Astronomer, Arts Patron

Jaylee Mead, MA '54

January/February 2013

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Astronomer, Arts Patron

Photo: Courtesy NASA

Jaylee Mead became a lover of the performing arts in a roundabout way. A mathematician and astronomer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, she was one of the first female professionals hired by NASA. It was there that she met her husband, the late Gilbert Mead, a geophysicist. Together, the scientists became two of Washington, D.C.'s most celebrated performing arts patrons.

Barbara Jaylee Mead, MA '54, died September 14 at her home in Washington, D.C., of congestive heart failure. She was 83.

Mead earned her bachelor's degree in math at what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. At Stanford she completed a master's degree in education. While working for the state department in Washington, D.C., she was recruited by NASA and earned a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University in 1970.

At Goddard, Mead rose quickly through the ranks, becoming assistant chief of the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics, coordinator of the International Explorer's Regional Data-Analysis Facilities, and associate chief of the Space Data and Computing Center. Among her greatest accomplishments was the establishment of the Goddard Astronomical Data Center, a computerized database of stars and galaxies used by astronomers to identify new celestial bodies.

"At that time, all knowledge was still in books," says Sara Heap, a retired astronomer who was a close colleague of Mead's in the 1970s. "Jaylee converted everything into a computerized database so that Goddard was at the forefront of the digital age." Heap remembers Mead as an excellent scientist and a true friend. "At one point, I had a 2 a.m. shift to look at stars and galaxies in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum. Jaylee and her husband lived near Goddard, and I didn't, so I would go to their apartment for dinner and then go to bed there, and Jaylee would wake me up and take me to the observatory."

The Meads discovered their love of theater while participating in Goddard's Music and Drama (MAD) productions. As two of the most generous arts philanthropists in Washington, they donated more than $50 million to local theaters including the Studio Theatre and Arena Stage, which helped transform rundown neighborhoods into lively cultural hot spots. The latter was renamed the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater after Gilbert Mead's death in 2007 in recognition of the couple's $35 million in gifts and matching pledges.

In addition to her husband of 39 years, Mead was predeceased by a stepson, Robert. She is survived by stepchildren Betsy, Diana and Stanton Mead; five grandchildren; and a sister, Mary Watts.

Julie Muller Mitchell, '79, is a writer in San Francisco.

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