Susan Jane Cunningham

Quick Info

23 March 1842
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
24 January 1921
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, USA

Susan Jane Cunningham was a mathematician and astronomer who founded the Mathematics and Astronomy Departments at Swarthmore College. She was one of the first seven women to join the New York Mathematical Society in 1891.


Susan Jane Cunningham was the daughter of Edward Lloyd Cunningham and Elizabeth H Hollingsworth. Elizabeth was a Quaker from a large Quaker family of farmers. Edward and Elizabeth were married on 5 September 1838 at Harford, Maryland, USA. They had three children: Elizabeth Caroline Cunningham (born 17 November 1839), Susan Jane Cunningham (born 23 March 1842, the subject of this biography), and Robert Hollingsworth Cunningham (born 23 May 1844). We have not been able to determine exactly what happened around 1845 but certainly tragedy struck the family soon after Robert was born. The biographical sketch of Susan Cunningham written in 1893, when she was about 50 years old, states [22]:-
Her mother died in 1845, and Susan was left to the care of her grandparents.
In [7], however, it states that Elizabeth H Cunningham died on 12 March 1861. The picture of her tombstone on [7] does not allow one to confirm this date since the stone is too covered with moss. We can find no record of either Edward Lloyd Cunningham or Elizabeth H Cunningham in either the 1850 or 1860 US census. The three children certainly moved from Baltimore to Harford, Maryland, being registered at the Little Falls Meeting House in Fallston, Harford. Elizabeth Caroline Cunningham and Susan Jane Cunningham are both recorded as "From Baltimore 7 December 1847. Minor," while Robert Hollingsworth Cunningham is recorded as "From Baltimore 4 January 1848. Minor."

The 1850 US Census, records Susan Jane Cunningham and her two siblings as living with their maternal grandparents Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Hollingsworth in Harford, Maryland in one of four adjacent houses each with a farmer Hollingsworth as the head. These four heads are John Hollingsworth, Ely Hollingsworth, Nathaniel Hollingsworth and Robert Taylor Hollingsworth. We will explain how they are related. Susan Jane's mother Elizabeth H Hollingsworth was the daughter of Robert Taylor Hollingsworth (1784-1863) and his wife Elizabeth West (1792-1861). Robert Taylor Hollingsworth was the son of Nathaniel C Hollingsworth (1755-1834) and Abigail Green (1759-1846). Robert Taylor Hollingsworth's siblings included John Hollingsworth (1805-1874), Ely Hollingsworth (1793-1879) and Nathaniel Hollingsworth (1801-1851). The three Cunningham children, Caroline, Susan and Robert, are living with Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Hollingsworth. The two youngest of Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Hollingsworth's children, Rebecca Hollingsworth (aged 18) and Charles Hollingsworth (aged 17, already working as a farmer), are also living in the house.

The Hollingsworth families were very involved with the Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends. The Little Falls Friends Meeting House, where the three Cunningham children were registered, had been constructed in 1843 on the east side of the Old Fallston Road in Fallston, Harford County, Maryland. It replaced an earlier smaller Meeting House built in 1773. Also on the site was the Friends Cemetery, where Susan's mother Elizabeth H Cunningham is buried, and a Friends School. It was at the Friends School that Susan Cunningham began her education. When she was fifteen years old, her grandparents thought that she should train to be a teacher and she was sent to a Friends' Boarding School in Montgomery county. This Friends' Boarding School, called Woodlawn, had been established by Samuel and Anna Thomas in 1816. After a year at the boarding school, however, her grandparents needed her to return to Harford to help them, so Susan returned and completed her schooling at the Friends School there.

When the 1860 US Census was held on 1 June, Susan was eighteen years old. There were still four houses in the farming community with a farmer member of the Hollingsworth family at its head. Susan was living with her grandparents Robert and Elizabeth Hollingsworth, aged 76 and 68 respectively. The only other person in the house was Susan's younger brother Robert H Cunningham aged sixteen. Two of grandparents' children, Jane Hollingsworth and Rebecca Hollingsworth, had died in 1842 and 1859 respectively. Susan's grandfather died in 1863 and her grandmother in 1868. At the time of the 1860 US Census, Susan was not working but, in the following year, when she was nineteen years old, she began teaching at the local Friends School.

Cunningham spent the year 1866-67 studying at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. This women's college had opened in 1865 and the first faculty appointment had been the astronomer Maria Mitchell. Mitchell had never had a college education but had become famous by discovering a comet in 1847. Two years later she had accepted a research position as a computer with the U.S. Coast Survey. At Vassar College she was appointed as director of the Vassar College Observatory and taught mathematics and astronomy. She was an inspirational teacher and Cunningham became one of the first of many women to be encouraged by Mitchell to have a career in mathematics and astronomy. Cunningham did not matriculate at Vassar College but rather spent the year there as a "special student" which provided the opportunity for students to expand their experiences and advance their career.

After the year at Vassar College, Cunningham returned to teaching mathematics at a Friends School. Two years later, however, she was appointed as an Instructor in Mathematics at Swarthmore College in the year the College opened and teaching began there. This College had been founded by the Society of Friends in 1864 and Cunningham was initially given a one year contract to teach mathematics to the first class which began studies in 1869. In fact she spent the whole of her career at Swarthmore College teaching mathematics and astronomy until she retired in 1906. We have seen that she had only one year of studies of higher education but during her time on the faculty at Swarthmore she spent many summers studying in the leading observatories.

The Harvard College Observatory had been established in 1839 with William Cranch Bond (1789-1859) as its first Director. His son George Phillips Bond (1825-1865) was the second Director, who was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal in 1865, and Joseph Winlock was appointed in 1866 following George Bond's early death. Winlock made many advances and the Observatory was undertaking outstanding work when Cunningham spent the summer of 1874 studying at the Harvard College Observatory. Joseph Winlock died in 1875 and when Cunningham spent her second summer at the Harvard College Observatory in 1876, Arthur Searle was the temporary director. In fact the first women had joined the Observatory staff in 1875 so when Cunningham made her second summer visit there were three female computers reducing the data produced by the male observers.

After these summer Harvard visits, Cunningham spent the summers of 1877, 1878, and 1879 at the University of Cambridge in England. Of course this required voyages and she made them from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Liverpool, England as soon as teaching had finished for the summer and returned from Liverpool to Philadelphia in time for the start of teaching at Swarthmore College. For example in 1877 she made this return journey on the ship Ohio arriving in Philadelphia on 10 September. The 1879 return trip was also made on the ship Ohio arriving in Philadelphia on 10 September. An interesting aside is the comment that she must have given her age as younger than she actually was since her age is incorrectly recorded on both records. In Cambridge, Cunningham undertook studies at Newnham College, a University of Cambridge women's college, working with a private tutor.

For the summer of 1881 Cunningham remained in the United States, spending time at the Princeton observatory. The summer of 1882 saw her again making the voyage to England where once again she studied at Newnham College, Cambridge with a private tutor. She returned to the United States via the same route as on her earlier trips, sailing from Liverpool to Philadelphia. This time she was on the ship 'Pennsylvania', arriving in Philadelphia on 13 September. The following two summers, 1883 and 1884, she spent at Williamstown with Truman Henry Safford (1836-1901), the Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. Safford was very involved in teaching astronomy, and had studied teaching methods. This was particularly interesting for Cunningham whose work at Swarthmore College largely involved teaching. Safford's research interest at this time was in accuracy in the determinations of the positions of fixed stars.

Continuing her summer studies, Cunningham was back in Cambridge, England, in 1887 but this time it was not to study at Newnham College but rather it was to spend time at the Cambridge Observatory where John Couch Adams was the director. There she met Anne Walker who had been employed as a computer in 1882 but was also assisting Andrew Graham in making observations. In the summer of 1891 Cunningham was again in England, this time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. She used her usual route across the Atlantic Ocean, sailing from Philadelphia to Liverpool on the ship Lord Gough arriving in Liverpool on 22 June. At this time William Christie was the Astronomer Royal, he had succeeded George Airy in 1881. Christie was skilled in obtaining funds for large astronomical instruments, which certainly interested Cunningham, but Christie is known to have been less skilled in putting these instruments to good use. Cunningham returned to the United States sailing from Liverpool to Philadelphia on the ship the British Prince arriving on 8 September.

We have looked at the many ways Cunningham used her summers to learn more about her subject. This together with her great talents as a teacher meant that she proved a very positive asset to Swarthmore College. She taught both mathematics and astronomy, being Swarthmore's first Professor of Astronomy. She founded the Department of Mathematics at Swarthmore College and was promoted to Professor of Mathematics in 1871. Her life, and that of many others, was disrupted when Parrish Hall caught fire in 1881 [6]:-
In the fire which destroyed Parrish Hall in 1881, she forgot herself and her belongings and thought only of aiding the students to get to safety. In that fire she lost a valuable library.
At first Swarthmore did not have an observatory but in 1888 Cunningham was given permission by the Board of Managers to plan and equip the Observatory of Swarthmore College. By 1891 she had brought in the funds and the Observatory was operating as a teaching facility but was not being used for research.

You can read Cunningham's own description of the Observatory in 1891 at THIS LINK.

Once the Observatory was constructed, Cunningham lived in the building until she retired in 1906. It was named the Cunningham Observatory and the building is still on the Swarthmore College campus although it is no longer used as an observatory. It has been renamed the Cunningham Building. When Cunningham retired, John Anthony Miller (1859-1946) was appointed as Chair of Mathematics and Astronomy at Swarthmore. He wrote in 1913 [13]:-
Swarthmore College is a small college founded by the Religious Society of Friends. The traditions of the college are, and always have been, that it is and shall remain a small college, and that its teaching energies shall be directed almost exclusively along undergraduate lines. It is the ambition of the present administration, however, to equip all departments of the college, so that first of all the teaching of the undergraduate shall be just as effective as it can be anywhere. and in addition to provide so far as possible library facilities and laboratory equipment so that the faculty of each department may engage in some line of research, with the hope of doing it effectively and producing creditable results. In almost every department, there are a few graduate students, but unless the student's interest and ability naturally lead him in the direction in which the professor is working, he is advised to pursue work in institutions that give their chief energies to graduate work. In accordance with this plan this equipment supplements, for purposes of research, a well equipped students' observatory which was placed on the College Campus about twenty years ago for instructional purposes. The funds for this observatory were secured through the efforts of Dr Susan J Cunningham, for thirty-five years Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the college, and since 1906 Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Astronomy. This observatory is only one of the expressions of the marked influence this great woman and great teacher has had, and in fact is having. upon the college, for she still contributes not only from her material resources, but gives her entire strength and influence to the upbuilding of the college.
In the same year that Cunningham began planning for the new observatory, 1888, Swarthmore College awarded her an honorary degree, the first such degree that the College awarded. In 1891 Cunningham mentioned the honorary degree when making application for membership of the New York Mathematical Society which, six years later, changed its name to the American Mathematical Society. The New York Mathematical Society was founded on 24 November 1888 at a meeting attended by only six people and a year later it was still very small with only eleven members. All these eleven were men but Charlotte Angas Scott began attending meetings of the Society soon after it was founded but could not join as membership was only open to those from New York. She was the first of seven women to join the Society, all seven becoming members in 1891. It was in 1891 that membership became open to those living outside New York.The other six women were Charlotte Angas Scott, Achsah Ely, Mary Emma Byrd, Mary Watson Whitney, Ellen Amanda Hayes and Amy Rayson. On learning that the New York Mathematical Society had made her a member, Cunningham wrote to the secretary Thomas Scott Fiske, saying [21]:-
It gives me great pleasure to accept the honour you have done me, in electing me a member to the New York Mathematical Society. It will not be possible for me to attend many meetings. I would therefore ask that I might receive the cards of announcements regularly.
In 1901 Cunningham was elected a Fellow in the Mathematics/Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On Thursday 11 December 1919, the Shirer Building was destroyed by fire. All the tenants were safely evacuated but seven firemen, including four from Swarthmore, were injured when the roof and third floor collapsed. The reconstruction of the Shirer Building was completed in March 1920. Whether Cunningham was living in the building when it went on fire is unclear, but she was certainly living in the reconstructed Shirer Building at the time of her death in 1921. Her death was announced in The Morning News, Wilmington, Delaware, as follows [6]:-
Dr Susan J Cunningham, 79 years old, a member of the first faculty of Swarthmore College and an active worker since the founding of the college, was found dead in her apartment in the Shirer Building, Swarthmore, Pa, yesterday. It is believed her death was caused by heart disease.

On Sunday while Miss Cunningham was visiting Mr and Mrs Arthur Scott, in Moylan, she spoke of her good health and at 10 o'clock that night she was seen reading in her apartment. But when her light was seen still burning yesterday he neighbours feared that all was not well and so entered her room. The teacher, still in street attire, lay on a couch. She is survived by one sister, Mrs J W Branson, of Winchester, Va.
The funeral will be at 3.30 p.m. tomorrow in the Swarthmore Meeting House, Swarthmore.
At the funeral many tributes were paid to Cunningham. We quote from the report of the funeral in The Phoenix, the student newspaper of Swarthmore College [8]:-
The services were most impressive and the Meeting House was filled with alumni, students and friends. Doctor John A Miller was in charge, and read the Scriptures. He then made a very beautiful speech paying great tribute to the life and great work of Miss Cunningham. Speaking of her unbounded love and tireless energy for the student body, Doctor Miller said, "A number of Swarthmore's most prominent alumni owe their present positions to the help and thoughtfulness of this devoted woman." He declared that we might all well adopt the rule of Miss Cunningham: "Give without stint the best that you have to that which seems the best of all."

Governor William C Sproul, (graduated Swarthmore 1891), who had great, affection for his favourite teacher, sent the following telegram - "l am deeply grieved to hear of Miss Cunningham's passing. She was a splendid woman and one of Swarthmore's outstanding figures. Her life, covering the whole history of the college, represents the spirit of devotion and courage which has made it strong and successful. My respect and affection for her make her loss a personal one, and my sorrow very real. I regret deeply that official matters here make it necessary for me to remain in Harrisburg today." Doctor Edward Martin, (graduated Swarthmore 1878), State Commissioner of Health, also communicated his feelings. He wrote, "A word of grateful appreciation for Susan J Cunningham, that fearless, clear-minded, strong, and when needed tenderly helpful woman, who so largely guided my life and that of many hundred others. Of such is the lasting wealth of Swarthmore. She is enshrined in my memory. Her spirit is as lasting as Swarthmore itself."

Faculty Members Speak: Many words, of tribute and regret were expressed by members of the faculty, former students, and intimate friends of Miss Cunningham. Professor Spencer Trotter, who is the oldest faculty member in point of service at Swarthmore, spoke of his feeling that "death does not destroy friendship." Professor Holmes praised her life as being that of a pioneer. Dean Bond spoke very tenderly concerning Miss Cunningham's love for Swarthmore which exceeded her love for her own life. Miss Brewster paid high tribute to Doctor Cunningham, as did Morris L Clothier, on behalf of the Class of 1890. J Russell Hayes read a touching poem which also dealt with her love for Swarthmore.
How fitting that her sunset days were passed
Beside a Swarthmore window looking west.
Where with fond reminiscent gaze she watched
The well-loved College to which she gave her best!
Besides these speakers mentioned, there were a number of others who added words to the memory of Miss Cunningham. A great number of telegrams and letters were also received, expressing sincere regret over her death.
Also in the same edition of The Phoenix, the resolution adopted by the Faculty is printed [8]:-
The Faculty records, with deep regret, the passing of Professor Emeritus Susan J Cunningham, who occupied the chair of Mathematics and Astronomy at Swarthmore College for a period of thirty-seven years. Professor Cunningham was well known for her learning, her ability as a teacher, her decisive character, and for her great interest in everything which pertained to Swarthmore College. She employed her splendid attainments of mind and her energetic personality for the betterment of this institution to which she was devoted. Her actions commanded the respect of all who knew her. Her memory will be cherished and her influence will not be forgotten.
Susan Jane Cunningham was buried in the Friends Cemetery at Fallston, Harford County, Maryland where now 43 members of the Hollinsworth family are buried.

References (show)

  1. 1888 First Honorary Degree, A brief history, Meet Swarthmore, Swarthmore College (2023).
  2. Cunningham, Susan Jane, 1842-1921, TriCollege Libraries.
  3. S J Cunningham, The Observatory of Swarthmore College, Astronomical Society of the Pacific 3 (14) (1891), 21-22.
  4. H S Davis, The present state of progress of the new reduction of Piazzi's star observations, Science 11 (276) (1900), 578-580.
  5. D DeBakcsy, A History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration. Exploring the Trailblazers of STEM (Pen and Sword History, 2023).
  6. Dr S J Cunningham of Swarthmore, Dead, The Morning News, Wilmington, Delaware (Wednesday, 26 January 1921), 5.
  7. Elizabeth H Cunningham,*1557p7b*_ga*MTIzNTE1ODQwMC4xNjU2NjI2MjIw*_ga_4QT8FMEX30*M2U3NGMyOTYtNzRhYi00YzY5LWFlMzktYTQ3ZjE0OTg2YmYwLjEwMi4xLjE2ODQxNDM2NzcuMjEuMC4w
  8. Funeral of Dr Cunningham, The Phoenix 16 (8 February 1921).
  9. Hollingsworth Family,
  10. P C Kenschaft, Change is Possible. Stories of Women and Minorities in Mathematics (American Mathematical Society, 2005).
  11. List of Members of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Astronomical Society of the Pacific 3 (13) (1891), 1-8.
  12. A P McKenney, What Women Have Done for Astronomy in the United States, Popular Astronomy 12 (1904), 171-182.
  13. J A Miller, The Sproul Observatory of Swarthmore College, Popular Astronomy 21 (1913), 253-262.
  14. A M H Roberts, Epsilon Chapter of Pennsylvania at Swarthmore College, The Phi Beta Kappa Key 4 (12) (1922), 692-698.
  15. L C Schlup and J G Ryan Susan J Cunningham, Historical Dictionary of the Gilded Age (M E Sharpe, 2003).
  16. Susan Cunningham, Historic Fellows Listing, The American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  17. Susan Cunningham. Mathematician,
  18. Susan Jane Cunningham. March 23, 1842 - January 24, 1921, Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College (12 January 2022).
  19. Susan Jane Cunningham. March 23, 1842 - January 24, 1921, Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College (12 January 2022).
  20. E Weber, The Cunningham Building: Swarthmore's Other Observatory, The Phoenix (15 November 1996).
  21. B S Whitman, Women in the American Mathematical Society before 1900, Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter 13 (4) (1983), 10-14.
  22. F E Willard, M A R Livermore and M A Rice, Susan J Cunningham, A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life (Charles Wells Moulton, 1893).
  23. D E Zitarelli, D Dumbaugh and S F Kennedy, A History of Mathematics in the United States and Canada (American Mathematical Society, 2019).

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Susan Cunningham:

  1. zbMATH entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2023