Sarah Frances Whiting

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Sarah Frances Whiting
Sarah Frances Whiting.jpg
Born(1847-08-23)August 23, 1847
DiedSeptember 12, 1927(1927-09-12) (aged 80)
Alma materIngham University
Scientific career
InstitutionsWellesley College
Notable studentsAnnie Jump Cannon

Isabelle Stone

Louise Sherwood McDowell

Sarah Frances Whiting (August 23, 1847 – September 12, 1927) was an American physicist and astronomer. She was essential to the founding of the Whitin Observatory at Wellesley College, and was the instructor to several astronomers, including Annie Jump Cannon.


Whiting was interested from an early age in science by her father, who taught natural philosophy. Whiting graduated from Ingham University in 1865, after which she taught at a girls' secondary school in Brooklyn.[1]

Whiting was appointed by Wellesley College president Henry Fowle Durant, one year after the College's 1875 opening, as its first professor of physics. She established its physics department and the undergraduate experimental physics lab at Wellesley, the second of its kind to be started in the country. At the request of Durant, she attended lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology given by Edward Charles Pickering.[2] Through attending Pickering's classes, Whiting observed the techniques of teaching science through laboratory work, which was then new to the United States. Whiting adopted this pedagogy for her own classes, and so established the second undergraduate physics laboratory in the United States, after MIT.[1]

Pickering also invited Whiting to observe some of the new techniques being applied to astronomy, such as spectroscopy.[3] In 1880, Whiting started teaching a course of practical astronomy at Wellesley.

In February 1896, only a few weeks after the public announcement of the discovery of x-rays, Whiting conducted x-ray experiments with her students. She was among the first in the United States and likely the first woman to successfully replicate Wilhelm Röntgen's x-rays.[1] As told by biographer Annie Jump Cannon,

An especially exciting moment came when the Boston morning papers reported the discovery of the Rontgen or X-rays in 1895. The advanced students in physics of those days will always remember the zeal with which Miss Whiting immediately set up an old Crookes tube and the delight when she actually obtained some of the very first photographs taken in this country of coins within a purse and bones within the flesh.[4]

In addition to Cannon, Whiting was also assisted or attended in the X-ray experiments by Mabel Augusta Chase and Grace Evangeline Davis.[1]

black and white image of a white building topped by two closed telescope domes
The Whitin Observatory, as depicted in the 1935 issue of The Legenda, the Wellesley College yearbook.

Between 1896 and 1900, Whiting helped Wellesley College trustee Sarah Elizabeth Whitin to establish the Whitin Observatory, of which Whiting became the first director.

Tufts College bestowed an honorary doctorate on Whiting in 1905.

Sarah Whiting was also known for supporting prohibition.

Whiting retired from her position as a professor of physics at Wellesley in 1916, but remained as Director of the Whitin Observatory until 1916. She held the title of Professor Emeritus until her death in 1927 in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. She is buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Le Roy, New York, near her now-defunct alma mater, Ingham University.


Daytime and Evening Exercises in Astronomy

Whiting wrote the textbook Daytime and evening exercises in astronomy, for schools and colleges.[5]

She was an author of several articles in popular astronomy, including:

  • "Use of Graphs in Teaching Astronomy",[6]
  • "Use of Drawings in Orthographic Projection and of Globes in Teaching Astronomy",[7]
  • "Spectroscopic Work for Classes in Astronomy",[8]
  • "The Use of Photographs in Teaching Astronomy",[9]
  • "Partial Solar Eclipse, June 28, 1908",[10]
  • Solar Halos,[11]
  • "A Pedagogical Suggestion for Teachers of Astronomy",[12]
  • "Priceless Accessions to Whitin Observatory Wellesley College",[13]
  • "The Tulse Hill observatory diaries (abstract)",[14]
  • "The Tulse Hill observatory diaries",[15]

Whiting also wrote an obituary for Margaret Lindsay Huggins and reminiscences of William Thomson.[16][17]

She described her experiences in physics in the Wellesley College News article "The experiences of a woman physicist."[18]




  • 1876–1912 Professor of Physics, Wellesley College
  • 1900–1916 Director, Whitin Observatory, Wellesley College
  • 1916–1927 Professor Emeritus, Wellesley College



  1. ^ a b c d Cameron, John S.; Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie (2020-08-01). "Sarah Frances Whiting and the "photography of the invisible"". Physics Today. 73 (8): 26–32. doi:10.1063/PT.3.4545. ISSN 0031-9228.
  2. ^ Patricia Ann Palmieri (1995). In Adamless Eden. Yale University Press: New Haven.
  3. ^ Klaus Hentschel (1999). The culture of visual representations in spectroscopic education and laboratory instruction. Physics in Perspective 1: 282-327 and (2002) Mapping the Spectrum. Oxford: OUP, pp. 385-393 on her spectroscopy classes.
  4. ^ Annie J. Cannon (1927). "Sarah Frances Whiting." Science, Nov. 4, 1927, pp. 417-418.
  5. ^ Whiting, Sarah Frances (1912). "Daytime and evening exercises in astronomy, for schools and colleges." Ginn and Company: Boston, New York, Chicago, London.
  6. ^ Whiting, Sarah F. (1905). "Use of Graphs in Teaching Astronomy." Popular Astronomy, vol. 13, pp. 185-190.
  7. ^ Whiting, Sarah (1905). "Use of Drawings in Orthographic Projection and of Globes in Teaching Astronomy." Popular Astronomy, vol. 13, pp. 235-240.
  8. ^ Whiting, Sarah (1905). "Spectroscopic Work for Classes in Astronomy." Popular Astronomy, vol. 13, pp. 387-391.
  9. ^ Whiting, Sarah (1905). "The Use of Photographs in Teaching Astronomy." Popular Astronomy, vol. 13, pp. 430-434.
  10. ^ Whiting, S. F. (1908). "Partial Solar Eclipse, June 28, 1908." Popular Astronomy, Vol. 16, 1908, p. 458.
  11. ^ Whiting, Sarah F. (1909). "Solar Halos." Popular Astronomy, Vol. 17, 1909, p. 389.
  12. ^ Whiting, Sarah F. (1912).
    • "A Pedagogical Suggestion for Teachers of Astronomy." Popular Astronomy, vol. 20, pp. 156-160.
  13. ^ Whiting, Sarah F. (1914). "Priceless Accessions to Whitin Observatory Wellesley College." Popular Astronomy, vol. 22, pp. 487-492.
  14. ^ Whiting, Sarah Frances (1917). "The Tulse Hill observatory diaries (abstract)." Popular Astronomy, Vol. 25, p. 117.
  15. ^ Whiting, Sarah Frances (1917). "The Tulse Hill observatory diaries." Popular Astronomy, Vol. 25, p. 158.
  16. ^ Whiting, Sarah F. (1915). "Lady Huggins." Astrophysical Journal, vol. 42, p. 1.
  17. ^ Whiting, Sarah Frances (1924-08-15). "REMINISCENCES OF LORD KELVIN". Science. 60 (1546): 149–150. doi:10.1126/science.60.1546.149. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 17750762.
  18. ^ Sarah Frances Whiting. "The experiences of a woman physicist." Wellesley College News, Jan. 9, 1913, 1-6.

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