View From Sapsucker Woods: Celebrating a Pillar of Nantucket Ornithology
By John W. Fitzpatrick
October 15, 2011
Approaching my 60th birthday, I recently enjoyed admiring genuine longevity by visiting a remarkable woman 36 years my senior. Edith Folger Andrews was born on October 29, 1915, in Passaic, New Jersey. After graduating with a degree in biology from Penn State University in 1938, she and her family visited Nantucket Island, the Folger ancestral home (Edith is related to Ben Franklin’s mother, Abiah Folger, who was born on Nantucket). That visit would change her life. While studying the following year at the Buffalo Museum of Science, Edith landed a summer job as a children’s natural science teacher with the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA), a Nantucket environmental organization named after the first woman astronomer. During the war, Edith taught biology, chemistry, and physics at Nantucket High School. In 1945, she entered graduate school at Cornell to study ornithology and natural science with Arthur Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg, founders of the Lab of Ornithology.
Edith impressed both mentors and fellow students with her wit and tireless energy in pursuit of birds. Allen and Kellogg led bird surveys throughout the Ithaca region, accompanied by students and zealous local residents. Edith never missed a trip. In bad weather, she was even known to camp overnight at Fernow Hall to be on time for the 6:00 A.M. departure. During a spring bird count in 1947, Allen was familiar enough with Edith to feel comfortable using her as a tripod (see photo at right) while surveying shorebirds.
While at Cornell, Edith regularly skinned dead birds sent to her from Nantucket by Clinton Andrews, whom she had met while working at MMA. She was even contacted by renowned Boston ornithologist Ludlow Griscom, who was seeking information about the birds of Nantucket. The two ended up coauthoring The Birds of Nantucket in 1948. Edith later published a series of Nantucket bird-finding guides with Kenneth Blackshaw.
Originally bent on getting a Ph.D., Edith instead took a job as assistant professor in natural sciences at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1953, she moved permanently to Nantucket, where she married Clinton Andrews and became a telephone switchboard operator “until the dial phone arrived and put me out of work.” Edith began writing a weekly column about birds for Nantucket newspapers (The Inquirer and Mirror and The Nantucket Beacon), a contribution she continues to this day!
For 60 years, Edith worked with the MMA at jobs including teaching, leading bird walks, conducting bird-banding workshops (she has banded more than 50,000 birds), compiling Christmas Bird Counts, and curating Maria Mitchell’s historic birthplace home. She never lost the passion for exploring her island with new visitors and friends alike. As the doyenne of Nantucket ornithology, Edith salvaged and prepared bird specimens from across the island, eventually amassing a collection of 1,500 specimens that now bears her name at the MMA. She has received the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award, Massachusetts Audubon’s Allen Morgan Prize, and even an honorary membership in the Nuttall Ornithological Club.
Today Edith thrives in her eclectic farmhouse overlooking a beautiful Nantucket scrub swamp, where birds still visit the feeders she has maintained for more than 50 years. I found Edith’s spunky wit and razor-sharp memory to be delightful and genuinely inspiring (see photo at top). As she approaches her 96th birthday, it is a great pleasure to honor the life, passion, and lasting contributions to ornithology and science of Edith Folger Andrews.
—John W. Fitzpatrick
Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director