A snapshot biography of Mary Watson Whitney

Note: Mary Watson Whitney is standing in this photo. Seated is Maria Mitchell.

Mary Watson Whitney was brilliant, and she was kind. In college, classmates called her “Pallas Athene, Our Goddess of Wisdom.” Later in life, she was described as one who “gave out such a bright glow that it lightened all who came within its sphere.”

Born in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1847, Mary excelled as a student from a young age. But because of the time, her college options were limited. She went to the newly opened Vassar, where she became president of the math club, a writer for student publications, and a superb student in the astronomy program.

After college, Mary became a high school teacher. But over the years, she would make her way back into astronomy, graduating with a master’s degree from Vassar and becoming a professor and director of the observatory there. Over her years in leadership, the observatory issued 102 articles and publications.

Having experienced many opportunities denied to her because she was a woman, Mary worked hard to create opportunities and secure jobs for students through personal connections and prepare women through classroom training for careers in the sciences. As one of her students would remark, “In discovering such talents and in giving them preliminary training, Miss Whitney made a greater contribution to astronomy than she had any conception of.”

Sources: Vassar Encyclopedia – http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/mary-watson-whitney.html / http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/original-faculty/maria-mitchell/living-legacy/caroline-e-furness.html / Dutchess County Historical Society (https://dchsny.org/maria-mitchell/)