Did you know that Mary Watson Whitney was born today in 1847? She was an American astronomer. Although she was very talented and had a great understanding of math and astronomy, it was difficult for Mary to find opportunities to learn or teach; at the time, not all universities accepted women as students or professors. Nevertheless, Mary Watson Whitney persevered in her studies and earned her master’s degree and eventually became a professor and director of the observatory at Vassar College. She was an enthusiastic mentor for the students she taught.
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Mary Watson Whitney was part of the “Hexagon” a group of six astronomy students mentored by Maria Mitchell at Vassar. They were astronomy students, but also felt that they were pioneers and would help to shape the future of higher education for women.
Mary Watson Whitney’s nick name in college was “Pallas Athene, our Goddess of Wisdom”.
When she was about 20, her father and brother passed away. Mary became the acting head of the household and looked after her mother and younger sisters.
In 1869, Mary Watson Whitney and some of her classmates travelled to Burlington, Iowa to view a solar eclipse.
Benjamin Peirce, a mathematician, invited Mary Watson Whitney was lectures to his on advanced mathematics and celestial mechanics at Harvard. Since she was a woman, she could not attend as a student, she attended as his guest. Until Mary knew what kind of reception the students would give her, she would wait outside in the college yard, and enter with Benjamin Peirce. As her classmates were friendly, she felt later that she could arrive on her own.
As she could not register as a former student at colleges, such as Harvard, Mary Watson Whitney gained experience and more education abroad in places like Zurich.
While she was the director, the Vassar Observatory published more than 100 astronomy articles. She studied double stars, variable stars, asteroids, comets, and more.