Mary Watson Whitney

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Mary Watson Whitney

Astronomer and educator Mary Watson Whitney (1847-1921) is most noted as the successor to Maria Mitchell, professor and director of the Vassar College Observatory. Like Mitchell and other women professionals working in the academic fields of science and mathematics in the late 1800s, Whitney worked diligently on her own career and also fought to advance women's educational and professional opportunities.

The daughter of Mary Watson Crehore and Samuel Buttrick Whitney, Mary Watson Whitney was born on September 11, 1847, in Waltham, Massachusetts. The family was among New England's oldest settlers and were able to trace their roots to 1635. Whitney was the second of five children. Her father was a real estate broker, and his professional success and encouragement of intellectual pursuits enabled her and her four siblings access to a good education. This was unusual, for women were typically discouraged from attaining any education during this era.

Educated Despite Gender Obstacles

Whitney reportedly loved to study and excelled in mathematics. Graduating from high school in 1864, she became interested in a college for women that was to be opened in New York's Hudson Valley by Matthew Vassar. Whitney spent a year waiting for the women's college to open, during which time she attended a Swedenborgian school located in Waltham, registering there as a private student. When Vassar College opened its doors in Poughkeepsie, New York, in September of 1865, Whitney attended with her father's blessing. She was given advanced standing upon her entrance to the college. Eager to embark on her education in astronomy, she studied with Maria Mitchell, the preeminent American woman astronomer of her day.

"Her superiority and interest endeared her to the older woman and she became one of her most cherished pupils," explained Caroline E. Furness, Whitney's eventual successor, in an essay published in the Dictionary of American Biography. "Whitney was much admired by her fellow students and recognized as a leader. Several times she served as president of their newly formed organizations. Her fine presence, good judgment and impartiality made her an excellent presiding officer, while her modesty and kindness of heart won their devoted affection." Mitchell, as a perceptive judge of people, "must have recognized very quickly the superior ability and earnest purpose of this gifted young woman," Furness added in Popular Astronomy, going on to note of Mitchell that, "In later years, she frequently said she did not know which was her greatest feat: to discover the comet which made her famous or to find Mary Whitney."

Continued Studies in Astronomy, Mathematics

Whitney graduated from Vassar in 1868 after completing her astronomy degree in three years' time. Second in her class, she graduated with distinction in the fields of both astronomy and physical science. Rather than continue her astronomy studies, she was forced to return home because, with the deaths of both her father and older brother, her mother now needed her. Whitney briefly taught school in Auburndale, Massachusetts, to help support her family and continued spending as much time as possible furthering her studies of mathematics and astronomy.

In August of 1869 Whitney was invited to join Mitchell and her students to view a total solar eclipse in Iowa. Whitney took with her on this trip a three-inch telescope which was reportedly made especially for this occasion. Observations she and Mitchell made appeared in the Nautical Almanac Office official report. She also worked with Mitchell in 1872 on a project designed to accurately determine the latitude of the Vassar College observatory.

Mitchell was able to convince noted Harvard mathematician Benjamin Peirce to allow Whitney to audit his course on quaternions. At that time the Harvard University campus was not open to women; Peirce had to physically escort Whitney between the classroom and the college gates for each and every lecture. She later was able to participate in a graduate-level astronomy course on celestial mechanics and began working with Truman H. Safford at the Dearborn Observatory of the University of Chicago in 1870.

Professor Ormand Stone was a private pupil studying with Safford when he met Whitney with Mitchell's other charges in Safford's home. "As a young woman Miss Whitney was attractive and handsome, gentle and refined, affable but dignified," he was quoted as writing by Furness in Popular Astronomy. "In after life I had only glimpses of her at scientific gatherings, but she always seemed to retain the beauty of feature, manner and character that she had in those earlier days, the only difference being that beauty of maturity replaced beauty of youth."

Whitney was awarded her master's degree from Vassar in 1872. A year later, when her sister entered medical school in Zurich, Switzerland, the family accompanied her. Whitney was able to study mathematics and celestial mechanics at the University of Zurich for three years.

Frustrated by Search for Work

When she returned to the United States in 1876 Whitney was unable to find a job teaching university-level courses—or any job, for that matter, in which she could use her knowledge and advanced education. She was a woman, and women who taught were expected to do so in women's colleges. Whitney opted to teach at her high school alma mater, a job broken by periodic requests by Mitchell to help perform various research tasks. According to Furness, these years of frustration were "perhaps the least satisfactory" to Whitney, as "Her forward looking student days were over." With limited options, "she chafed at the blank wall of prejudice that faced her and came to use a homely expression which often fell from her lips in later years. 'I hope that when I get to heaven I shall not find the women playing second fiddle.' "

Replaced Mitchell at Vassar

Whitney ultimately returned to Vassar as Mitchell's private assistant in 1881, as Mitchell was in failing health. Whitney was initially responsible for establishing research programs, while Mitchell continued to teach and focused on getting additional equipment for the school. Whitney succeeded Mitchell as professor of astronomy and director of the observatory when Mitchell retired in 1888, having been specifically requested as Mitchell's replacement.

Whitney's sister became an invalid just as Whitney took her post at Vassar, and Whitney cared for her in her new home at the observatory. Despite this, Whitney flourished in her position, developing a reputation as an excellent teacher as well as a patient and inspirational mentor. She was made a full professor of astronomy in 1889 and by 1906 there were 160 students enrolled in eight different astronomy courses. Vassar was one of the first institutions to teach subjects including astrophysics and variable stars to its undergraduate students, and Whitney also created a fine reputation for the school's observatory, particularly for the caliber and accuracy of research conducted there. Althogh her sister and mother died during her tenure, she went on with her work.

Whitney employed her mathematics skills in her observations of comets and asteroids, then calculated their orbits, publishing her findings in the Astronomical Journal. With information from Vassar's observatory as well as data from the newly opened Smith College Observatory, she was able to study double and variable stars, the latter being those stars whose brightness changes over a fixed period. Whitney was among the most important researchers on the topic at this time and her work was favorably and frequently acknowledged by her peers in the field.

Research Led to Numerous Published Papers

With the development of technology that enabled accurate measurements of stars to be recorded on photographic plates, Whitney was able to conduct research on plates from other observatories. She subsequently arranged with Columbia University to study and measure their photographic plates made by Lewis Rutherford of star clusters in 1896.

In 1894 Whitney hired Caroline Furness as her teaching and research assistant, paying the younger astronomer with her own money. Once students had completed their use of the equipment in the observatory, typically about 10 p.m., Whitney and Furness used the gear for their own work into the early morning hours. By 1905 she and Furness had published a catalog containing all stars located within two degrees of the North Pole. Whitney charted positions of comets and asteroids as well and eventually concentrated on studying variable stars, novae, and photometry. All together, Whitney published more than 70 papers on various astronomy topics in journals in both the United States and Germany. "Her research work was marked by accuracy and thoroughness," recalled Furness. "As a teacher she was noted for her clearness in explaining difficult mathematical points and for the vividness and elegance with which she presented the more descriptive topics. Many students elected her courses merely to come in contact with her personality. As a member of the faculty, she was highly esteemed for her soundness of judgment and her progressive ideas. As a scholar she was a constant stimulus to her younger colleagues. She read extensively on political and philosophical topics, and had highly developed tastes in literature and music."

Varied Interests Outside Career

Throughout her life Whitney continually strove to better educational opportunities for women. One of her goals was to demonstrate women's capabilities in the fields of scientific research, and at Vassar she cultivated those students with the potential to achieve professional success in positions at observatories throughout the United States. She was active in a variety of organizations, including the Vassar Alumnae Association and the Association for the Advancement of Women, and was a charter member of the American Astronomical Society and several other organizations devoted to science education. Whitney was also a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and president of the Maria Mitchell Association of Nantucket.

Among her hobbies were nature study, especially bird watching. Whitney reportedly was also interested in poetry, particularly American poets. She also wrote verse for her own enjoyment or when pressed to do so by her companions. Not surprisingly, her favorite writers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William Wordsworth as well as Shakespeare. She reportedly liked to take turns reading aloud with friends while sewing. She also read philosophical and religious works such as sermons.

Whitney retired from her post at Vassar in 1910 following a stroke that spring that left her paralyzed and in a semi-invalid condition and died of pneumonia in her hometown of Waltham, Massachusetts, on January 21, 1921. Furness succeeded her in her position at Vassar.


American Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary, ABC-CLIO, 1994.

Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.

Notable Women Scientists, Gale, 2000.

Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, 1986.


Popular Astronomy, January 1922; January 1923.


Whitney Research Group Web site, 28, 2003). □

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