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Ellen Paul

Brina Kessel 1925 - 2016

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From the Daily News Miner, 6 March 2016



A remarkable life ended March 1, 2016. Professor and ornithologist Brina Cattell Kessel journeyed to the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1951 and never looked back. She was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1925, the daughter of Quinta Cattell and Marcel Hartwig Kessel and was proud to be the granddaughter of James McKeen Cattell, a world-famous psychologist, publisher and academic who promoted the idea of faculty governance of universities. 



Brina was raised in Storrs, Connecticut, and she attended the Storrs Grammar School and Windham High School. After graduating from Cornell University, she went to the University of Wisconsin to study under Aldo Leopold, the founder of the science of wildlife management. Unfortunately, he died fighting a fire soon after she arrived, and she discovered Wisconsin would not accept women into the wildlife management program. For this reason, after her master's degree, she returned to Cornell. There, she continued to work with Arthur Allen with whom she worked as an undergraduate to record some of the first bird-sound recordings. She researched, wrote an epic thesis on the European Starling and received her doctorate degree in just two years.



At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she rose quickly from instructor to full professor, was appointed head of the Department of Biological Sciences in 1957 and was named the Dean of the College of Biological Sciences and Renewable Resources in 1962, a position she held until 1972. After serving in other positions, in 1980, she declined further administrative responsibilities in order to concentrate her efforts on research and the development of the University of Alaska Museum. In 1999, she was awarded emeritus status as professor, dean and curator of ornithology. It does not do her justice to say she served as the curator of Terrestrial Vertebrate Collections (birds and mammals). Her research took her to nearly every corner of Alaska. 



U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, in honoring Brina wrote, "She has traveled to scores of Alaskan villages, towns, river deltas, Interior lakes, coastal plains, mountaintops, wetlands, highway corridors, Arctic sites - locations where she set up observation posts and studied the many species of birds that live in, or migrate to the northern regions of North America." 



Brina published numerous ornithological papers and books and received many honors. She was listed in the American Men and Women of Science in 1954; she was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1960 and given fellowship in the American Ornithologists' Union in 1973, and later, served as their national president. She was also a fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America. The Fairbanks Business and professional Women's Club named her Woman of the Year in 1970 and she received the University of Alaska President's Distinguished Service Award in 1981. In 1993, a Friends of Brina Kessel Committee established the Brina Kessel Medal for Excellence in Science to be awarded annually to honor an outstanding University of Alaska undergraduate science student. Later, Brina established an endowment so that a monetary award could be added to the honor.



Brina's research career was funded by a number of agencies and took several surprising turns. A proposal to the Arctic Naval Research Station was funded for research along the Colville River in the Petfore Reserve. Then she was told, "You cannot come up on to the Reserve because the Navy will not allow any woman on the Petfore Reserve unless they are married, and with their husband." She was not happy that they would accept her freshman student, George Schaller, but not her more experienced self to collect the data.



Schaller later became a preeminent conservation biologist, known worldwide. From 1959 to 1963, she was the project director for ecological investigations for the Atomic Energy Commission Project Chariot in Northwestern Alaska. The initial ecological investigation was carried out, but Project Chariot, a plan to use atomic bombs to create a deep water harbor off the coast of Alaska, was later canceled. Brina was especially pleased to accompany Olaus and Margaret Murie on some of their trips to the far northern interior Alaska and to have her participation described in their books.
Brina was predeceased by her husband, Raymond Roof; sister Jo Kessel Buyske and brother McKeen Cattell Kessel. She leaves her sister, Edgra Kessel Ringler, and her husband, Ira, of Easton, Maryland; and her brother, Quentin Cattell Kessel, and his wife, Margaret, of Storrs. 



Burial will be private. Contributions may be made to the University of Alaska Foundation (fund 40815), P.O. Box 755080, Fairbanks, AK 99775 to support Brina's "Birds of Alaska" project.


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Daniel D. Gibson wrote the following in 2007 for our newsletter:


Brina Kessel (rightmost) looks on as Arthur Allen examines a specimen (undated).

The occasion of Brina Kessel’s 80thbirthday provided an appropriate time to review her career and her prominent influence on bird study in Alaska. Her lifelong interest in birds developed during childhood. She earned a B.S. and Ph.D. at Cornell University and M.S. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She conducted a 7-year study of the European Starling while at Cornell, where she also participated in the sound-recording program (birds and frogs) of the Laboratory of Ornithology.

She joined the faculty of the University of Alaska in 1951—in the days when the Fairbanks campus was the entire University of Alaska—and for the 55+ years thereafter she has conducted research and published on many aspects of Alaska’s avifauna, with particular emphasis on birds of the taiga and tundra. That research was always balanced with important administrative responsibilities, and over many years she served the university as, variously, Professor of Zoology, Dean of the College of Biological Sciences and Renewable Resources, Dean of Graduate Studies, and Curator of the University of Alaska Museum’s terrestrial vertebrate collections.

Her early Alaska fieldwork, in the 1950s, would have taken her to the North Slope, but in those days the Department of Defense would not allow a woman to conduct fieldwork in U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve #4. Male students conducted the fieldwork in her stead, but she was the one who analyzed and published the results (see Kessel and Cade 1958). A few years later, with the legendary Olaus and Margaret Murie, she worked in the Brooks Range (see Kessel and Schaller 1960)—an experience and an association she has always treasured. Not long thereafter she began a particular interest in birds and avian habitats on the Seward Peninsula, where she conducted fieldwork for many years (see Kessel 1989).


Brina Kessel, Steve MacDonald, and Dan Gibson pose in the prep lab (undated)

In 1965 she drove a new Buick Riviera from Detroit to Fairbanks. Some time later, that year or the next, Brina was asked why her still-pristine-looking Riviera was missing all four wheel covers, to which she replied, “They’re in the trunk; that way I can’t lose one and wind up with a less-than-complete set.” (Brina always knew how to hang onto what was hers!) In 1968 she convinced the American Ornithologists’ Union to hold its first Alaska meeting—in Fairbanks and at the University of Alaska.

In 1973 she became one of the very first women to be elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which organization she later served as President (1992-1994). At the AOU’s 111th meeting (its second Alaska and Fairbanks meeting, in 1993), she was honored by the founding of the “Brina Kessel award for Excellence in Science,” an award since presented annually to an undergraduate student at the University Alaska Fairbanks.

In the early 1980s she conducted multi-year fieldwork in the upper Susitna River valley (in anticipation of the construction of a hydro-power dam there). During that time she wore in the field a ballcap emblazoned with the logo of Era Helicopters, Inc.[ERA]—which at least some others thought she wore in tacit support of passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1997 she formally retired—as Professor Emeritus, Dean Emeritus, and Curator Emeritus—from her academic career at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And at the 2004 Alaska Bird Conference, in Anchorage, she was the recipient of the Isleib Award in avian conservation, and, later the Alaska Bird Observatory named “Kessel Pond” at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, in Fairbanks.

She continues to work on the fabled “Birds of Alaska.” (Ask her about Black-billed Magpies….)

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Partial Bibliography of Brina Kessel (in chronological order):

Kessel, B., and T. J. Cade. 1958. Birds of the Colville River, northern Alaska. Biological Papers of the University of Alaska no. 2.

Kessel, B., and R. W. Kelly. 1958. First North American sighting and photographic record of Common Crane, Grus grus. Auk 75:465.

Kessel, B., and G. B. Schaller. 1960. Birds of the Upper Sheenjek Valley, northeastern Alaska. Biol. Papers Univ. Alaska no. 4.

Kessel, B., H. K. Springer, and C. M. White. 1964. June birds of the Kolomak River, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska. Murrelet 45:37-47.

Kessel, B., and H. K. Springer. 1966. Recent data on status of some interior Alaska birds. Condor 68:185-195.

Kessel, B. 1967. Late-autumn and winter bird records from interior Alaska. Condor 69:313-316.

Isleib, M. E., and B. Kessel. 1973. Birds of the North Gulf Coast-Prince William Sound Region, Alaska. Biol. Papers Univ. Alaska no. 14. (Also 1989 reprint of same, with addendum.)

Kessel, B., and D. D. Gibson. 1978. Status and Distribution of Alaska birds. Studies in Avian Biology 1. 100 p.

Kessel, B. 1979. Avian habitat classification for Alaska. Murrelet 60:86-94.

Kessel, B. 1979. Starlings become established at Fairbanks, Alaska. Condor 81:437-438.

Spindler, M. A., and B. Kessel. 1980. Avian populations and habitat use in interior Alaska taiga. Syesis 13:61-104.

Kessel, B. 1984. Migration of Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis, in east-central Alaska, with routes through Alaska and western Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 98: 279-292.

Murphy, S. M., B. Kessel, and L. J. Vining. 1984. Waterfowl populations and limnologic characteristics of taiga ponds. Journal of Wildlife Management 48: 1156-1163.

Kessel, B. 1986. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, in Alaska. Journal of Field Ornithology 57:42-47.

Kessel, B. 1989. Birds of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Their Biogeography, Seasonality, and Natural History. Univ. Alaska Press.

Gibson, D. D., and B. Kessel. 1989. Geographic variation in the Marbled Godwit and description of an Alaska subspecies. Condor 91:436-443.

Gibson, D. D., and B. Kessel. 1992. Seventy-four new avian taxa documented in Alaska 1976-1991. Condor 94:454-467.

Badyaev, A. V., D. D. Gibson, and B. Kessel. 1996. White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) and Black-backed Wagtail (Motacilla lugens). In The Birds of North America, nos. 236-237 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciencesk, Philadelphia, and the AOU, Washington, DC.

Gibson, D. D., and B. Kessel. 1997. Inventory of the species and subspecies of Alaska birds. Western Birds 28:45-95.

Kessel, B. 1998. Habitat Characteristics of Some Passerine Birds in Western North American Taiga. Univ. Alaska Press.

Badyaev, A. V., B. Kessel, and D. D. Gibson. 1998. Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava). In The Birds of North America, no. 382 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sci., Philadelphia, and the AOU, Washington, DC.

Kessel, B., D. A. Rocque, and J. S. Barclay. 2002. Greater Scaup (Aythya marila). In The Birds of North America, no. 650 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia.

Gibson, D. D., and B. Kessel. 2006. Status and distribution of the Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in Alaska. Page 27 in The Annual Cycle of the Curlew Sandpiper Caldris ferruginea (L. G. Underhill, P. S. Tomkovich, and J. A. Harrison, eds.). International Wader Studies 19.

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