Whitney, Mary Watson (1847–1921)

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Whitney, Mary Watson (1847–1921)

American astronomy teacher at Vassar College who was a protégé of Maria Mitchell . Born Mary Watson Whitney on September 11, 1847, in Waltham, Massachusetts; died on January 20, 1921, in Waltham; daughter of Samuel Buttrick Whitney and Mary Watson (Crehore) Whitney; attended Waltham public schools; Vassar College, B.A., 1868, A.M., 1872; attended lectures at Harvard and the University of Zurich; never married; no children.

Taught in Auburndale, Massachusetts (1868); was on staff at Dearborn Observatory, Chicago (1870); taught at Waltham High School (1876); was assistant at Vassar College Observatory (1881–88); was professor of astronomy and director of observatory at Vassar (1888–1910).

Selected writings:

Observations of Variable Stars made During the Years 1901–12 (1913); "Scientific Study and Work for Women," in Education (Vol. 3, 1882, pp. 58–69); numerous other observations of comets, asteroids and variable stars.

Mary Watson Whitney, favorite student of Maria Mitchell , dedicated most of her life to educating women at Vassar College. Whitney was born in 1847, in Waltham, Massachusetts, the eldest daughter of Samuel Buttrick Whitney, a successful real estate dealer, and Mary Crehore Whitney . Mary excelled as a student in the Waltham public schools and, after graduating from high school, attended the Swedenborgian Academy in Waltham for one year while Vassar College was being established. She entered Vassar as an advanced student in 1865, its inaugural year.

At Vassar, Whitney studied astronomy under Maria Mitchell, the noted woman astronomer, and became Mitchell's protégé. After graduating in 1868, Whitney taught and worked at the Dearborn Observatory in Chicago, both briefly. She kept up her own observing and joined Mitchell for a solar eclipse expedition in Iowa. Whitney also continued her education, first by attending classes at Harvard and then receiving her A.M. from Vassar in 1872.

Whitney and her family moved to Zurich in 1873, where her sister entered medical school and Whitney attended lectures at the University of Zurich. After returning to Waltham in 1876, she taught at the high school until she was summoned by her former teacher to return to Vassar as Mitchell's assistant, a position she would hold until Mitchell's retirement in 1888. When Mitchell recommended that Whitney be named her successor, Whitney became the second astronomy professor in Vassar's history and director of the Observatory.

Whereas Mitchell had stressed teaching, Whitney stressed research, directing observing programs in double stars, comet and asteroid measurements, and variable star observations. "Professor means more than teacher," said Whitney; "it means special application and experience, and a knowledge extending beyond books. A professor is not only leader in the classroom, [she] is a co-worker in the front-ranks of thought." Her students would be hired by major American observatories upon graduation. Mary Watson Whitney was deeply committed to women's education, as reflected in her involvement with the Vassar Alumnae Association, the Association for the Advancement for Women and the Maria Mitchell Association of Nantucket. She was also a charter member of the American Astronomical Society.

Poor health forced Whitney's retirement from Vassar in 1910. She died of pneumonia in her hometown of Waltham on January 21, 1920. She is reported to have said on her deathbed: "I hope when I get to Heaven, I shall not find the women playing second fiddle."


Furness, Caroline E. "Mary Watson Whitney," in Malone, Dumas, ed., Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 20. NY: Scribner, 1936.

——. "Mary W. Whitney," in Popular Astronomy. Vols. XXX and XXXI, 1922 and 1923, pp. 597–608, pp. 25–35.

Wright, Helen. "Mary Watson Whitney," in James, Edward T., ed., Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Kristine Larsen , Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut

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