Vassar College and women in astronomy

When I decided to write a piece on women in astronomy I had no idea what I would learn. First, I learned there are not a lot of women in astronomy and there are even fewer statistics to prove or disprove this. Second, Vassar College provided the first formal education for women in astronomy and the first observatory to be directed by a woman.  Third, we need more women to know about the accomplishments of female astronomers.

Vassar College

The idea for an all female institution for higher education was inspired by Matthew Vassar’s niece, who was a strong believer that

from Vassar Encyclopedia

from Vassar Encyclopedia

women needed to have higher education because they were responsible for the intellectual instruction of their children. So in 1861 Vassar a respected and affluent businessman founded Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The doors for the school officially opened in September of 1865.  It was the second of the Seven Sisters Colleges, all-female sister institutions to all-male Ivy League institutions. Vassar College remained all-female until 1969, but females are still the majority of the student body.

Vassar chose, the famous astronomer, Maria Mitchell as his first choice for a faculty member. As part of her agreement, she requested that an observatory be built.  Charles S. Farrar, Vassar’s first professor of mathematics, chemistry, and physics designed the observatory. The telescope was commissioned from the renowned telescope maker Henry Fitz of New York in 1863. The observatory was completed in 1865 the same year the school opened and continued to be used for a hundred years. In 1991, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

True to Vassar’s design, Vassar College was an important institution for women during a period when they still didn’t have the right to vote.  The first three directors for the observatory were Maria Mitchell from 1865 to 1888, Mary Whitney from 1888 to 1895, and Caroline E. Furness from 1895 to 1899.  Each woman brought something unique to the program and without their passion for astronomy and dedication to providing opportunities to women to further their education we would be worse off.

Maria Mitchell

At the age of 29 years old, while stargazing with her father one fall night in Nantucket, Massachusetts, Mitchell spotted a telescopic comet. Subsequently, she would be awarded the King of Denmark’s Cometary Prize the following year after some confusion about who was the first observer. As the first woman to receive such a distinction, Mitchell was immediately elevated to celebrity and international fame.  This enabled her to become the first professional female astronomer in the U.S. She was the first women elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1848 and American Association for Advanced of Science in 1850.

Mitchell came from a large Quaker family in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where it was believed that women deserved the right to equal education which allowed her the encouragement and freedom to pursue her studies. She attended several Quaker grade schools that further encouraged her education including a school started by her father. Eventually Mitchell decided to open a school and despite local disfavor it was opened to all races. One year after the school was opened Mitchell took the position of librarian at the Nantucket Athenaeum where she remained for 20 years. Throughout her life, her father remained her mentor in astronomy even accompanying her to Vassar College.

It was very important to Matthew Vassar that his first choice of faculty be able to validate his school as a respected institution for study; Mitchell’s accomplishments and international fame made her Vassar’s first choice. In 1865 she accepted the position with the amendment that her father be allowed to live with her on campus. As professor, Mitchell changed how science was taught making sure that her students were able to receive extensive field experience. The benefits of their field experience was demonstrated in 1869 when Mitchell and seven students went to Iowa to observe a solar eclipse, the other astronomers were so impressed that Mitchell and five students were the official observers in July of 1878 in Denver for an eclipse. While at Vassar, Mitchell continued her personal studies on the surface of Jupiter and Saturn. She was also able to use this position to advocate for equal education for women and in 1873 she co-founded the America Association for the Advancement of Women and served as its first president. She retired from Vassar in 1888.

Mary Watson Whitney

While Maria Mitchell is credited with being the first female professional astronomer, Mary Watson Whitney is credited with making the Vassar astronomy program the finest in the country. There are several events that shaped Whitney’s vision for the astronomy program at Vassar. As a young student of Mitchell, she was a member of Hexagon, a group of students that believed the future of women’s higher education depended on them. When she began to look for work after graduation, despite her extensive education in astronomy and mathematics, Whitney often felt the limitations of her gender in finding suitable employment. These events shaped her social responsibility and from 1888 to 1915, during her tenure as director of the observatory and professor of astronomy, the program focused heavily on providing students with direct field experience and getting students research published in scientific journals to make them more competitive.

Whitney was raised in a family that encouraged equal education for their children. Her brother attended Harvard and she attend, its sister school, Vassar in the year it opened. In 1868 she graduated with a Bachelor’ and in 1872 she graduated with a Masters’. In 1869, Whitney’s younger sister entered Vassar and she accompanied Mitchell and other students to Iowa to observe the eclipse. From 1873 to 1876, Whitney attended the University of Zurich and studied mathematics and celestial mechanics, while her sister attended medical school.  Whitney returned to Vassar in 1881, to be Mitchell’s assistant when her health began to fail.

In 1888, Whitney officially succeeded Mitchell when she retired. At Vassar Whitney focused on advancing the rights and work of women and using her connections to help students gain employment. Whitney continued to provide students with ample field experience with the telescope and making calculations. She also continued the small social groups that Mitchell established to encourage young women in science. Whitney’s work focused on double stars, variable stars, asteroids, comets, precise measurement of photographic plates. She published 102 articles that focused on calculating orbits and making observations of minor planets in scientific journals. As the current Director of the Observatory and professor of astronomy, Whitney was able to help students gain employment at other universities and observatories. In 1899, she was a founding member of the American Astronomical Society. In 1910, Whitney was forced to take a medical leave from Vassar, but she did not officially retire until 1915.

Caroline E Furness

Mitchell and Whitney did a lot for the astronomy program at Vassar and Caroline E. Furness took the program to the next level. Before taking on the role of Director of the Observatory and professor of astronomy, she was the first woman to receive a PhD in

from vcencyclopedia,

from vcencyclopedia,

astronomy from Columbia University in 1900. At Vassar, Furness started a class on variable stars that was based on the research that she did with Whitney, which was the first of its kind in the U.S. She also was the first to publish a standard book on astronomy, “Introduction to the Study of Variable Stars” (1915), which continued to educate generations of astronomers.

Furness entered Vassar College on a full scholarship in 1888. Originally, astronomy wasn’t her major but after attending classes in the astronomy department she decided she wanted to take it all the way to a PhD. A true testament to her capabilities came in 1894 when Whitney hired her to assist with teaching and observations until 1898. She also attended Ohio University, University of Chicago, and University of Columbia; it was at latter institution that she received her PhD in 1900. Her dissertation was on “Catalogue of Stars within One Degree of the North Pole, and Optical Distortion of the Helsingfors Astro-photographic Telescope, Deduced from Photographic Measures.” In 1903, she went back to Vassar as an instructor and in 1911 she became an associate professor.  In 1915, Whitney officially retired from Vassar and Furness took over her roles.

During her tenure Furness continued to bring prestige to the Vassar program through her publishing and involvement with astronomy associations. Furness was the first astronomy faculty to publish a book on astronomy. In 1913 she published a collection of observations made by Whitney and herself on 4,800 stars during 1901 to 1912 entitled “Observations of Variable Stars.” Her “Introduction to the Study of Variable Stars” solidified her authority on the subject of variable stars. And her dissertation for Columbia included observations from fellow classmates at Vassar.  As a charter member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Furness encouraged students to participate in furthering the study of variable stars. Aside from the AAVSO, Furness participated in many international astronomical societies including the Royal Astronomical Society where she was a fellow in 1922 and the American Astronomical Society.


“Maria Mitchell”, “Mary Watson Whitney”, “Caroline E Furness” “Maria Mitchell Observatory,”  Vassar Encyclopedia –  November 6,9, 10 2013
“Matthew Vassar,” Vassar College –  November 6, 2013
“Maria Mitchell,” Distinguished Women – November 9, 2013
“Maria Mitchell,” Wikipedia –  November 9, 2013
“Mary Watson Whitney” Britannica – November 10, 2013
“Caroline E Furness” Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers –  November 10, 2013


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