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.



Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellNov. 14 Collingwood {1857}

My dear Father

This is Sir John Herschel’s place. I came last night just at dusk, and was very warmly welcomed, first by sir John and next by Lady Herschel. Sir John is really an old man, old of his age 66, as old as Mr. Bond, whom he resembles. I found a fire awaiting me in my room, and a cup of tea and crackers were at once sent up . . . .I had expected to find Sir John a despot, like Mr. Airy and Dr. Whewell, but to my surprise he is gentle, and very simple, and tells funny little anecdotes (so do Airy and Whewell) and is one of the domestic circle, joins in all the chit-chat . . . .But I am continually mortified my anecdotes that I hear of the “pushing”    Americans . . . .

At this point in her European journey, Maria was alone as the young woman, Prudence Swift, she had been chaperoning was called home due to her family’s financial losses in the panic of 1857. Maria would spend time with Collinwood and become friendly with the Herschels, an astronomical family of renown. When leaving Collinwood, Maria was give a sheet of paper from Sir John Herschel’s aunt Caroline Hershel’s notebook – some of her astronomical calculations. Maria treasured it all of her life, finally pasting what remained of it (the paper slowly became brittle and flaked away) into her own journal which the MMA still holds.