan, he dismissed them as ‘‘swamp gas.’’ The humor
provoked by that incident led to his speaking out on the need
for UFO studies at a congressional hearing several weeks later.
Several years later a civilian review committee was formed.
The Condon Report, however, was trapped in controversy and
internal bickering and Hynek was among a number of scholars
who rejected its final negative report. In 1972, in The UFO Experience,
Hynek charged the air force with laxity and incompetence
in its research on UFOs, and the following year he led in
the founding of the Center for UFO Studies. From that time
forward he took the lead in championing the cause of UFO research
and nurturing scientists and other researchers around
the country. The center’s work peaked during the late 1970s.
In 1977 Hynek served as a technical consultant on the Steven
Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which drew
its name from a term coined by Hynek.
Hynek went on to write several additional books prior to his
move to Arizona in 1985. Believing he had found a major
source of money for UFO research, in 1984 he resigned from
the center in Evanston and early in 1985 established the International
Center for UFO Research in Phoenix. The financial
support he had hoped for, however, proved to be dedicated
more to metaphysical than scientific study, and Hynek
dropped his association. Before he could recover from his mistake,
he was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. The tumor
took his life on April 27, 1986.
He was survived by his wife Mimi, who had been a diligent
and often unheralded editor and worker behind the scenes.
The Center for UFO Studies was renamed the J. Allen Hynek
Center for UFO Studies.
Hynek’s own career awaits final evaluation when the UFO
question is finally laid to rest. In 1973 he was interviewed by Ian
Ridpath for the May 17 issue of the journal New Scientist. Hynek
modestly reflected, ‘‘I’ve never launched any new theories, I’ve
never made any outstanding discoveries.’’ When Ridpath stated
that Hynek would be remembered ‘‘not as an astronomer
but as the man who made UFOs respectable,’’ Hynek replied,
‘‘. . . I wouldn’t mind it. It’s always nice to add one stone to the
total structure of science. If I can succeed in making the study
of UFOs scientifically respectable and do something constructive
in it, then I would think that would be a real contribution.’’
Sources
Clark, Jerome. UFOs in the 1980s. Vol. 1 of The UFO Encyclopedia.
Detroit Apogee Books, 1990.
Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report. New York Dell,
1977.
———. The UFO Experience A Scientific Inquiry. Chicago
Henry Regnery, 1972.
Hynek, J. Allen, and Jacques Vallee. The Edge of Reality A
Progress Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Chicago Henry
Regnery, 1975.
Jacobs, David M. ‘‘J. Allen Hynek and the UFO Phenomenon.’’
International UFO Reporter 11, no. 3 (MayJune 1986)
4–8, 23.