Cecily C. Selby

With sadness we share the passing of MBL Council member and former Library Reader Cecily C. Selby who died on July 9, 2023 at the age of 96. The MBL flag will be lowered in her memory.

Researcher, educator, executive and nonprofit board member, Selby’s life was framed by decades of her experiences in Woods Hole. She was a role model for promoting equal access to science for all.

A memorial service will be held on August 11, 2023 at 2:00 PM at the Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole and a celebration of her life later in the fall in Manhattan.

An obituary, provided by her family, is below.

Cecily C. Selby died on July 9 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, at age 96.  She had a pathbreaking career as a researcher, educator, executive, corporate and not-for-profit Board member and enthusiastic supporter of science – and was a loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She was born in London, England, the only child of Catherine Smith and Keith Cannan, in a maternity hospital in the former home of JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan.

She leaves behind two sons Norman and Russell (and their wonderful wives, Melissa and Frances), five grandchildren (Luke, Thomas, Katie, Ali and Christina, and their spouses), three great-grandsons (Andrew, Jackson and Jasper), and many friends and former colleagues who miss her enormously.  She was predeceased by her son William, and her husbands, Henry M. Selby and James S. Coles.

Her family moved to New York in 1930 when her father was appointed a chemistry professor at NYU. So began her 93 years in New York. Her family also soon began spending summers in Woods Hole where her father could continue his science research, and where Cecily fell in love with the local science community and life in the water and on boats.

Cecily was a brilliant student, graduating from Radcliffe with a degree in physics at age 19, and a PhD in biophysics from MIT at age 23.  She returned to New York and began work at the new Sloan Kettering Institute where she did pioneering work on x-ray crystallography and electron microscopy.  She married Henry (Hank) Selby, a physician at Memorial Hospital, in 1951, and quickly had three sons.  Wanting more time to be a mother, she took a job teaching science at the Lenox School in Manhattan, and was in short order appointed headmistress, staying for 13 years. Norman, Bill and Russell all went to The Buckley School only a few blocks away, so it was a fun, close time together – and she had summers off for tennis and swimming in Westhampton Beach.

After Lenox came a major step up and out: She became National Executive Director (CEO) of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., with over 5000 employees, thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of girl members across the country. Girl Scouts increased Cecily’s visibility, so soon came invitations to join the Corporate Boards of RCA, NBC and Avon Products, as the first and/or only woman on these Boards. She was also asked to join the MIT Corporation, which made her very proud.

Cecily reoriented her life back to science education and policy after leaving Girl Scouts. She also was divorced from Hank, but soon met James (Spike) Coles, former President of Bowdoin College; they married in 1981. Spike was a scientist by training too, so in addition to living in Manhattan, they bought a house in Falmouth, bringing Cecily full circle with her youth. During this period she also joined the Boards of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), science-oriented organizations she loved. Cecily recently moved from New York into Heritage at Falmouth, an assisted living residence that took beautiful care of her.

Cecily wrote a wonderful autobiography, Opening Science for All: A Continuing Quest, available at Amazon. There will be a memorial service on August 11 at Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole and a celebration of her life later in the fall in Manhattan. Please remember her lofty aspirations, and her faith in the best of humankind. Contributions in her honor may be made to WHOI and to the Cecily Selby lab at NYSCI.