Wednesday, December 01, 2010


Years ago, someone gave me a student's astronomy notebook, from the fall of 1936, that he/she had picked up somewhere. I wish I could remember who gave it to me, or where it was found. It was identified only with a sticker on the cover that said "Merle McKay, Pearson 16."

Whoever kept these notes was clearly part of an impressive course in astronomy. The notebook is full of exact data keeping in a neat hand -- the positions and phases of Sun, Moon and planets, personal star mapping, spectral analysis, and so on. It suggested a level of effort far beyond what I asked of my own students.

I stuck the notebook aside and didn't think more of it.

I came across it the other day and wondered if now in the age of the internet I might identify the author.

Goggling "Merle McKay" yielded a list of names, most too young to be my subject. "Merle McKay Wood Dexter," who died in Salem or Rockport, Massachusetts, in 2002 at age 92, looked promising. Googling that name took me to a photograph in the Mount Holyoke College archives: "A student room with toys on the bed. Inscription on the back: 'Room of Meg McKay (Merle McKay Wood Dexter) at Mt. Holyoke College 1937-1938.'"

Ah, the right time frame. I quickly ascertained that in 1936 there was a dormitory room 16 in Pearsons Hall at Mount Holyoke. Meg was my gal!

From a scrapbook in the Holyoke archives it seems Meg was still there in 1940, which means she was probably a freshman when she took the astronomy course. And who was teaching astronomy at the time? Alice B. Farnsworth, herself a Holyoke graduate, who earned her M.S. and PH.D. at the Yerkes Observatory, University of Chicago. She was director of the Mount Holyoke Williston Observatory for 37 years, beginning in 1936. It was very likely the talented Miss Farnsworth who made the careful corrections in red ink in my student's notebook.

Merle McKay seems to have married twice, probably outliving both husbands.

It was a bit of a thrill to identify the red ink with one of the women pioneers in early 20th-century astronomy. As for what Meg McKay did with her superb course in observational astronomy, I don't know. If she has descendents who would be interested in her freshman astronomy notebook, it's theirs for the asking. Or perhaps it was one of them who sent me the notebook in the first place.