Figure 1. Sarah Frances Whiting (1847–1927) using a fluoroscope to examine the bones in her hand in Wellesley College’s physics laboratory, circa 1896. On the table in front of her is a Crookes tube mounted on a stand and an induction coil to modulate the voltage. (Courtesy of Wellesley College.)
Topics: Applied Physics, Optics, Women in Science, X-rays
In February 1896 Sarah Frances Whiting, founder of the physics and astronomy departments at Wellesley College, conducted a series of x-ray experiments. She was working only a few weeks after the public announcement of Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of the rays, and she was not alone; amateur and professional scientists at colleges, universities, and medical centers across the US were attempting to replicate and extend Röntgen’s results. But Whiting (see figure 1), who enlisted the assistance of a Wellesley colleague and several students, was among the first to do so successfully. Even more importantly, Whiting was the first woman—and almost certainly the first person, male or female—to do so in an undergraduate laboratory. Her original glass plates from the experiments do not survive, but 15 photographs printed from them (see the opening image of one such photo above) were recently rediscovered in a campus building slated for demolition. They provide a vivid reminder of Whiting’s success.
The x-ray experiments were only one instance in which Whiting drew on her keen engagement with contemporary scientific advances to offer her students an experience available to few undergraduates at the time, and to almost no women. Throughout her long career, Whiting introduced thousands of women to physics and astronomy, both fields then associated almost entirely with men. Her pedagogical efforts led many of her female students to pursue their own careers in the sciences.
John S. Cameron is an emeritus professor of biological sciences and Jacqueline Marie Musacchio is a professor of art history at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.