Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sarah Frances Whiting, Founding Mother in Physics

Sarah Frances Whiting (born 23 August 1847)

The daughter of Joel Whiting, a physics teacher, and Elizabeth Lee Comstock, Sarah Frances Whiting not only got her love of science from her father, a physics teacher, she was also tutored by him in a variety of scientific procedures and experiments, mathematics, and the classics, including Latin and Greek.

Sarah Frances Whiting,
c. 1879
Whiting graduated from Ingham College in 1865, when she was just eighteen years old. Located in Le Roy, New York, Ingham was the first women's university in the United States, established as Le Roy Female Seminary in 1835 and granted a full university charter in 1857. (Because of financial difficulties, it closed in 1892, and its property was sold at auction in 1895.)

After her graduation from Ingham, Whiting taught classes there, and then, later, at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls. At the same time, she furthered her own education by attending lectures, exhibitions, and demonstrations on current developments in science and scientific experiments.

In 1876, she was appointed as the physics professor at a newly founded Wellesley College. In the process of establishing a physics lab there, and at his invitation, she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lectures of Edward Pickering, an astronomer and physicist. All such classes were otherwise not open to women. (After he moved to Harvard, Pickering recruited several women to work for him, including one of Whiting's students at Wellesley, Annie Jump Cannon.)

When Whiting established a physics laboratory at Wellesley, it was only the second such lab in the country--and the first (and only) physics lab for women.

In 1880, Whiting also began teaching astronomy at Wellesley--Annie Jump Cannon, who would go on to be a renowned astronomer, was one of her earliest students.

In 1895, Whiting made the first x-ray photographs in the United States.

In 1900, after a gift was received by Wellesley, an astronomical observatory, the Whitin Observatory, was opened, with Sarah Frances Whiting serving as its first director. (For Whiting's account of the founding of the Whitin Observatory, click here.)

Throughout her career, Whiting published articles in Popular Astronomy, and she also published a textbook, Daytime and Evening Exercises in Astronomy, for Schools and Colleges, which you can access via the Internet Archive (here) or using Google Books (here).

Whiting retired from the teaching faculty at Wellesley in 1912, and from the directorship of the observatory in 1916. 

Whiting died on 12 September 1927. She was memorialized by her former student, Annie Jump Cannon, in Popular Astronomy (click here). As an interesting note, while Cannon writes about the influence of Whiting's father on Sarah Frances Whiting, she makes no mention of her mother. I can find out nothing more about her than the bare details of her life--Elizabeth Lee Comstock Whiting was born in 1818, married in 1846, gave birth to four daughters in ten years, and died in 1893 (for her listing at Find a Grave, click here).

For an accessible biographical essay on Whiting, from the Encyclopedia of World Biography, click here. There is no biography of Whiting, but there is a bit about her, as well as other women scientists, in John Lankford's American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859-1940.

You may also enjoy a Smithsonian article on Pickering's group of female scientists at Harvard, "The Women Who Mapped the Universe and Who Still Couldn't Get Any Respect."

Update, August 2020: John Cameron, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Wellesley, has identified archival material of Sarah Frances Whiting's work with x-rays recently discovered at the college. According to the announcement published by Wellesley:
Cameron . . . discovered the . . . [recently unearthed] boxes contained cyanotypes of Sarah Frances Whiting’s X-rays, with annotations on the reverse in her own hand. He contacted [Professor Jacqueline Marie] Musacchio, and they began to research Whiting’s career, using resources on campus and beyond, to put her experiments into context. Although a number of popular sources mentioned these experiments, they often did so in an exaggerated or inaccurate manner with no evidence, and the cyanotypes had never been published.
The two Wellesley professors (Musacchio is professor of art history), both interested in the history of science, have been collaborating on a project documenting the history of women's science education at Wellesley. Their piece, "Sarah Frances Whiting and the 'Photography of the Invisible,'" was published in the August 2020 issue of Physics Today (click here).

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