Sunday, September 13, 2009

Heroine of the Weekend

One thing I love about doing these "heroine weekends" is finding out about extraordinary women I knew nothing about before. (Plus finding inspiration for future heroines in my own books!) This weekend we look at Sarah Frances Whiting, who died on this day in 1927 and was a pioneer for women in science in the United States.

Whiting was born August 23, 1847 in Wymong, New York, the daughter of Joel and Elizabeth Whiting (both descendants of 17th century settlers of New England). Her father was an educated and enlightened man, who graduated from Hamilton College and worked as principle and teacher of physics and mathematics in various New York academies. He saw his daughter's passion for science from an early age, and encouraged her by letting her help set up experiments for his classes and tutoring her at home in such unladylike subjects as science, math, Greek, and Latin (she was well-versed in Greek by age 8, and Latin by 10!).

Whiting entered Ingham University in Le Roy, New York and graduated in 1865, at the age of 18. She taught Classics and mathematics at Ingham for a while, then went on to teach the same subjects at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls. In her spare time, she attended scientific lectures and demonstrations and followed new advances in theories and equipment, applying her learnings to her lessons. In 1875, Henry Durant, founder of the new Wellesley College in Massachusetts, approached Whiting about taking the position of Professor of Physics on the all-female faculty, and she started this job (which she would hold until she retired) in 1876.

In 1877, Durant introduced her to Professor Edward Pickering at MIT and director of Harvard's Observatory. He invited her to MIT to observe the undergrad physics lab there and attend physics lectures (which were otherwise closed to women). She went on to use this information to establish, equip, and operate a physics lab at Wellesley, the only lab of its kind for women in the US. In 1879, she went to inspect the Harvard Observatory, which was being used for astronomical investigations (particularly in the field of spectroscopy, which allowed for the observation of the patterns of spectra--lines and bands--that form when light is sent through a prism). This inspired her to integrate astronomy into the Wellesley curriculum. She created and taught the first course in 1880 under the title "Applied Physics." She also set herself the large task of having an observatory installed at the college, with the fundraising help of Wellesley trustee Mrs. John C. Whittin. The Whitin Observatory was built by converting an old organ loft on the fifth floor of College Hall, and it was opened in 1900 (with Whiting again designing and ordering the equipment herself).

She finally received an assistant in 1885, much needed considering she was almost the entire Physics Department for many years. She spent her sabbaticals and holidays traveling the world to meet other scientists and attend classes and seminars. In 1888-89, she studied at the University of Berlin, followed by a time in England observing labs. In 1896 she went to Edinburgh University (newly opened to women). In addition to being a pioneer in women's education, she founded academic groups and was accepted into previously male-only scientific societies such as the American Astronimical Society, the American Physical Society, and the New England Meteorological Society (which of course led her to establish a class in meteorology at Wellesley).

She lived all her life with her sister Elizabeth Whiting, another teacher, first in dorms and campus housing at Wellesley and then from 1906 in Observatory House, built next to the Observatory facility. They had reputations as fine hostesses, even though Sarah was a strict prohibitionist and Congregationalist (and active in the the Wellesley College Christian Association's missionary programs). In 1905 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Tufts College, and retired in 1912 to pursue astronomy full-time. In 1916 she also stepped down as director of the Observatory and moved to Massachusetts with her sister. She died at the age of 80.

Though she was a great researcher and scientist herself, she was most passionate about teaching science to others. She wrote a great deal of educational literature, including a volume that became a classic in the field Daytime and Evening Exercises in Astronomy (1912). She was responsible for the education and inspiration of generations of women scientists. American National Biography said, "Whiting's lifelong commitment to teaching women physics and astronomy, her enthusiasm for the experimental method, and her establishment of the first physics laboratory for women in the United States helped generations of women practice and understand science. Through these accomplishments, Whiting stands as one of the pioneers of science education for women."

As far as I can tell, there isn't a full-length biography of Whiting, but there are fascinating entries on her life and work in American National Biography (Volume 23, 1999); American Women in Science (1994); and Notable Women Scientists (1999).

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