A Life Devoted to Inquiry: Cecily Cannan Selby ’46

Cecily Cannan Selby. Photo courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionCecily Cannan Selby. Photo courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Cecily Cannan Selby ’46 had a childhood steeped in science. Her father, a distinguished British biochemist, was lured to the United States in Europe’s post–World War I “brain drain,” accepting a faculty position at New York University’s School of Medicine when Selby was three. An only child, she summered with her family in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where a community of scientists in diverse fields and from varied backgrounds encouraged her not only to ask questions, but also to expect to be taken seriously.

At home and at boarding schools in England and Canada, Selby reveled in texts such as The Restless Universe by Max Born. “I fell in love with the ideas,” she says.

Selby came to Radcliffe College as a sophomore at age 16, in 1943, because her international education put her ahead of her class. She was eager to contribute to the war effort and decided to concentrate in physics, a growing field that was having a major impact on the war, with new technologies such as radar and the atom bomb. In physics at Harvard, Selby soared. Her favorite class, Philosophy of Physics, taught by Philipp Frank—who once studied with Einstein—illuminated for her the processes of inquiry not just in science but in all disciplines.

Although she was young and often the only Radcliffe student in the room, Selby was undaunted. “I approached my Harvard professors as I had my father’s friends,” she says, “expecting to respect them and wanting them to respect me.”

Frank certainly did. His note to Selby regarding her final exam read, “A+. Radcliffe won this race.”

Selby went on to earn a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the new field of physical biology, applying wartime technology to the study of cells. She then spent a decade in New York laboratories, first at the Sloan Kettering Institute and later at Cornell University Medical College, studying skin and muscle cell structures at the submicroscopic level.

But with three young sons and a husband building his medical practice, Selby felt disconnected from the ladder-climbing struggles of her male colleagues in academic science. “To advance in professional research,” she says, “I needed to wake up at night thinking about intercellular bridges—not about my boys’ chicken pox and my household responsibilities.”

Selby left the lab with no plans to pursue another position, but she soon received an unexpected offer to teach science part-time at a small independent school in the city. Within a year, she stepped up to become headmistress. Although her new role seemed far afield from her training, Selby says, “I had the confidence and competence in problem solving that science can give you.”

That confidence served Selby in later national leadership positions at organizations such as Americans for Energy Independence, Avon Products, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, the National Science Foundation, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), the Radcliffe College Board of Trustees, and RCA.

It was her work at NCSSM that brought Selby back to her roots in academia, opening the door to an appointment as a professor of science education at NYU’s School of Education. There, Selby spent more than 10 years in the classroom, helping public school teachers improve science literacy for all.

Throughout her career, Selby has circled back to the values instilled in her during her summers at Woods Hole and to the processes of scientific inquiry she observed as a young Radcliffe student in Harvard physics classes. “In science and in all human inquiry,” Selby says, “the investigator has multiple choices of questions and procedures available. How those questions are asked frames the answers the experiment delivers.” And if inquiry is highly personal, as Selby argues, it needs a full range of diverse perspectives to truly advance human development.

Selby has donated the papers documenting her remarkable life and career to the Schlesinger Library and hopes to finish her memoir next year. She has also made a planned gift to Radcliffe, in the form of a real estate bequest, to maximize her support for the place that has played, as she says, “a uniquely valuable role” in her life. For more information about planned giving, please contact John Christel, Radcliffe’s liaison at the University Planned Giving office, at 617-384-8231 or john_christel@harvard.edu.


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