Skip to main content

Margaret W. Mayall

 A Margaret Mayall Centenary Celebration!

Margaret 
Mayall
Margaret Mayall in the old "new" AAVSO Headquarters on 187 Concord Avenue in 1969.

January 2002 marks the 100th birthday of Margaret W. Mayall, who served as the AAVSO's Director from 1949 to 1973. In honor of the occasion, we'd like to share with you some items from the AAVSO Archives. One is a delightful account, written by Margaret, of how she became involved with the AAVSO. The other is some excerpts from an exchange of letters between Margaret (who was travelling in Ireland and Iceland with her husband Newton) and her office assistant, Helen M. Stephansky. This was in August 1955-the AAVSO was in its first year as an independent organization, with its Headquarters at 4 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. At this time Margaret, her staff, and loyal supporters were working very hard to keep the AAVSO on an even keel. There are not as many of Margaret's letters in the files as Helen's, but what we have give a very interesting picture of life at AAVSO Headquarters as well as a look at the day-to-day routine in Cambridge, and noteworthy happenings-like hurricane Diane. These letters especially reveal the cheerful, go-ahead attitude which prevailed at AAVSO HQ during those difficult times.



MWM and the AAVSO

by Margaret W. Mayall, May 1978

Unlike so many of our astronomical friends, I cannot claim to have had an interest in astronomy since childhood, although I do remember having my father take me out in the early morning to see Halley's Comet, and also some brilliant displays of Northern Lights.

My intense interest was aroused by my math professor, Dr. Harter, at the University of Delaware. He encouraged me to apply for admission to Swarthmore College, where I was privileged to study astronomy under Dr. Miller and Dr. Comrie. With their help, I spent the summer of my senior year at Harvard Observatory, working with Annie J. Cannon and Harlow Shapley. After graduation I returned to Harvard, and spent many fascinating years there.

Soon after my arrival at HCO, I began to hear about a mysterious organization called AAVSO. I was delighted to learn that Annual Meetings were always held at HCO and in October I would have a chance to meet these devotees of variable stars. Excitement was high as the time drew near and we all spent many weekends helping Leon Campbell, the "Recorder," get exhibits ready, including the complete light curve of SS Cygni, which was wrapped around the pier of the 15" in the Rotunda. It was brought up-to-date each year. The day before the meeting, Mrs. Shapley invited all the "girls" to come to the Residence and help prepare food for the luncheon or high tea the Shapley's always gave on Saturday.

The fun really started when the AAVSO'ers began to arrive. The gathering of the "Old Guard" was something to witness! I will not take time to mention all the names, but they were all people never to be forgotten. I highly recommend reading Variable Comments to get the feeling of these early meetings.

Banquets were usually held at the old Bellevue Hotel in Boston. They were semi-formal affairs at which every one was prepared to be "roasted." (Incidentally, I first got acquainted with Newton at one of these dinners.)

Somehow I was always involved in AAVSO matters. Frequently Mr. Campbell would send me notes asking me to identify a variable and select a plate suitable for a new chart. Then there were many false alarms about novae. I will never forget the time our South African observer, de Kock, sent some 7th mag. estimates of RR Tel, a very faint variable. A check of the plates showed that about 2 years earlier, the star suddenly jumped from 14 to 7, and remained unnoticed until de Kock picked it up!

Early in 1949 Dr. Shapley called me into his office and to my great surprise asked me if I would consider becoming "Recorder" of the AAVSO when Mr. Campbell retired in October. It was a tough decision to make, for it would mean giving up the classification of spectra of faint stars, which I had been doing as an extension of Annie J. Cannon's Henry Draper Catalogue. Naturally, I talked it over with Newton, who was as much interested in the AAVSO as I was. The AAVSO won out, and I accepted the honor. Dr. Shapley procured a Harvard Corporation appointment for me and I was made Pickering Astronomer with the AAVSO title of "Director" instead of "Recorder." It was a decision I never regretted.

When Dr. Shapley retired, the regime at HCO changed drastically, and in 1954 we had to leave our headquarters of over 40 years, and go out on our own. It was a great struggle to keep the Association going, but with the help of many friends, we managed.

As Director of the AAVSO I spent many long hours of difficult and sometimes frustrating work, but with Newton's uncomplaining cooperation and help, the years passed quickly and happily. Now I am very glad to have Janet Mattei filling the position of Director, devotedly, in the traditional AAVSO way.


 
[Below is an exchange of air-mail letters between Margaret and her assistant at AAVSO Headquarters, Helen M. Stephansky (later Helen Stephansky Abbott), written while Margaret and her husband Newton were traveling (via tramp steamer) to Ireland for the IAU IX General Assembly in Dublin, and then home via Iceland.]

August 12, 1955
Margaret and Helen
Office assistant Helen M. Stephansky with Margaret at the AAVSO Office in Harvard College Observatory, 1952-1953.

Dear Boss & Mr. Boss:
Well, [hurricane] Connie seems to have been delayed long enough for you to get started-and it looks as though it is still too erratic to get up here until tomorrow. Now we have to watch out for "Diane"....

Total Campbell Sales = 10 Paper, 23 Vols. Cloth. I am mailing the institution list I just typed, today. If anything comes up on the printing I will see Mary....

Margaret, you left just in time-they are breaking up the old furnace (out in the alley!) and I am ready to grind my gears gritting my teeth. Also the painting has commenced, so my ears and nose are taking a beating. Phew and OUCH....

...I hope the ocean voyage was just what you both needed to perk up. I read in the paper where some famous author completed a trip around the world and said "they do more drinking in Dublin than any city I've been in." Can just see all you astronomers rolling into the meetings!!

I should go back to licking stamps.... Love to you both, Helen.



August 18, 1955:

Dear Helen,
You sure are a dear to have a letter waiting here for us. We got in yesterday a.m. to Cobb, & got through customs quite easily, but it was afternoon by the time we got up here to the hotel.

We did not open our "bon voyage" package until we were on the ship & were we delighted!!....and your card !!O!!

About the HA's. If Jackie means Miss C[annon]'s set of the Draper Cat-please try to get the whole set. They really are a priceless possession & I am sure no one at HCO cares 2 cents.... I would also like her copies of HA 28 & 50, even though they are duplicates....

We had a good trip over, but we are not too enthusiastic about Cunard service-at least not on the Mauretania. The ship is not well kept up & had rust & dirty rails even in 1st class! But we has a lot of sleep & rest-never enough though. We had good weather, until a nice storm the last day out. I hear the Britannia was delayed 16 hours. We have not been able to get any news of [hurricanes] Connie or Diane except that New York had terrific rains....Sorry about the noise and smells! Love, Margaret.



August 18, 1955:

Dear Pilgrims:
I was delighted to see your pitchers [sic] in the front row of the enclosed newspaper, with Archbishop Cushing just behind you. Tis a foine journey you musth �ave bin havin' wid so much of the Howly Warter bein' parsed around....

Two applications for membership came in. Three more orders for the book, making 34 cloth and 17 paper. No blueprints yet.

I enclose the first sheet of the Quarterly (carbon) and hope the spacing is O.K. On the first page I am leaving an extra two lines to take care of the JD MAGN OBS headings, as in the previous quarterly, although the wording probably will be different. I had the devil's own job yesterday trying to type the Q, for it is impossible not to smear the columns when rolling back, or to line them up correctly for each new column. I had to give up using the corrasable bond, for the waxy surface made an awful mess. What I finally have to do is slide in a covering strip for each column as I finish it (from the front of the typewriter, slipping it under the little rollers). It is slower, but it doesn't smear, and I am drawing a line across the top of each sheet to line the columns up on, so this first sheet will probably be done over. The following pages are much more presentable. It takes about one hour for each page, so I just go plodding along!

The typewriter man came in yesterday to line up the letters-now they are all sticking! He said to wait a week, for they "usually find their own bed," but looking at the eee ooo aaa especially, they are still out of line.

We are having tremendous amounts of rain today-courtesy of Diane, and all the square is flooded. There's a river out in the alley! (Clean-up needed anyway.) How'd I get to the bottom so fast. Back to work! Helen.



August 23, 1955:

Dear M and N:
As Mary has already written you, dear little Diane, who was "no threat" to New England, has left a trail of death and destruction that is just horrible. (I am enclosing a few pictures). Fortunately Boston and this vicinity escaped the worst of it-but after travelling around Dedham, Wellesley and the outskirts of Worcester I can't imagine what the "worst" must be like! The main roads are opened except for occasional detours now, but the small towns are having a terrible time with washouts and still rising rivers, are almost completely isolated.... But is it Connecticut and Pennsylvania that got the worst of the floods, with hundreds of lives lost and billions of dollars damage-the heartbreaking part of it is that insurance doesn't cover flood damage! There are over 34,000 families homeless at the last tally-and they must still pay their mortgages.

Well, enough of the floods, although as you can imagine it is the sole topic of conversation everywhere. I am wondering how Clint [Ford], Dick [Hamilton] and DWR [David Rosebrugh] came through it....

Thanks for your letter (the first one from Ireland); I was happy to hear you are both enjoying it all. You surprised me with the news about the shabby Mauretania; it should have been spic and span to judge by its ads! Margaret Olmsted brought down our mail yesterday (all from kids) (and I have to mimeo some more of the children's instructions, all out)....

The Quarterly typing is going very smoothly now and looks (I think) good in spite of the fussiness with the strips. I have finished 81 of your pages (just starting 4 hours, so there's a long way to go yet!). The linedex is still on the table where I left it last Friday when the radio announced an MTA car was getting through (3:30) after being idle all day. It took me two hours to get to work! We sat in the dark for 20 minutes (most people were standing!) and I am amazed that somebody didn't go off their nut with the heat and the fright. (Me) HMS

P.S. I am sure your sister is all right because Maryland missed the heavy rain. It got bad after it got into Pennsylvania. H.

Hope Newton is feeling fine and rarin' to go to Iceland! Just the sound of the name makes me wish I were going too!

Heat heat heat heat! 94� yesterday, 93� day before (humidity 99%!) It is raining again, thunderstorms, adding to the floods.



August 29, 1955:

Dear Margaret (and Newton):
Everybody had been asking how your trip was coming along, so your letter full of enthusiasm about Ireland and the people was very welcome. You will no doubt come back with a thick brogue! The meetings are well under way by this time and I imagine at this moment you are busy absorbing knowledge. Will be anxious to hear how the Variable Star Commission is conducting its sessions (we'll probably waste a week of "valuable time" catching up on things....)

Some quick news: the girl in the next office whose brother breeds tropicals is giving us some black mollies to keep the aquarium clean./ Larry Fine wants to talk to you about their new catalogue and will call again after Oct 1./ Walter Houston writes that Kansas and Okla have organized the Great Plains Astronomers; he is regional advisor and will write a bimonthly for which he wants "Margaret Mayall to write me half a page single space about three times a year on AAVSO, would like a paragraph any time by Oct. 6 for the first issue. Etc. Etc." / Book orders now 27 paper and 47 cloth// walter Reeves came to visit. Don Zahner came to visit (wants to help out on Endowment Fund and will contact Clint)// Clint says no luck yet with raising money, but is going to Rochester again over Labor Day. His mother still in hospital, unfortunately./ Joe Ashbrook called for some information about Neal, for a write-up in SkyTel // Elevator just broke down, hurray, and am MIGHTY TIRED OF TYPING Q 18! (Am only up to 7 hours-between your 10-day means and this typing we'd better install a back coffee machine and some No-Doze tablets!) Last week was visitors week, including window washer, so I am sorry to say the Q. was not very far advanced! Incidentally, the temp. has finally come down-it was 46� in Hopkinton over the weekend; but the paper says more heat heading this was from middle west. So you're on your way to Iceland Now? Love, Helen.



September 2, 1955:

Dear Folks:
How do you like Iceland???? It still sounds mighty good to us roastees of N.E. But where has the time gone! Another month and you'll be home-and how I hope your desk gets cleared off before then. Actually the mail has been very light, except for those ole debbil observations. No problems at all, so relaxxxxx....

PWW [Percy Witherell] is coming over in a few days to get the bills out, then right after that I'll start the envelopes for the notices and hope that Clint will have all the information ready by then so the mimeo work on ballots, notice, etc., can be done quickly. Cy [Fernald] suggested the notices should go out by the 24th of Sept., so will aim for that date or earlier.

The papers just announced that schools will stay closed until the 22nd because of the severe polio epidemic. About two weeks ago they thought the peak had passed, but hospitals still have 50 to 70 cases daily. The children will be overjoyed, however.

Renner's comet is still questionable-I talked to Jack at HCO and he says they sent a report out on it, but Van Biesbroeck couldn't find anything in that position. They don't know whether it was a mistake or a comet that flared up suddenly, but he is writing Rev. Renner to see if he still is observing it....

That reminds me, over the radio they announced that the Australian Scientific Industrial Research Organiz....has been receiving radio signals from Jupiter! What ????? That's all I heard, but that should boost science fiction sales....Let me know if you heard anything at the meetings about it.

This you will be delighted (?) to hear, Margaret. Mrs. Behlen has rented out still another corner of her office to some man, and he has been shouting over the phone steadily ever since. When he is not shouting over the phone, Mrs. behlen is shouting over the partition at him! Grroooaaannnnn. Just wait till Mrs. Jenks joins the happy trio. Teehee. Someone is out in the alley as usual, "!Allo Kaydullo!"

You must be getting excited about the freighter journey home. To me that sounds like the climax of the whole trip, and I hope it will be something to remember all your life! Just pleasantly exciting, that is. Best wishes, and don't forget to rest and relax and take a new lease on life after this dismal year.



Sept. 9, 1955:

Hotel Vik
Reykjavik, Iceland
Sept. 9, 1955

Hi!
I am here, but my best bean is still lost somewhere off the coast of Scotland! I arrived about 2:30 Tues. night-very groggy & found the old man at the desk knew no English but did show me to my room after I wrote myname for him. I slept until nearly noon, then went out to collect mail & was delighted to get letters from you & Mary, also Newton's Dad. I finally found my way to the steamship office to inquire when Newton's ship would arrive & learned it had developed propellor trouble about 12 hours out & turned back to some Scottish port for repairs!....

Talk about lousy weather, they say it has rained constantly for 4 months & it is still doing it. I have not seen a star yet, & several times I have seen a faint glimmer of something I thought might be the sun but 5 min later it was raining agaon. Every one wears boots & sheepskin jackets-brrrr!....

Yesterday I went out to Keflavik-a 30 mile drive over absolutely barren volcanic wasteland. A wonderful but terrible sight....Tonight I will try to write up a note for the JRASC....I had heard talk of signals from Jupiter, but sad to say that does not mean they are sent by people!! We have also had signals from many distant stars & nebulae. But I suppose S-F fans will be delighted. I have been hunting for S-F but found very little except junk....Just heard a familiar sound on the roof outside my window-it is a pigeon-did you send him up? There are very few birds here in the city, but pigeons seem to survive!....Love Margaret



September 26, 1955:

Reykjavik, Iceland
Sept. 26, 1955

Hi there!
As you see, we are still here. We began to think we might be home in time for Christmas, anyway. We are coming back on the M. S. LAGERFOSS, & she seems to be the most illusive ship at sea. She was here a week ago & we thought she would head for N.Y. but no, she went to the Northlands, instead. At noon today we discovered her back at her dock & found out we sail about 10 tonight. She takes 7 or 8 days for the trip, depending on the weather, so we shoudl reach N. Y. around Oct 4 � 2 or 3 days. Don't worry about cleaning up my desk. It will not look natural to me if you straighten it up! I wish I knew how orders for the book are coming in. If the binding order can be held up until I get back, I think it would be wise. Did you get my var. star notes OK & in time to send to the JRASC? Hope it filled up enough space, but I don't think Ruth would object to a 3-page one at times.

I hope the notice of the meeting went smoothly & you got it off in time. Did you ever hear anything from Roy Seely? Well we will see you some time next week, I hope. Love Margaret


AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 aavso@aavso.org 617-354-0484