Doris Nettleman Stifel, 1924-2013: ‘Butterfly Lady’ helped map monarchs’ lives

Doris Nettleman Stifel holds a case with female and male monarchs and, at bottom, a viceroy butterfly.
Doris Nettleman Stifel holds a case with female and male monarchs and, at bottom, a viceroy butterfly.

Doris Nettleman Stifel, Toledo’s Butterfly Lady, who was recognized internationally as an expert on the migration of monarchs — and who single-handedly tagged tens of thousands — died Thursday in Swan Creek Care Center. She was 89.

She learned in February that she had pancreatic cancer, her niece Dorothy Harper said, but she was ill only in recent weeks.

“She had two really good months. It was mind over matter,” her niece said.

Mrs. Stifel, formerly of West Toledo, moved to Swan Creek Retirement Village about five years ago.

Before Duke Wheeler opened the Butterfly House near Whitehouse in 2001 as a showcase and sanctuary, he consulted with Mrs. Stifel. She continued to train staff.

“She had so much enthusiasm and knowledge,” Mr. Wheeler said. “She was our guiding light for years.”

Mrs. Stifel was a career scientist who’d aspired to be a physician, but her interest in nature dated from childhood summers spent at her family’s Evans Lake cottage in southeast Michigan’s Irish Hills. In the 1970s, she read about a Cleveland Museum of Natural History field trip on how to tag Danaus plexippus — the monarch butterfly. She bought a membership that day and within weeks was teaching field-trip participants.

It was only in the early 1970s that researchers from the north confirmed wintering sites in Mexico for the eastern North American monarch. A decade later, monarchs that had been tagged on Kelleys Island were found in central Texas and central Mexico, establishing that monarchs fly a Great Lakes-to-Mexico migratory pattern.

Mrs. Stifel was a dogged tagger of monarchs, roaming the Lake Erie shore with a butterfly net to catch and then affix a numbered bit of paper to a wing. In 1986, she attracted international attention with the recovery in Mexico of two monarchs tagged months earlier, and 1,500 miles away, in an eastern Lucas County clover field. Until then, no other monarch researcher was credited with more than one recovery, even though thousands were tagged every fall. In the next two years, her reputation soared as monarchs she tagged continued to be found elsewhere — in Mexico, but also Indiana and Kentucky. She raised as many as 600 monarchs a summer from eggs, tagged them, and released them.

“The more we know about nature, the more we should know about our way of living,” Mrs. Stifel told The Blade in 1996.

She recruited others to her cause, teaching them about the monarch and how to tag. She campaigned against pesticides and the frequent mowing of ditch and roadside vegetation, which she said contributed to a decline in butterfly activity.

She also was a birder and a volunteer bald eagle nest watcher for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. She’d been a board and executive committee member of the Nature Conservancy’s Ohio chapter.

“She was an individualist,” her niece said. “She was not interested in clothes. She would get her hair cut in a bowl cut. She didn’t wear makeup. She was interesting and full of knowledge and wanting to teach and give her enthusiasm to anyone she met.”

Mrs. Stifel said in 1995, walking among the milkweed in search of monarch eggs, “I get a kick out of it too. School buses have gone by, and the children stick their head out the window and yell, ‘Hey, Butterfly Lady!’ ”

She was named naturalist of the year in 1995 by the Toledo Naturalists’ Association. In 2006, a gazebo to house the monarch project at Maumee Bay State Park was named in her honor.

She was born Feb. 24, 1924, to Dorothy and Donald Nettleman. A 1941 graduate of Scott High School, she received a bachelor of science degree in 1945 from the University of Toledo. After graduation, she was hired as a UT biology instructor. She took graduate courses, but left behind pursuit of a medical career when her mother had a stroke. She later was a research chemist for Owens-Ilinois Inc., retiring in 1983 after more than 20 years.

She married Dr. John Stifel, a prominent Toledo physician, in September, 1962. After the wedding, the couple stayed in the New York apartment of John D. Biggers, president of the Libbey-Owens-Ford Co. Dr. Stifel died in September, 1965.

She traveled the world and visited both poles. She took up hot-air ballooning in her 70s.

“She was someone who would fit in high society and sleep on the floor of the Amazon in a sleeping bag,” her niece said.

Surviving is her brother, Dr. William Nettleman.

Services will be at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Coyle Funeral Home, where the family will receive friends after 1 p.m. The family suggests tributes to the Butterfly House or Swan Creek Retirement Village.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: or 419-724-6182.