Brina Kessel


As a child, Brina Kessel loved birds, and she turned that passion into a career that made her a nationally recognized ornithologist. 

Kessel sought and secured a biology instructor's position at the University of Alaska in 1951 after becoming fascinated with tundra. She retired 48 years later. 

Kessel's early adventures in Alaska included a 1956 stay with Olaus and Margaret Murie at their Sheenjek River camp, a visit chronicled in Margaret's bestselling book, "Two in the Far North."

Kessel advanced rapidly at UA, where she became head of the Biology Department in 1957 and dean of the College of Biological Sciences and Renewable Resources in 1962. After serving in various capacities, she turned to museum work in 1980. The American Ornithologists' Union elected Kessel its national president from 1992 to 1994.

Kessel grew up on a farm in Connecticut. She attributed her early interest in ornithology to bird-watching hikes with her father, an English professor. Her mother earned a master's in entomology at Cornell University, where Kessel earned her doctorate.

Kessel's family had a long tradition of academic work. Her grandfather was James McKeen Cattell, a prominent psychologist who published Science magazine for almost 50 years after buying it from Alexander Graham Bell. Cattell helped found the American Association of University Professors and was known for his defense of academic freedom.

That background seemed ironic, according to author Dan O'Neill, because Kessel herself became embroiled in a dispute over academic freedom at UAF in the early 1960s.

The Atomic Energy Commission in the late 1950s proposed Project Chariot, a plan to blast a harbor in Northwest Alaska using hydrogen bombs. The AEC contracted with the university to study the local environment. Kessel, as biology dean, supervised the researchers, including Les Viereck and William Pruitt. She was unhappy with the way in which they used the research to publicly criticize the project, as O'Neill documented in "The Firecracker Boys," his 1994 book about Project Chariot. Viereck resigned and Pruitt was fired after they objected to the AEC's characterization of their results and publicly questioned the agency's conclusions. 

The AEC dropped Project Chariot in late 1962, but the controversy lingered at UAF for decades.

Upon her retirement in 1999, Kessel was granted emeritus status as a dean, professor and museum curator. Several years earlier, her friends established the Brina Kessel Medal for Excellence in Science, an annual award for undergraduate science students at UAF.

Kessel died on March 1, 2016, in Fairbanks.

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