Mary Watson Whitney, ca. 1910s

Unknown photographer, ca. 1910s. Public domain; Vassar College. Background: Mizar and Alcor, a double star system in Ursa Major, source: Astronomy Now.

Mary Watson Whitney (1847–1921) was an American astronomer who made significant contributions to the field of astronomy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whitney served as the director of the Vassar College Observatory for over two decades, from 1888 to 1916. Whitney focused her teaching and research on subjects related to double stars, variable stars, asteroids, comets, and measurements by photographic plates. Under her direction, 102 articles were published at the Vassar College Observatory.

Whitney believed that science provided strong career opportunities for women. She hoped that women would soon become more active in practical chemistry, architecture, dentistry, and agriculture, which were more lucrative and, in Whitney’s view, particularly well suited to women. (Falling into more traditional tropes of the early 20th century, she also believed that scientific training would prepare them to be good mothers.) (Wikipedia)

The six students in the class of 1868 who dubbed themselves Maria Mitchell’s “hexagon”—clockwise from the top left, Helen Storke, Mary Watson Whitney, Mary Reybold, Sarah Mariva Glazier, Clara Eaton Glover, and Sarah Louise Blatchley. Source: Vassar College

Whitney was a member of the Hexagon, a group of six astronomy students, who attended Maria Mitchell’s (see below) first Dome Parties in the Observatory. The group was very devoted to their studies because they felt that the future of higher education of women rested on their shoulders, an attitude that in part Maria Mitchell left with them. At a meeting of the Woman’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston a few years after Mitchell’s death, Mary Whitney said, “She was … 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.” (Vassar Encyclopedia)

Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889) was an American astronomer, librarian, naturalist, and educator. In 1847, she discovered a comet named 1847 VI (modern designation C/1847 T1) that was later known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” in her honor. She won a gold medal prize for her discovery, which was presented to her by King Christian VIII of Denmark in 1848. Mitchell was the first internationally known woman to work as both a professional astronomer and a professor of astronomy after accepting a position at Vassar College in 1865. She was also the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mitchell is the namesake of the Maria Mitchell Association, the Maria Mitchell Observatory, and the Maria Mitchell Aquarium. (Wikipedia)

Scroll to Top