Tributes to Mary Watson Whitney

Caroline Ellen Furness was an undergraduate at Vassar College. In 1894 she was appointed as Mary Watson Whitney's assistant at Vassar College and in 1895 she became an instructor in mathematics. She became an instructor in astronomy at Vassar in 1903. Furness and Whitney collaborated publishing around 30 joint papers between 1895 and 1910. When Whitney was granted leave of absence due to ill health in 1910 Furness directed the Vassar Observatory and was chair of the Astronomy Department. She wrote a 2-part obituary of Whitney after her death in 1921. We quote below a version of the final paragraphs of the obituary where she quotes a number of tributes to Mary Watson Whitney.

Tributes to Mary Watson Whitney

As a member of the faculty at Vassar, Miss Whitney was held in high esteem both by the President and her colleagues, particularly for her clear thinking and disinterestedness. The following is a quotation from the resolution presented to the Faculty upon her death: "It is not too much to say, that when she retired there was no member of the Faculty who was held in so much affectionate honour as Mary Whitney. She was in intellect and character the finest type of New England woman; in intellect, steadfastly devoted to truth; in character, as steadfastly holding to the highest ideals, with a gentle humanity and forgetfulness of self that made her a sincere friend of everyone."

Another tribute was written by a prominent member of the Faculty not an alumnae: "I shall never forget the impression made upon me, when in 1906, as an instructor attending my first faculty meeting, I saw Professor Mary Whitney writing down in her capacity as Secretary of the Faculty, the record of the College. She represented in herself the finest and best product of her Alma Mater, - in breeding, in courtesy. in scholarship. in tolerance, in generous appreciation of the work and aims of younger women. ... Herself a scholar and intellectual woman of the highest type, she constantly by precept and example spurred us all to better work. Her contribution to the traditions of Vassar College in that regard alone is beyond precise knowledge; it belongs to the priceless treasures of the spirit."

Of Miss Whitney's activity as an alumna, something has already been said. In the early days of the College she was one of the leaders in organising the alumnae along lines helpful to it, but after she became Professor of Astronomy at Vassar, she relinquished this work to younger hands, devoting her energies entirely to her work. Nevertheless she attended the meetings and was frequently called upon to speak and represent the College in public.

What she stood for to the early graduate who was fellow student and friend may be seen from the following tribute from a member of the class of 1870; "Hers was indeed a rare nature. Sane and well-balanced, she brought to every question a wise judgment and a broad and mellow spirit. She sought the truth only, and was ever ready to consider a new presentation of truth. A fine sense of humour and a warm interest in those around her, made her a delightful companion. That which she called a natural faith gave her a pervading and abiding serenity through all the affairs of life."

What she meant to those who were her pupils can be gathered from a touching incident connected with the recent campaign of Vassar for a three million dollar salary endowment fund. Every class had its quota assigned, and though every living member of 1868 had done her utmost, they still lacked several hundred dollars. About two weeks before the end of the campaign it was suggested to the writer that an appeal might be made to some of her Vassar friends to make up the amount which was lacking. Accordingly a circular letter was sent to about two hundred of her former pupils asking for small contributions to a memorial fund for her. Though everyone was already pledged to the utmost, letter after letter came with more than the sum asked for until the necessary amount was over-subscribed. A few quotations will show how she was regarded. From a member of 1889: "One cannot lose the opportunity to add one's mite to any cause that honours Miss Whitney. Many of us are increasingly grateful to her as the years go on." 1894 speaks of "Dear Miss Whitney whose influence at the College was always the finest and most gracious that a girl could have." From 1900, "I offer this small tribute with utmost sincerity to the memory of one whose fine personality still influences me."

One friend of her girlhood days who often saw her in Waltham after she became an invalid said quaintly that she wished she could sit next to her in heaven.

Miss Whitney was always industrious and never wasted her time. For diversion she enjoyed reading, and preferably reading aloud with some congenial companion while sewing was going on. In view of her early surroundings it was inevitable that Emerson should have influenced her thought very greatly. Plain living and high thinking were practiced in her girlhood home in a very real sense. She was fond of Thoreau, Matthew Arnold, Pater and admired Herbert Spencer greatly. Nature poetry like Wordsworth's gave her a deep satisfaction, and she was fond of certain kinds of religious poetry and sermons. In later years her enjoyment of Shakespeare was heightened by the interpretation of Georg Brandes. She was profoundly interested in philosophy and found the writings of Royce most to her liking. She had a great interest in politics and read the "Nation" to the end of her life. It is hardly necessary to state that her belief in suffrage began when she was very young, and that she was keenly interested in everything connected with the progress of women.

Though frequently called upon to write addresses and articles, which she did to the admiration of all, she never cultivated writing for its own sake, but at the urgent request of the writer she wrote a sonnet or two while we were spending a few weeks on the Maine coast just across from Mt Desert where the natural beauty of the scenery stirred her deeply. The sonnets were never really finished, but they represent so perfectly her feeling toward nature, that one of them is quoted.


"Over the bay the mists of morning lie.
Across, the hazy hills slope from the sea.
Hushed quietness surrounds me. Placidly
The slow waves break, and hardly murmuring, die.
No sound I hear, no motion I espy
Save Nature gives. Into my reverie
Falls from afar the thrush's melody.
Ah I this is all I ask, - this, - Nature's peace! I cry.

But no! a boat darts by; with echoing shout
The brown-faced, bare-armed boys pull at the oar.
The farmer's horse beats time along the road.
The mists divide and homestead walls peep out.
Dear human life! we flee thee, yet the more
We crave the touch by thee alone bestowed."

Vassar College Observatory,
September, 1922.

Last Updated June 2023