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Whiting, Sarah Frances

Sarah Frances Whiting

American astronomer, physicist, and educator Sarah Frances Whiting (1847–1927) was a pioneer for women in the world of science. Her work at Wellesley College paved the way for generations of physicists and astronomers to follow in her extraordinary footsteps.

Early Life

Sarah Frances Whiting was born August 23, 1847, in Wyoming, New York. Her parents were Joel Whiting and Elizabeth Lee (Comstock) Whiting; her mother's heritage included seventeenth-century settlers of Connecticut and Long Island and her father's lineage traced to pioneers in Vermont. Her father was a highly educated and decidedly enlightened man untainted by the sexist stereotypes of his time. He graduated from Hamilton College and acted as both principle and teacher in various academies in New York state. He taught physics (called Natural Philosophy at the time) and mathematics. Whiting's passion for and interest in science began at an early age. She loved helping her father set up scientific experiments for his classes, and he tutored her at home in experimental science, mathematics, Greek, and Latin. Whiting was a devoted learner and knew Greek at age 8 and Latin by age 10.

Education and Career

The instruction and encouragement of her father prepared her well for her own advanced education. Whiting entered Ingham University in Le Roy, New York, and graduated from that institution with a bachelor's degree at the age of 18 in 1865. She taught the Classics and Mathematics at Ingham for a time and later taught the same subjects at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls. In her spare time, Whiting attended scientific lectures, demonstrations, and lab exhibitions that chronicled new advances and developments in theories and equipment. Whiting was well-liked and professionally admired as a teacher. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary stated, "She became known as an enthusiastic and effective teacher who showed great ingenuity in improvising apparatus for her lectures and shared with her students her excitement over new discoveries." In 1875, Henry F. Durant—the founder of the newly established all-female institution Wellesley College in Massachusetts—approached Whiting about taking a position as the Professor of Physics on Wellesley's all-female faculty. Durant sought her out because her reputation and experience as a scientist was unrivaled by any other woman at that time. She accepted the offer and became Wellesley College's first physics professor in 1876.

In 1877 Durant put Whiting in contact with Professor Edward Pickering, an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the director of Harvard College's Observatory. She was invited to MIT to observe the undergraduate physics labs there and to attend physics classes. She visited and observed, attending science classes that were otherwise closed to women, for two years. In 1878 she used the information she had gathered to establish, equip, and operate an undergraduate physics lab at Wellesley, the only one of its kind in the country for women, and second only to the labs she had studied at MIT. Whiting did all the work herself, researching equipment, connecting with manufacturers in Europe to purchase what the lab needed, and finally installing all the equipment without outside assistance.

In 1879 Pickering invited Whiting to visit the Harvard College Observatory and study some of the newest technology being used for astronomical investigations at that time, particularly the field of spectroscopy, which allowed for the observation of the patterns of spectra (lines and bands) that form when light is sent through a prism. This experience showed her how to apply theories she had heard when attending a lecture by noteworthy British physicist John Tyndall and inspired her to pursue the integration of astronomy into the Wellesley curriculum. She created and taught the first class in astronomy at Wellesley in 1880 under the heading of "Applied Physics." Teaching the class brought home to Whiting what a necessary and invaluable tool an observatory was. "For two decades," Notable American Women 1607–1950 noted, "she taught astronomy with only a celestial globe and a 4-inch portable telescope." Ever eager for a new challenge, Whiting set herself the task of having an observatory installed at Wellesley. The funding needs for the project were met by a Wellesley trustee and friend to Whiting, Mrs. John C. Whitin. The Observatory was to be built by converting an organ loft and top story living quarters on the fifth floor of Wellesley's College Hall. Whiting drew up the plans for the facility which, as recorded by Notable American Women 1607–1950, "housed a 12-inch refracting telescope with spectroscope and photometer attachment, a transit instrument, and the usual accessories." Once again, as with the undergraduate physics lab, Whiting did most of the work herself. According to the American National Biography, Whiting designed equipment herself and also worked with local artisans and traveled throughout New England to order equipment and books. The Whitin Observatory—named after its benefactress and built of white marble to pay homage to the names of the two women who made it happen—was officially opened and established in 1900.

Whiting worked alone for most of her career, although she did receive an assistant for her duties at Wellesley in 1885—much needed considering that she handled everything from purchasing to teaching and administration of the Physics Department. She spent her sabbaticals traveling all over the world to visit scientific facilities and participate in seminars and classes. From 1888 to 1889 she went to Germany and studied briefly at the University of Berlin, followed by time spent in England observing laboratories and visiting noted scientists in her fields. In 1896 she traveled to Scotland and enrolled in the prestigious Edinburgh University—newly opened to women—to study with leading physicist Peter Guthrie Tait. In addition to being a pioneer in the education of women, Whiting also broke new ground by participating in and even founding academic groups and being accepted into all-male scientific societies. She was one of very few female members of the American Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society and was invited to join the New England Meteorological Society as its only female member. This honor led her to introduce a class in meteorology at Wellesley. As Notable Women in the Physical Sciences explained, "She purchased an anemometer, thermometers, rain gauges, and other equipment. For ten years there was no weather station in the area, so she became a voluntary observer and her students collected data from the instruments and submitted it to the U.S. Weather Bureau." Whiting was also a forerunner in the study of the newly discovered "X rays." American National Biography explained, "In 1895, when American newspapers reported the discovery of X rays, Whiting immediately set up an old Crookes tube and took some of the first photographs in the United States of bones underneath flesh and of coins in a purse."

Retired from Wellesley

While at home teaching at Wellesley, Whiting lived on campus with her unmarried sister Elizabeth P. Whiting. They lived in dormitories and campus housing until 1906 when they moved into Observatory House that was built next to the Observatory facility—thanks to another generous donation compliments of Mrs. Whitin. The Whiting sisters had reputations as warm, gracious hostesses, and Sarah—a stanch prohibitionist and Congregationalist—was very active in the Wellesley College Christian Association's missionary programs. In 1905 Whiting was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Tufts College, some felt to recognize the caliber of degree that she should have received from Ingham in 1865. She retired from the Physics Department at Wellesley in 1912 to pursue astronomy full time. Four years later, in 1916, she stepped down as director of the Whitin Observatory and spent her remaining years living with her sister in Massachusetts. Whiting died at the age of 80 of arteriosclerosis and nephritis in the home she shared with her sister in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1927.

Although Whiting was a brilliant researcher and scientist herself, she was most passionately involved in teaching science to others. She was a prolific writer of educational literature, and her collection of scientific exercises titled Daytime and Evening Exercises in Astronomy (1912) proved invaluable to future science teachers. She single-handedly instructed and prepared generations of female scientists, most notably the astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, who later became famous in her own right. Scholars and critics agree that Sarah Whiting's contributions to the world of science, and the world of women, have been both significant and long-lasting. American National Biography noted, "Whiting's lifelong commitment to teaching women physics and astronomy, her enthusiasm for the experimental method, and her establishment of the first physics laboratory for women in the United States helped generations of women practice and understand science. Through these accomplishments, Whiting stands as one of the pioneers of science education for women."


American National Biography, Volume 23, Oxford University Press, 1999.

American Women in Science, ABC–CLIO, Inc., 1994.

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science, Volume 2, Routledge, 2000.

The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.

A Dictionary of North American Authors Deceased Before 1950, Gale Research, 1968.

Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 3, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Notable Women in the Physical Sciences, Greenwood Press, 1997.

Notable Women Scientists, Gale Group, Inc., 1999.

Who Was Who in America, Volume 1, Marquis Who's Who, Inc., 1966.

The Women's Book of World Records and Achievements, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979.

Women's Firsts, Gale Research, 1997.


"Sarah F. Whiting," 4000 Years of Women in Science, (January 14, 2004).

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