Miss Mitchell’s Students: Mary Watson Whitney

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The first is:

Mary Watson Whitney, 1847-1921

The Hexagon: Maria Mitchell’s First Astronomy Class. Mary Whitney seated at center.

Born the month before Maria discovered her comet, Mary Whitney would be in Maria’s first Astronomy class at Vassar.  She would also serve as her former teacher’s assistant and later her replacement when Maria left Vassar in 1888.  Like Maria, Whitney had a love for the natural world and was an excellent mathematician; she grew close to both Maria and William Mitchell.  After leaving Vassar, Whitney taught school, attended – by invitation – mathematics lectures at Harvard as the only woman allowed to do so, and would be named the first president of Vassar’s alumnae group.  Vassar awarded her a master’s degree in 1872.  She travelled to view the eclipses with Maria and when Maria became more frail, returned to Vassar to serve as her assistant.  She accepted a research position at Harvard’s observatory giving it up to return again to Vassar to take Maria’s place where she worked until her retirement in 1915.  Whitney would serve as the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association’s first president.