Faculty image Patricia S. Whitesell Director & Curator University of Michigan Detroit Observatory

Patricia S. Whitesell, Ph.D., director and curator of the University of Michigan Detroit Observatory and adjunct lecturer in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, will retire from active faculty status on August 31, 2005. 

Dr. Whitesell received her B.A. degree from Olivet College in 1972 and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan in 1980 and 1994, respectively. Since joining the University of Michigan in 1973, she has held a number of academic and administrative positions, culminating in her appointment in 1998 to the newly created position of director and curator of the Detroit Observatory. She was appointed adjunct lecturer in museology in 2000. 

The Detroit Observatory has undergone significant transformation under the guidance of Dr. Whitesell. Her exemplary work on its restoration led to several awards, including the Restoration Project of the Year Award from the City of Ann Arbor, the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History, and the Preservation Award from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. She is also recognized for the creation of the Detroit Observatory Museum and Library, which is housed within the observatory building. This project involved assisting with researching and locating artifacts, establishing permanent loan arrangements, creating a registration database, and designing and installing exhibits. 

Dr. Whitesell has lectured to numerous classes on topics related to the history and restoration of the Detroit Observatory and other early observatories, directed field experiences, and participated in faculty mentoring programs. She has published articles in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, as well as several books, including A Creation of His Own: Tappan's Detroit Observatory. The numerous honors she has received include the Herbert C. Pollock Award, a fellowship in the Arts of Citizenship Program, and a certificate of recognition from the History and Traditions Committee. She is a member of the American Astronomical Society, the Antique Telescopes Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Washtenaw County Historical Society, among other organizations. 

The Regents now salute this distinguished faculty member for her dedication and commitment by naming Patricia S. Whitesell director and curator emerita of the Detroit Observatory.

Regents' Proceedings, May 19, 2005 


Patricia S. Whitesell Obituary

Patricia Whitesell, director and curator emerita of the U-M Detroit Observatory, died peacefully at home on July 30, following a three-year struggle with cancer

Known to friends and colleagues as "Sandy," Whitesell began working at the University in 1973. Her appointments included service as director of financial aid in the Law School, and as assistant to the vice president for research. 

She was a graduate of Olivet College. While working full time she also earned masters' and doctoral degrees from the U-M School of Education. Her dissertation won the Leo and Margaret Goodman-Malamuth award from the American Association of University Administrators.

While serving with the former Vice President for Research Homer Neal, Whitesell developed a proposal to restore the University's Detroit Observatory. Despite its status as one of the oldest surviving buildings on the Ann Arbor campus, the structure was in poor condition. Walking through the 1854 building, which overlooks the University's Medical Campus, Whitesell's enthusiasm for this important piece of University history greatly impressed Neal, who later recalled, he "saw the rooms light up, even though the lights had not been turned on. It was Sandy—glowing." 

In 1994 Whitesell began her award-winning, four-year restoration of the observatory, eventually writing a book on the project, all while continuing to work in the vice president's office. Her study of the personalities and events surrounding the observatory's history led her to sympathize with former University President Henry Philip Tappan, who remarked: "I cannot speak of the observatory without emotion. No one will deny that it was a creation of my own." She regularly pointed out that the observatory was the earliest manifestation of the research university U-M has become today.

In 1998 Whitesell was appointed to the newly created position of director and curator of the Detroit Observatory. Under her leadership, the building served as a center for 19th century and museum studies, highlighting such accomplishments as the discovery of 21 minor planets and two comets using the observatory's telescopes. She inaugurated a schedule of open houses that enabled the public to see this historic structure and all of its equipment.

In addition to her contributions to scholarly journals on the history of observatories, Whitesell authored a series of articles on U-M history for the University Record ("The Historical Record"), and in 2000 began to share her experiences in exhibit creation and historic preservation as an adjunct lecturer in museology. Her research interests included the history of higher education, 19th century astronomy, the history of telescopes and other scientific instruments, museum studies, historic preservation, ornithology, and natural history. 

When ill health forced her early retirement in 2005, responsibilities for the Detroit Observatory passed to the Bentley Historical Library. At that time Whitesell noted "I will miss the observatory more than I can express. It was a great privilege to serve the University in this way—an opportunity of a lifetime." 

Whitesell was born on in Ann Arbor, March 22, 1950. She is survived by her husband, John Wolfe, parents Don and Patricia Whitesell, and siblings Kathy DePew, and Ann, Steven, and David Whitesell. 

The University Record
—Submitted by Francis X. Blouin and Karen Wight, Bentley Historical Library


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