On this day in 1847, the science educator Sarah Frances Whiting was born. She is best known for starting the physics department at Wellesley College and building the Whitin Observatory. (Note the different spelling: the observatory is named after the woman who provided the funding, Sarah Elizabeth Whitin.) Her father was a science teacher, but did not provide her with a formal education. She learned a lot, however; at 18, she received a Bachelor’s degree from Ingham University, the first women’s college in New York.
For a decade after graduating, she taught at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for girls. She also became known among the scientists in that region. Today there are relatively few women physicists. At that time, there were almost none. So after Henry Fowle Durant started Wellesley College, it was logical that he turned to Whiting to set up the physics department.
Although primarily an educator, Whiting was very much a scientist. When Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays in 1895, she put together the equipment to take the first x-ray photograph in the United States. It was of coins inside a change purse. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the image online. But this is a telling moment. The best scientists are the ones who jump at new opportunities.
She was a member of the American Physical Society at a time when women weren’t even allowed at their banquets. She was later elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And in 1905, Tufts College gave her an honorary PhD for her contributions to science education.
Happy birthday Sarah Frances Whiting!
Addition information from: Women in Meteorology Before World War II