Mary Watson Whitney

Quick Info

11 September 1847
Waltham, Massachusetts, USA
20 January 1921
Waltham, Massachusetts, USA

Mary Watson Whitney was a mathematician and astronomer. She wrote around 70 astronomy papers, and directed the Vassar College Observatory. She was one of the first seven women to join the New York Mathematical Society in 1891


Mary Watson Whitney was the daughter of Samuel Butterick Whitney (1814-1867) and Mary Watson Crehore (1823-1893). Samuel Whitney was a successful real estate agent, but it was his wife who [9]:-
... was of a retiring disposition, had intellectual tastes and was the one most deeply interested in the education of the children.
Samuel and Mary Whitney had six children: Elisha Crehore Whitney (1846-1866); Mary Watson Whitney (1847-1921), the subject of this biography; Anne Maria Whitney (1849-1852); Adaline Stearns Whitney (1852-1896); Charles Abijah Whitney (1855-1909); and Thomas Lawrence Whitney (1857-1873). There were a number of tragedies among these children. Elisha Crehore Whitney, Mary's older brother, was lost in a shipwreck in the South Seas in May 1866 at the age of twenty. Anne Maria Whitney suffered from fits and died aged two years and five months, while Thomas Lawrence Whitney drowned in Waltham on 26 June 1873 about a month short of his sixteenth birthday.

Mary attended schools in Waltham where she showed excellent abilities in mathematics and was praised by her teachers for her enthusiasm for studying. Her school years were, of course, somewhat stressful since the American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865. She was upset that universities did not accept girls and it looked as though high school education would be all that she would be able to undertake. She learnt, however, that, by a stroke of good fortune, a college for women was planned by to be set up in Poughkeepsie, New York, by Matthew Vassar (1792-1868) and was to be called Vassar College. He was interested in the sciences and one of the first buildings planned for the new college was an observatory. Maria Mitchell was at this time the most famous female astronomer, in fact she was the only American woman with an international reputation as an astronomer. She had become famous with the discovery of a comet in 1847 and had won a gold medal for this discovery. Matthew Vassar wanted her to become the professor of astronomy at Vassar College and, to make it attractive, he had purchased an excellent telescope. This 12-inch refractor was the second largest telescope in the United States at this time. Charles S Farrar [4]:-
... professor of Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry at Vassar from 1865-1874 designed and supervised the construction of the Observatory in 1864.
Mitchell accepted and was in post when the College opened in 1865.

It was in 1863 that Mary Whitney graduated from the high school and, knowing now that Vassar College would open in 1865, she had just over a year to wait. Certainly she was not one to waste this time but rather she saw it as providing an opportunity for her to be better prepared for higher education. In 1860, the New-Church School had opened in the area of Piety Corner in Waltham. The principal teacher was Edwin A Gibbens, a Harvard graduate who had been teaching at the Boston Latin School. He became Whitney's private tutor and a combination of his skilful teaching and her ability and enthusiasm for learning meant that by the time she entered Vassar College in 1865 she was exceptionally well prepared [9]:-
In September 1865, accompanied by her father, Mary Whitney made the journey to Poughkeepsie and presented herself at Vassar on its opening day. There in its new reception rooms stood Miss Lyman, the Lady Principal, ready to welcome the eager students who thronged its portals. Assisting her were other women members of the faculty, among them Professor Maria Mitchell, the astronomer and most distinguished scientific woman of her time. Miss Whitney's attention was soon attracted by her striking figure and penetrating dark eyes and, in listening to her brilliant conversation, forgot everyone else. The attraction was no doubt mutual, for Miss Mitchell was an excellent judge of young people and must have recognised very quickly the superior ability and earnest purpose of this gifted young woman. 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.
At Vassar College, Whitney began attending astronomy classes by Maria Mitchell who taught the subject in a highly mathematical way. Discovering that most of her class did not have the necessary mathematical background, Mitchell taught the class mathematics. Whitney immediately stood out as the best student having already an excellent knowledge of mathematics and a passion to learn. Dorrit Hoffliet wrote [11]:-
Her classmates called her 'Pallas Athene, Our Goddess of Wisdom'.
There were other students too who were quickly drawn to Mitchell's teaching and six of these became known as the Hexagon. Whitney became the leader of the group; you can see a picture of them at the time of their graduation in 1868, with Whitney in the centre, at THIS LINK.

The Vassar College Observatory was, of course, a place for these students to learn about astronomy and soon Whitney was observing. But the Observatory dome served another purpose in that Mitchell used it as a gathering place for the discussion of politics and women's issues. Speaking about Mitchell a few years after her death, Whitney wrote [11]:-
She was, however, a constant upholder of higher education of women, as she was of the theory of co-education, and in time she became an ardent suffragist.
Although Whitney worked hard at her academic studies she also had time for other activities [23]:-
... she was president of the maths club, active in the croquet and chess clubs, a contributor to student publications and a performer in dramatic productions. [She was also] an editor of 'The Transcript', the first student journal, and president of the class in 1867 ...
These fine university achievements were, however, accomplished in spite of family tragedies. Nothing was heard from Elisha Crehore Whitney, her older brother, after May 1866 and news reached the family that he had been shipwrecked in the South Seas. He was reported missing, and it was not known if he was among a boatload of survivors. Mary's father died suddenly on 13 May 1867 not knowing if his son had survived. Shortly after his death, the family received the news that Elisha was confirmed lost at sea.

Maria Mitchell's father William B Mitchell was a schoolteacher and amateur astronomer. When Maria was appointed to Vassar in 1865 she lived with her father in the Vassar Observatory; Maria's mother had died in 1861. After Whitney graduated with an A.B. on 24 June 1868, William Mitchell wrote to a friend saying [11]:-
Thou art right in supposing that I must miss the graduated astronomical class. It is a more severe experience than I had imagined it would be. Cara Glover and Mary Whitney especially, who had in a manner adopted us as step-parents, are a great miss to us. Without disparagement ... to Mary Whitney is to be awarded the palm of unrivalled qualities.
Maria Mitchell was sad to see her students Sarah Mariva Glazier, Mary Whitney and Louise Blatchley, three of the Hexagon, leaving Vassar College. She wrote these lines while saying goodbye to the three girls at the railway station as they left Vassar College [9]:-
Sarah, Mary, Louise, and I
Have come to the crossroads to say good-bye;
A knot of lovers, - a circle of peers.
They in their youth and I in my years.
Bathed in tears and covered with dust,
We say good-bye, because we must;
Willing to bear the parting and pain,
Believing we all shall meet again;
That if God is God and truth is truth,
We shall meet again and all in youth.
Whitney had decided that she wanted to continue studying, so before leaving Vassar, Mitchell gave Whitney her own copy of Theoria Motus Corporum Coelestium in Sectionibus Conicis Solem Ambientium by Carl Friedrich Gauss. This book, written in Latin and published in 1809, arose from Gauss's work on computing the orbit of dwarf planet Ceres, discovered in 1801, from a small number of observations. After graduating she returned home to support her mother now that her elder brother and father had both died. She took a job teaching mathematics at a school in Auburndale, Massachusetts, to the south of Waltham.

There was a solar eclipse on 7 August 1869 with the narrow path of totality passing through the middle of the state of Iowa. Whitney made an expedition to Burlington with Mitchell and seven other graduates of Vassar College to view the eclipse using a three-inch Alvan Clark telescope which had been specially made for the occasion. Knowing that Whitney was desperate to continue studying, Maria Mitchell contacted Benjamin Peirce at Harvard, asking if he would allow her best student Whitney to attend his lectures on quaternions. This, of course, was a difficult request since Harvard did not admit women. Benjamin Peirce agreed that he would take her into his lectures as his guest. Once the male students had accepted that a woman was attending the lectures, Whitney was able to make her own way to the lectures without being chaperoned by Benjamin Peirce. She also attended a graduate course Benjamin Peirce delivered on Celestial Mechanics which could only go ahead if three students attended. In fact there were exactly three, Whitney, Benjamin Peirce's son James Mills Peirce who was at this time a professor of mathematics at Harvard, and William Elwood Byerly who was an undergraduate at Harvard at that time but later became professor of mathematics there.

By September 1870, Whitney was spending some time working with Truman Henry Safford at the Dearborn Observatory in Chicago. She made frequent visits to Vassar College and when an alumnae association was formed there in June 1871, Whitney was elected president. She undertook this task with enthusiasm, and she was awarded a Master's Degree by Vassar College on 26 June 1872. Two other students were awarded an A.M. at that Commencement, one of whom was Sarah Glazier who had been a member of the Hexagon. What Whitney wanted, however, was an academic position in keeping with her skills, experience and knowledge but being a woman such positions were not open to her.

In 1873 Whitney's sister Adaline graduated from Vassar College and decided to study medicine in the University of Zurich. Mary, her brother Charles, and Mary's mother accompanied Adaline to Switzerland. As always, Mary Whitney continued to study while she was living in Zurich. Rudolf Wolf was professor of mathematics and professor of astronomy in Zurich at this time and she attended his lectures on Celestial Mechanics. She also attended lectures on Synthetic Geometry given by Carl Culmann, the professor at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich. Wishing to continue to build her mathematical expertise, Whitney bought many mathematical texts while living in Zurich. In 1876, Mary, her brother and her mother all returned to Waltham leaving Adaline to continue her medical studies in Zurich.

Back in Waltham, Whitney became a mathematics teacher at Waltham High School. She held this position for five years, later describing these as the most unsatisfactory years of her life, being forced to teach in a high school when she was certain that any man with the mathematical and astronomical expertise that she had would have easily been appointed to a university professorship. There was only one suitable position in the whole of the United States in astronomy, that being filled by Maria Mitchell at Vassar College. Two women's colleges [9]:-
... Smith and Wellesley had opened in 1875 while she was still in Europe, but neither college had a department of astronomy and though she was equally fitted to teach mathematics, her well-known Unitarianism would have hindered her from securing an appointment at Wellesley.
In 1881 Maria Mitchell's health became frail and Vassar College asked Whitney if she would consider assisting her. Whitney agreed and resigning her position at Waltham High School, she took up the position at Vassar College. The appointment, however, was rather ambiguous as Caroline Furness points out [9]:-
She shared in the teaching and kept up the routine of work of observing with the transit instrument for the time service. Much to her disappointment, however, no opportunity was afforded her of doing independent work with the twelve inch telescope. On account of Professor Mitchell's health, it was seldom used except for demonstration to the students. Her position, too, was a little ambiguous, for she was Professor Mitchell's private assistant and ranked in the catalogue merely as a graduate student.
Keen to gain more experience in observational astronomy, Whitney looked for an observatory that would let her make use of a telescope. She could not let Maria Mitchell down so it would also require someone to stand in for her as Mitchell's assistant. In 1887 an assistant was found and Edward C Pickering (1846-1919), the director of Harvard College Observatory, welcomed Whitney. She was to assist Arthur Searle in using a Russian diagonal transit instrument. It was a brief visit since Maria Mitchell, whose health was getting rapidly worse, resigned from Vassar College and at Christmas 1887 Whitney received a postcard from her saying that she had recommended Whitney as her successor. Soon after Whitney received a letter from the Vassar President asking her to return at once which she did still in the role of an assistant.

Whitney now felt that her greatest responsibility was teaching her students and she put much effort into developing her lectures. She had for so long wanted to undertake observational research but the excellent 12-inch equatorial telescope had never been used for research and Whitney spend many hours each night trying to master using it. She wrote frequently to Truman Henry Safford asking for his advice and he provided both advice and encouragement. Safford was now director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College in Williamstown and often she would visit him on her way to or from Boston. He encouraged her to undertake research and begin to publish papers but as Mitchell had not gone down that route, it was a big step for Whitney to take. Mitchell died on 28 June 1889 and following that, Whitney was promoted to Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Vassar Observatory. She was also elected as secretary of the faculty [9]:-
In 1889, when Miss Whitney became Professor of Astronomy at Vassar, she was forty-one years old and in her prime, strong in mind and body, and strong in character. There was much happiness in her home relations and she was conscious of the admiration and confidence of her friends. She was restive after her many years of unproductiveness and was eager to make a start. She felt her responsibility to the science of astronomy, but more than that she felt her obligation as a woman.
The outlook seemed very bright for Whitney at this time. Her sister had established a successful medical practice in Boston and had made a home there with their mother. Her brother was married, living in Waltham with children. Before long, however, her mother became seriously ill and her sister became a permanent invalid. The living accommodation at the Vassar Observatory was extended so that Whitney's mother and sister could live there. Whitney's mother died on 31 December 1893 but Mary continued to look after her sister at the Observatory until her death on 13 February 1896.

In 1891 Whitney applied 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, Susan Jane Cunningham, Mary Emma Byrd, Ellen Amanda Hayes and Amy Rayson.

Despite the difficulties of having to look after her mother and sister, Whitney began to publish research papers describing observations she made from 1890 onwards. She observed mainly comets, variable stars, eclipses, and asteroids (which were called minor planets at the time). You can see a list of the titles of 70 papers describing observations between 1890 and 1910 at THIS LINK.

A summary of her research work is given in [26]:-
Under her direction the Vassar Observatory gained an international reputation for accurate and valuable research. In 1888, her first paper, reporting observations of a double star elicited recognition from Prof Burnham of the Lick Observatory. In the study of variable stars she was recognised as one of the most important contributors of her time. ... Her first major piece of research was to assist in determining the longitude of the newly established Smith College Observatory by simultaneous observations at Smith and Harvard. She then turned her attention to observing comets and plotting their exact location in the sky. She also observed several lunar eclipses and spent a great deal of time observing and charting the paths of numerous asteroids (called 'minor planets' at the time). Most of the publications on these topics are series of tables reporting the detailed measurements. At a time when large numbers of these phenomena were just beginning to be identified her contributions were significant, and widely recognised among her fellow astronomers. She collaborated with astronomers at Harvard and Columbia, while leading astronomers (e.g. Safford, Young, & Percival Lowell) visited her at Vassar. ... By the turn of the century she was addressing the problem of solar motion within the galaxy and examined several sophisticated mathematical formulas in a search for the most accurate method of determining this. In 1905 she and her student Caroline Furness published a catalogue of all the stars located within 2 degrees of the North Pole. After the turn of the century Prof Whitney's early interest in nova was revived, and she turned her attention to the study of variable stars, producing several short publications and a major monograph in 1913 (which was her last publication). This study is a remarkable record of the careful and precise astronomical measurements.
Whitney made two trips to Europe. The first was made in 1901 together with Caroline Ellen Furness. Furness had been an undergraduate at Vassar College where she had studied mathematics and astronomy. In 1894 she had been appointed as Whitney's assistant at Vassar College and in 1895 she became an instructor in mathematics. She had been awarded a Ph.D. by Columbia University in 1900. Whitney and Furness sailed to Hamburg and then visited the Potsdam Observatory. Next they visited Prague and saw Tycho Brahe's observatory there followed by visits to Heidelberg, the Royal Observatory in Strassburg, the Paris Observatory and London where they met Agnes Clerke [10]:-
Such a charming personality Miss Agnes had, so gentle, so modest, and yet so full of knowledge.
While in London they visited the Greenwich Observatory, then travelled to Cambridge where they met Robert Ball who agreed to lecture at Vassar College on his forthcoming trip to America.

The second of Whitney's trips to Europe was made in the summer of 1908 when she met up with Furness who had just ended a stay at Groningen, and they spent two months living in the English countryside. Of course there had to be observatory visits and these were made to Oxford.

In March 1910, Whitney suffered the same illness that had led to her sister becoming a permanent invalid. Just after a morning class she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, resulting in the immediate paralysis of her entire left side. She was granted leave of absence due to ill health and Caroline Furness became director of the Vassar Observatory and chair of the Astronomy Department. Whitney spent the last ten years of her life unable to continue with the work that had meant so much to her. Until she officially retired in 1915 she continued living in the Vassar Observatory. She then returned to her home in Waltham where she died of pneumonia. 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."

For tributes to Whitney, see THIS LINK.

References (show)

  1. A snapshot biography of Mary Watson Whitney, Historical Snapshots (7 March 2021).
  2. W B Ashworth, Scientist of the day - Mary Watson Whitney, Linda Hall Library (11 September 2017).
  3. M R S Creese and T M Creese, Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900: A Survey of Their Contributions to Research (Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  4. C Corsiglia, Spying on Stars, Miscellany News 60 (9) 91977), 9.
  5. D DeBakcsy, A History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration. Exploring the Trailblazers of STEM (Pen and Sword History, 2023).
  6. D Elmegreen, Whitney, Mary Watson (11 September 1847-20 January 1921), American National Biography (1999).
  7. N Faulkner (ed.), Mary Watson Whitney (b. 1847 - d. 1921), in Top 101 Women of STEM (Rosen Publishing Group, 2016).
  8. J N L Finger, Miss Mitchell's Students: Mary Watson Whitney, Maria Mitchell Association (30 September 2019).
  9. C Furness, Mary Whitney, Popular Astronomy 30 (1922), 597-608.
  10. C Furness, Mary Whitney, Popular Astronomy 31 (1923), 25-35.
  11. M H and C J, Mary Watson Whitney '1868,' 1872, Vassar Encyclopedia (2008).
  12. D Hoffleit, Maria Mitchell's Famous Students and Comets over Nantucket (Cambridge, 1983).
  13. E P Hoyt, The Whitneys: An Informal Portrait, 1635-1975 (Weybright and Talley, 1976).
  14. P C Kenschaft, Change is Possible. Stories of Women and Minorities in Mathematics (American Mathematical Society, 2005).
  15. K Larsen, Whitney, Mary Watson (1847-1921),
  16. Maria Mitchell: Prof Mary Whitney, once her associate, talks about her, The Boston Herald (22 December 1890).
  17. Mary W Whitney, Annual Report of the Maria Mitchell Association 19 (1921), 10.
  18. Mary Watson Whitney, American Astronomer, Encyclopedia Britannica.
  19. Mary Watson Whitney, Wolbach Library, Harvard University.
  20. Mary Watson Whitney (11 Sep 1847 - 20 Jan 1921), Today in Science History.
  21. Mary Watson Whitney, Annual Report of the Regents 82 (Argus Company, Albany, 1869).
  22. Mary Watson Whitney, Annual Report of the Regents 86 (Argus Company, Albany, 1873).
  23. Mary Watson Whitney, The first Students, Vassar Encyclopedia.
  24. E Purdy (ed.), Industrialization and Political Activism: 1861 to 1899 (Infobase Publishing, 2020).
  25. M W Rossiter, "Women's Work" in Science, 1880-1910, Isis 71 (3) (1980), 381-398.
  26. K H Schwerin, The Scientific Whitneys Descended from John & Elinor Whitney (Albuquerque, NM, 2002).
  27. Whitney, Mary Watson, 1847-1921, Social Networks and Archival Context.
  28. M W Whitney, The Founders of Vassar (Vassar College, 1895).
  29. M W Whitney, Scientific Study and Work for Women, Education 3 (1882), 58-69.
  30. H Wright, Mary Watson Whitney, in Edward T James (ed.), Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1971).

Additional Resources (show)

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