Reunion 2002, Karl Schwerin, Famous Scientific Whitneys

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Miscellaneous > Whitney Family Reunion, 2002 > Reunion 2002, Karl Schwerin, Famous Scientific Whitneys

The Scientific Whitneys

Descended from John & Elinor Whitney

By Karl H Schwerin

Prepared for the Whitney Family Reunion
of the Whitney Research Group
9-11 August 2002
Lexington, MA

Albuquerque, NM

July 2002

The Whitney clan has produced many exceptional and talented individuals. Among these are several notable scientists. A recent inquiry on the "SciBase" website returned 4284 citations of current scientific articles with at least one Whitney author! Another informative source is American Men and Women of Science in which the Cumulative Index (eds. 1-14 1983) lists 81 Whitneys, of which nine (11 percent) are women. For present purposes, however, I want to confine my attention to only five outstanding Whitney scientists. These are David Day Whitney, a geneticist, Josiah Dwight Whitney a geologist, his brother William Dwight Whitney a linguist, and Mary Watson Whitney an astronomer. Of course, no discussion of Whitney scientists would be complete without at least touching on the famous inventor Eli Whitney.


David Day Whitney.1

David Day Whitney-9 (Pierce 8498) was born in Brookfield, Vermont August 6, 1878. He was first cousin to my grandmother Mary Rosette Whitney (Pierce 8481). In the 1940s and 1950s he exchanged correspondence with my mother, and was known to our family as "Cousin David." He completed his A.B. degree at Wesleyan University, Connecticut in 1904, then went on to Columbia University where he finished his Ph.D. in zoology in 1909. He taught at Wesleyan University from 1908-1916, then went to the University of Nebraska where he remained for 32 years, from 1916-1948. During his time there he was chair of the department of Zoology from 1934-1946. He also belonged to several national scientific societies.

In 1914 he married Kathryn Stillman Bunce (1877-1937). She died December 10, 1937 from peritonitis as a complication from an intestinal tumor. They had one daughter, Elizabeth Whitney Vollnhofer, and one granddaughter Ingrid Vollnhofer.

Prof. Whitney specialized in the study of rotifers, microscopic complex water animals, and published twenty or thirty papers on them and their hereditary characteristics. Early in the 20th century the mechanism of the genetic determination of sex (X & Y chromosomes) was identified. This revolutionary discovery profoundly influence the biological sciences. However, by the second decade of the century Prof. Whitney found that in rotifers the sex of progeny may also be determined by the diet of the females. This finding was considered significant enough to merit a star next to D. D. Whitney's name in American Men of Science.

By the 1930s he had become interested in human heredity. For example, he investigated the inheritance of a white forelock through five generations of a Nebraska kindred, which was attributed to an autosomal dominant gene. The inheritance of attached and unattached ear lobes was attributed to recessive and dominant alleles, respectively. Ear pits were traced to a dominant gene. He also investigated inheritance of the ability to fold (or not fold) the tongue in various ways. Two books resulted from this research. Family Treasures (1942) looked at normal traits inherited in humans, while Family Skeletons (1946) discussed the inheritance of abnormal traits in humans. It is characteristic of his optimism that David Whitney published the book on normal traits first, "This presentation is an attempt to show that the common and normal traits are as much a family study as are the abnormal traits. As he observed in the preface to that book, abnormal traits had already been much emphasized by various authors (Whitney, D. D. 1942:6).

                               Descent of
                            DAVID DAY WHITNEY

1. John WHITNEY = Elinor _____


2. vi. Jonathan = Lydia Jones

            WHITNEY  |

3. ix. Joseph = Rebecca Burge

                WHITNEY  |

4. ii. Joseph = Abigail Nutting

                    WHITNEY  |

5. ii. Benjamin = Mary Turner

                        WHITNEY  |

6. iii. David = Susanna Huntington

                            WHITNEY  |

7. iii. Daniel = Julia Hall

                                WHITNEY  |

8. ix Cyrus H. = Luthera S. Sprague

                                    WHITNEY  |
      |            |                               |            |            |

9. Daniel A. David Day = Kathryn S. Lee Roy Gladys L. Audra D.

                   WHITNEY       Stillman Bunce
                 (1878-1965)     (1877-1937)

In Family Treasures he minimized the verbal text in order to allow more space for photographs to illustrate the expression of those traits, which he felt showed them more clearly. Many of the photographs derived from his own family of Whitneys and Spragues. Others were acquired from students and acquaintances. While the book is still instructive, David did not always clearly distinguish between genetic and environmental influences. Some traits like short fingers, hair whorls, or baldness were clearly inherited. Others however, like obesity (1942:15), religious zeal (1942:209-210) and quick hot tempers are still difficult to attribute to inheritance. On the last attribute it is interesting to quote the author, "In the particular family shown above (Daniel-7 Whitney) the quick temper was traced back to the year 1705, occurring thereafter in 6 successive generations" (presumably this means the trait began with Joseph-4) (1942: 214-215). The various traits studied are summed up in a table appearing on pages 281-283.

While the book is flawed in some respects, we must remember that genetic science was hardly four decades old at the time. Thus this study is also a record of how far we have come in the 60 years since its publication. For example, David refers to "the two billions of the earth's inhabitants"! We have tripled our numbers in the intervening years. And the following observations still apply today.

"Two parents insure variations, and since 'variety is the spice of life' there is no monotony in any family, community, country, or, indeed, in any part of the earth where there is man. "The general mixing of the traits of two parents may produce new combinations that are better for general healthy and vigor than either of the original parental races."

The second book Family Skeletons dealt with the genetics of deleterious traits. David Whitney put it very nicely when he stated that "In man there may be the hidden traits of albinism, feeble-mindedness, some forms of insanity, some forms of deafness, and many other defects which are popularly called 'family skeletons'." (1942:230). There are fewer Whitney examples in this book (we must come from strong stock!). He does illustrate his own hand with fragile skin (1946:20), a curvature of the spine in his father and siblings (1946:132), an enlarged colon in his granddaughter (1946:203), and his own tongue-tie inherited from his father 1946:229, Fig. 234B). He was still using my grandmother and her sisters as examples of inherited obesity (1946:188). And while the genetic nature of Mongolism was suspected, the exact nature of its occurrence had still not been identified (1946:172) (now attributed to an extra chromosome on the 21st pair). It is interesting that at that date humans were still believed to possess 48 chromosomes (now confirmed to be 46).

It was through "Cousin David" that I became aware of the depth of my Whitney ancestry. As indicated above, he used many family photos to illustrate the two books (see esp. 1942:16, 17, 18, 20, 22, 23; 1946:130, 132, 208). The books show my ancestry (-11) back four generations. He is also the one who made me aware of Pierce (although it took me many years to track it down and fill in the remaining seven generations). Imagine my thrill in discovering my grandmother, Mary Rosette Whitney listed in Pierce! Unfortunately, in some of the photos he felt it necessary to black out the faces (presumably to protect their identity - though not all were still living at the time). 4

Prof. Whitney was described as a popular and entertaining teacher. He believed that students would work harder if they had fun in his courses. In his lectures he employed personal anecdotes, demonstration, and student participation (e.g. as in drawing different kinds of marbles from a container to illustrate the operation of chance). He employed unusual measures to attract and keep his students' attention. He would paste Christmas seals on his final exam papers. He required students to attend parties at his home, and he asked them to send him Christmas cards. He encouraged students to take art as well as science so that they could enjoy colors in nature. At the same time, he shared some of the biases of his era. When asked in 1939 whether he favored a liberal or a vocational education, he responded "It depends on what you're going to do. A girl who's going to get married shouldn't waste her time specializing in a certain field. On the other hand, a boy who's going to be a farmer should take chemistry and physics along with mechanics and ag studies" (Aldrich 1939).

After he retired in 1948 he spent his summers in California with his daughter's family who had a small pear orchard in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Elizabeth and her husband Curt Vollnhofer supplemented their income by raising miniature and toy poodles for sale. David Whitney became interested in the inheritance of color marking in these poodles. He identified 7- 8 pairs of genes that affected their color. Some of his conclusions resulted from crossbreeding the dogs, while other results came from microscopic examination of hair samples, especially from the ears or neck. Through his knowledge of genetics, he determined how to manipulate the color of their offspring, producing silver, blue, and finally cream and apricot colored poodles, all of which brought premium prices. I distinctly remember visiting them sometime in the early 1950s and being very impressed with his results. In the 1950s the details of these poodle researches appeared in several publications devoted to dogs (Journal of Canine Genetics, Popular Dogs).

After such a distinguished and varied career, David Day Whitney died in California at the age of 85, on April 7, 1965.

Mary Watson Whitney2

Mary Watson Whitney-9 (Pierce 7534) was born 11 September 1847 in Waltham, Massachusetts, the daughter of Samuel Butterick Whitney, a successful realtor. Her mother, Mary Watson Crehore, was intellectually inclined and encouraged her children's education. Mary was bright and showed a special aptitude for mathematics. But there was little opportunity beyond high school. Although her brother could go to Harvard, all she could hope for was a year or two in a ladies' seminary. But in 1865 when Matthew Vassar founded Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Mary was among the first to enroll. Having studied under a private tutor, she was able to enter in advanced standing, graduating with the second class in 1868 (Furness 1922:1-2).

At that time Vassar was one of the few colleges with its own astronomical observatory. Mary Whitney was soon attracted to Prof. Maria Mitchell, the astronomer and most distinguished scientific woman of her time. Miss Whitney loved nature and excelled in mathematics, so she found astronomy particularly attractive. In their senior year, six of Prof. Mitchell's astronomy students,, including Mary Watson Whitney, formed the famous hexagon, which served as an inspiration and role model for successive generations of astronomy students (Furness 1922:2).

Miss Whitney continued her studies after graduation, reading Gauss' Theory of Motion in Latin. In 1869 she and seven other Vassar graduates accompanied Prof. Mitchell to Burlington, Iowa to observe the total solar eclipse of August 7. Miss Whitney took her own three-inch telescope, made especially for the occasion. The results of their observations were included in the official report of the Nautical Almanac Office (Furness 1922:4-5).

In 1869-70 she was invited by Professor Benjamin Peirce of Harvard College to attend as his special guest, his mathematical lectures on Quaternions, as well as his private class in celestial mechanics. But she maintained close ties with Vassar. In 1871 the graduates organized an alumnae association, electing Miss Whitney as first president. In spring of 1872 she spent several weeks there assisting Prof. Mitchell in determining the latitude of the Observatory with a telescope loaned by the Coast Survey. Following receipt of a master's degree from Vassar in June, she went to the University of Zurich where she studied mathematics and celestial mechanics (1873-76) (Furness 1922:5-6).

Miss Whitney returned to Waltham to care for her widowed mother, and for several years taught in the local high school (1876-81). Opportunities to use her advanced training were almost non-existent. As a woman she could not hope for a position except in a women's college, and no women's college had a department of astronomy except Vassar. She could have taught mathematics, but "her well-known Unitarianism" prevented her from securing an appointment at some of the women's colleges (Furness 1922:7).

By 1881, however, Prof. Mitchell was suffering from ill health and she called on Miss Whitney to return to Vassar to serve as a private assistant in her work. She shared in the teaching and kept up the routine work of observing with the transit instrument, but there was no opportunity for independent work. In 1887 she finally found an opportunity at the Harvard Observatory, but no sooner had she moved there than Prof. Mitchell decided to resign, recommending Miss Whitney as her replacement.

For the next 23 years Mary Whitney devoted herself to her teaching and to astronomical investigation. She was the first in America to offer courses in astrophysics and on variable stars to undergraduates. She was patient mentor for even the slow students, while inspiring eager learners with her lofty conception of scientific truth. In order to pursue effectively both teaching

                                 Descent of
                            MARY WATSON WHITNEY

1. John WHITNEY = Elinor ______


2. ii. John = Ruth Reynolds

            WHITNEY  |

3. vi. Joseph = Martha Bench

                WHITNEY  |

4. vi. Benjamin = Elizabeth Fiske

                    WHITNEY  |

5. 1. Joseph = Mary Child

                        WHITNEY  |

6. v. Abijah = Lydia Stearns

                            WHITNEY  |

7. ii. Abijah = Anne Lawrence

                                WHITNEY  |

8. iv. Samuel B. = Mary Watson Crehore

                                    WHITNEY  |
     |            |            |            |            |            |

9. Elisha Mary Anne Adaline Charles Thomas

   Crehore      Watson       Maria        Stearson     A.           Lawrence
   (1846-1866)  (1847-1921)  (1849-1852)  (1852-    )  (1855-    )  (1857-1873)

and outside observing, she hired a former student to assist her, paid out of her own funds. Students trained by her were in great demand as astronomical assistants at observatories all over the country.

Under her direction the Vassar Observatory gained an international reputation for accurate and valuable research. In 1888, her first paper, reporting observations of a double star elicited recognition from Prof. Burnham of the Lick Observatory. In the study of variable stars she was recognized as one of the most important contributors of her time. By 1889 she was promoted to Professor of Astronomy. Her first major piece of research was to assist in determining the longitude of the newly established Smith College Observatory by simultaneous observations at Smith and Harvard. She then turned her attention to observing comets and plotting their exact location in the sky. She also observed several lunar eclipses and spent a great deal of time observing and charting the paths of numerous asteroids (called 'minor planets' at the time). Most of the publications on these topics are series of tables reporting the detailed measurements. At a time when large numbers of these phenomena were just beginning to be identified her contributions were significant, and widely recognized among her fellow astronomers. She collaborated with astronomers at Harvard and Columbia, while leading astronomers (e.g. Safford, Young, & Percival Lowell) visited her at Vassar. In two trips to Europe she was cordially received by the astronomers of the countries she visited.

By the turn of the century she was addressing the problem of solar motion within the galaxy and examined several sophisticated mathematical formulas in a search for the most accurate method of determining this. In 1905 she and her student Caroline Furness published a catalog of all the stars located within 2 degrees of the North Pole. After the turn of the century Prof. Whitney's early interest in nova was revived, and she turned her attention to the study of variable stars, producing several short publications and a major monograph in 1913 (which was her last publication). This study is a remarkable record of the careful and precise astronomical measurements and scientific calculations made while Director of the Vassar College Observatory. During her long career she produced nearly 70 publications on astronomy.

Mary Whitney enjoyed reading nature and religious poetry and sermons. She also composed her own poetry and entertained herself by playing operatic pieces on the autoharp. Emerson was a strong influence on her thought, and she was also fond of Shakespeare, Thoreau, Matthew Arnold, Pater, and Herbert Spencer. She was profoundly interested in philosophy and had a great interest in politics. She read the "Nation" to the end of her life (Furness 1923: 21- 22).

As a woman professor, she was expected not to marry (those who did were required to resign their position). Not only was Prof. Whitney dedicated to astronomy, but she felt her obligation as a woman to prove that women are just as capable as men. What may have been her first publication was an article on "Scientific Study and Work for Women" (1882), in which she maintained that not only would science help to develop a woman's mind, but that it provided a basis for "useful, and I hope, in the future, remunerative labor." Her whole life was spent as a woman working for other women. This conviction was early expressed in a poem written in her senior year at Vassar, titled "Prophesy." One of the three fates has fled the world in face of the onslaught of a class of eccentric, wild, and frenzied mortals who upset the future by their learning, erudition, invention, administrative skills and artistic creations (clearly referring to the aspirations of the Hexagon). A favorite comment of hers in later years was "I hope that when I get to heaven I shall not find women playing second fiddle." The fact is that as a member of the Vassar faculty her salary as a woman was less than that of her male peers. She worked tirelessly to promote the fullest educational opportunities for women. As a pioneer in her profession, "by her devotion and achievement she made the way easier for other women who were interested in scientific research." And she played her part in founding the American Astronomical Society. In 1902 the Society held its meeting in Washington in connection with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Her invitation to the formal dinner was reiterated by the president Prof. Newcomb, who assured her "that all members are equal, and that we should like very much to have our lady members with us" (Furness 1923:18). Her quiet support of the movement for equal political and social rights for women often "gained friends for suffrage when sensational methods repelled." Even after her stroke she followed the movement closely (Furness 1921).

Regular socialization with her students created a strong sense of identification and loyalty. She held weekly meetings at the Observatory for reading and conversation, often beginning by reading from the Nation. Dome parties were held at the observatory where the students wrote and sang their own verses. Prof. Whitney sometime contributed her own rhymes. She also organized the students into a club where she led them on Sunday morning bird walks. A number of her students went on to many of the leading observatories of America: Yerkes, Lick, Mount Wilson, Allegheny, University of Virginia, and Harvard, and one (Caroline Furness) became her assistant and successor as Director of the Vassar Observatory.

When her mother and her physician sister both became invalids in 1894, Mary Whitney brought them to live with her and cared for them until their deaths. The irony is that in March 1910 she was struck, like her sister, with a stroke, and forced to retire. She remained semi-invalid until her death in January 1921. In her will she left the sum of $5000 to the astronomy department at Vassar.

Josiah Dwight Whitney3

Josiah Dwight Whitney-8 was born November 23, 1819 in Northampton, Massachusetts, the eldest son of Josiah Dwight Whitney and Sarah Williston. His father, an enterprising banker, was descended from John Whitney who settled in Watertown in 1635 and from John Dwight, who settled at Dedham, Massachusetts the same year. As a youth, Josiah was sent to a number of private schools. His mother wanted him to enter the ministry, while his father encouraged a business career. But his teachers excited an interest in chemistry, although he was equally interested in music, art, and literature. He prepared for college at Phillips Andover Academy, then entered Yale as a sophomore in 1836. He graduated three years later after studying several modern languages along with chemistry and mineralogy under Benjamin Silliman as well as astronomy. In addition he became a voracious reader of English literature. He dabbled as well with music and art, in both of which he displayed some talent, and which he continued to appreciate throughout his life. Although his friends considered him brilliant and fascinating, he was at this time characterized as shy and unsocial (Merrell 1928: 162).

After his graduation he studied chemistry in Philadelphia and served as an unpaid assistant in the geological survey of New Hampshire. But he remained uncertain about a career whether business or farming, or banking, whether to pursue the law or the sciences. Then when he heard Charles Lyell lecture on geology in Boston he realized that he preferred the field of science. Seeking further training he traveled to Europe where, between 1842-47 he studied geology, mining and chemistry at various institutions. Returning to America, he brought with him a library of more then 300 books (Merrrell 1928:162; Brewster 1909:73).

In May 1847 he was hired by Charles T. Jackson to assist in a survey of the mineral lands and mines of the northern peninsula of Michigan. Jackson was, however, forced to resign after the first year, leaving the work in the hands of his two assistants, Whitney and John Wells Foster. Though a difficult task, they completed the work, "and the two volumes of their report, comprising upwards of 600 pages with forty-five plates and a colored geological map, were issued as Congressional documents in in 1850 and 1851." Whitney, however, was disgusted with the cheap style and poor quality of the plates, and repeatedly tried to have them reproduced in a better format (G.P.M. 162).

In their report on the Lake Superior region Whitney and Foster characterized the geological formations bearing iron and copper, considering the former to be one of the richest iron-bearing regions in the world. In their opinion the iron formations were igneous in origin, and, they concluded, very ancient, having been formed prior to the appearance of (multicellular) organic life. Accordingly, they named the strata where these deposits were found Azoic (or devoid of life). Later geological authors frequently questioned these conclusions, arguing that these formations were sedimentary and/or metamorphic. Almost none of them, however, conducted the careful and detailed field investigations upon which Whitney and Foster based their conclusions. In time, the latter proved to be correct in their observations and conclusions concerning these geological formations (Wadsworth 1880:76, 131)

                          Descent of

1. John WHITNEY = Elinor _______

       iii. Richard  =  Martha Coldam
            WHITNEY  |

3. ii. Moses = Sarah Knight

               WHITNEY  |

4. ii. Moses = Elizabeth ______

                  WHITNEY  |                    

5. ii. Aaron = Alice Baker

                     WHITNEY  |

6. iv. Abel = Clarissa Dwight

                        WHITNEY  |

7. ii. Josiah Dwight = Sarah Williston / = Clarissa James

                           WHITNEY  |
        |            |        |       |             |             |        |      |

8. Josiah Dwight Elizabeth Sarah William | William Dwight Margaret Maria Edward

     WHITNEY                       Dwight   |     WHITNEY
   (1819-1896)                     (1826)   |   (1827-1894)
                     |          |          |           |           |
                   Henry      James     Alice L.    Alice C.     Ellen

                           Josiah Dwight  =  Louisa Goddard                
                                 WHITNEY  |   (1819-1882)
                                       Eleanor = Thomas Allen         

                          William Dwight  =  Elizabeth W. Baldwin
                                WHITNEY   |   (1824- )
                 |           |         |         |          |           |
              Edward     Williston   Marian    Roger      Emily     Margaret
              Baldwin      Clap      Parker   Sherman   Henrietta    Dwight

After completing the survey, Whitney set himself up as a consulting expert in mining. His clientele throughout the eastern United States and Canada provided extensive information on ore deposits, ores and mining, which he compiled into the significant work Metallic Wealth of the United States (1854). This remained the standard work of reference for many years (G.P.M. 162). In June 1854 he married Louisa (Goddard) Howe. They had one daughter, Eleanor.

During the years 1855-58, Whitney held the title of professor at the University of Iowa, but devoted much of his time as chemist and mineralogist with James Hall on the geological survey of Iowa. His report characterizes, in clear straightforward language, the general geographic and geological features of the state, noting that Iowa has few prominent geographic features. The relatively flat prairie is characterized by deep soils which obscure much of the geological formations lying below it. He notes the division of watersheds, with the eastern two-thirds draining into the Mississippi, while the western third flows into the Missouri. Whitney's particular interest was in the mineral-bearing regions of northeastern Iowa, which he describes in more technical language. He identifies both useful non-metallic deposits and metallic ores, with specific attention to the lead-deposits of the northeast which belong with similar formations in southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. Often, in Hall's absence, he acted as head of the survey. He was also associated with Hall in the geological survey of Wisconsin, investigating the lead regions. For a time he also participated in the Illinois survey, dealing mainly with the deposits of lead and zinc (Merrill 1928:162; Hall & Whitney 1858).

In 1860 the Geological Survey of California was established. Whitney, who was appointed to direct the elaborate survey undertook the work with enthusiasm. Many important features of the state's geography and geology were described, especially of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was one of these survey expeditions that the party named the highest peak in the range for their chief, J.D. Whitney (Mt. Whitney is renowned as the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states). Before long, however, the survey was confronted with political and economic difficulties. Eventually these became so overwhelming that the survey was suspended in 1868 and abandoned completely by 1874. Relatively little of the work accomplished by the survey was ever published, but its findings were significant. It also notable for the first-rate men it trained, and the methods it introduced, such as topographical mapping by triangulation. In addition to his official responsibilities, Whitney chaired a committee to create a state agricultural and mechanical college. Having been one of the incorporators of the National Academy of Sciences (1863), he also actively promoted the California Academy of Science. Stemming from his geological surveys, he served as a commissioner of Yosemite Park, becoming an ardent promoter of the park and its many geological wonders. His The Yosemite Book (1868) is an enthusiastic celebration of the area, as well as a promotional piece designed to encourage public visitation. There is no doubt that Whitney's contributions to American geology were many and significant. Many reports of official work were published at his own expense (Merrill 1928:162-163).

In 1875 he was re-appointed to the Sturges-Hooper Professorship of Geology at Harvard, which had been created for him ten years earlier. He also became a member of the faculty of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Here he was able to publish some of the results of the California survey by subsidizing part of the expense out of his own pocket and with the aid of the Harvard Museum. In 1882, after several years as an invalid, his wife died, followed a few days later by the death of his daughter in Europe. During his years at Harvard he spent eight years assisting his brother William D. Whitney in preparing the scientific part of the Century Dictionary. Professor Whitney retained his positions at Harvard until his death of arteriosclerosis August 19, 1896 at Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. His grave is marked with a glacial boulder of rose quartzite from the geological age of the lead district of Upper Michigan (National Academy of Sciences 1913:195).

Merrill (1928:163) characterizes Josiah D. Whitney as

"independent in thought and action, strong of character and aggressive, wholesomely outspoken in criticism of poor work, and a writer of a vigorous English. His work in northern Michigan and the lead region of the upper Mississippi Valley, and his Metallic Wealth of the United States gave powerful stimulus to the scientific study of ore deposits and raised the calling of the mining geologist to a higher plane."

As a teacher he was not terribly accomplished, serving more as a model of the accurate and painstaking scholar. But he did train and influence a number of men who helped to shape the teaching of geology and geography in American colleges for the next generation.

William Dwight Whitney5

William Dwight Whitney-8 (Pierce 4474), born February 9, 1827 in Northampton, Massachusetts, was the fourth child of Josiah Dwight Whitney and Sarah Williston, and younger brother to Josiah Dwight Whitney. William attended the public schools of Northampton, then, unlike his brothers who went to Yale, he entered Williams College as a sophomore. He graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1845. That summer, Professor of chemistry Edward Lasell made daguerrotype pictures of the graduating class, "to be left at the college as class memorial." As far as known , this was the first college class to do this, which of course later became a general practise nationwide (W.D. Whitney 1885:xiii-xiv).

As a boy he had always been interested in nature and natural science, spending much time in the outdoors. As a youth he shot, mounted, and presented to the Peabody Museum at Yale a collection of the birds of New England (including what was believed to have been the last wild turkey). In 1849 he accompanied his brother Josiah in the U.S. geological survey of the Lake Superior region. His report on the botany of the area was published as a chapter of the general report (1851). Throughout his lifetime he maintained a keen interest and competence in botany and ornithology. Even in the midst of his linguistic career he joined the 1873 Hayden expedition in Colorado as assistant in the geographical work, without compensation. More importantly, these early experiences in natural science, and especially in geology, provided a model for his later efforts at explaining linguistic phenomena (H.H.B. 1928:166; W.D. Whitney 1885:xiii-xiv, 181-182).

In his day, he seems to have been more highly recognized than his brother Josiah. Pierce (1895:485-490) at least, devotes five pages to William, and only two to Josiah. One might have expected William to become a natural scientist like his brother, but included among Josiah's collection of more than 300 books acquired in Europe was a Sanskrit grammar by Bopp. In October 1845 William contracted the measles. During his convalescence he studied the grammar. Upon his recovery he worked as a clerk in his father's bank for three years, but when he joined the geological survey of Lake Superior in 1849 he took the grammar with him, and by the end of the summer he could read simple Sanskrit. That fall he went to Yale to study with Edward Eldridge Salisbury, a leading scholar of Arabic and Sanskrit. Following this he went to Germany for three years to further his studies of the oriental language with several renowned German scholars (H.H.B. 1928:166-167; W.D. Whitney 1885:177).

Meanwhile at Yale, Salisbury created a fund which enabled Whitney to be named in 1854 to a new "Professorship of Sanskrit and related languages, and Sanskrit literature." In 1861 he received his doctorate from the University of Breslau. Although Harvard did once try to lure him away in 1869, Whitney remained at Yale until his death forty years later. During that time his teaching and research were devoted to five main albeit diverse interests: Sanskrit, linguistic science, modern languages, popular writing, and lexicography. Throughout his career he published some 360 titles in these fields (H.H.B. 1928:168).

On August 27, 1856, William Whitney married Elizabeth Wooster Baldwin of New Haven. Three sons and three daughters were born to them. It was a close family, and he enjoyed country walks with his children, conversations with friends or his brothers and sisters. He carried on an active correspondence with at least some of these. He loved music and had a good baritone voice. He belonged to no church, but attended services regularly and knew the Bible thoroughly - approaching it no doubt as a scholar, in the same way he studied the Sanskrit literature. He was of average height and weight, had deep blue eyes, slightly curling reddish hair, and for most of his life he had a full beard (H.H.B. 1928:169).

While in Europe he copied and collated all available copies of the Atharva-Veda, written in the oldest form of Sanskrit, and collated them. Together he and Rudolph Roth published the Sanskrit text in Berlin in 1856. This was followed by numerous related publications in German, English and Sanskrit, making him the leading American scholar in the study of the Atharva-Veda. As one of William's hobbies was astronomy, he published a translation of a Hindu treatise on astronomy (Surya-Siddhanta 1860). At his death he left behind a nearly complete manuscript of a translation of the Atharva-Veda, which was published posthumously in 1905 by Harvard (H.H.B. 1928:167).

Though erudite and possessing a vast command of the English language, William Dwight's writing is more difficult and less easily comprehended than that of his brother Joseph. As a scholar he wrote on a broad range of subjects, but he was primarily a grammarian. In the technical field his most important contribution was to the study and teaching of Sanskrit and there were few American Sanskritists who were not trained by him or one of his pupils. He was a leader during a time when scientific principles and methods were spreading from the natural sciences to the moral' or social sciences. Whitney considered himself a scientist, and as such both his writing and his teaching were characterized by the search for hard, orderly facts - independent as much as possible of either enthusiasm or emotion. He was one of the first to treat language as a cultural institution. He took a uniformitarian view in stressing that language changes gradually, in response to environmental conditions, free from catastrophes or sudden profound change (as with the Mosaic tale of the Tower of Babel). Personally, however, he was naturally simple and sincere, treating others with sympathy, patience, and kindness (H.H.B. 1928:168).

Whitney's most important work was his Sanskrit Grammar (1879), published in Germany, and translated into German, which he revised a decade later. This involved a radical innovation, in that he emphasized modern linguistic in analyzing Sanskrit, rather than following the Hindu traditions of classification, arrangements, rules, and terms. His method emphasized descriptive and statistical techniques, with less attention to comparison. He was one of the most dependable leaders of his day in the study of language. These innovations marked a great transition in the study of Sanskrit, and his innovations continue to be indispensable to both scholar and student. Most of the American philologists, linguists and orientalists of the 19th century were trained by him or his students (H.H.B. 1928:167).

For him language was a historical science, neither physical or natural, nor psychological. It is certainly to be differentiated from the abstract, often mystical perspective of philology. He was thus vehemently opposed to the ideas of Max Muller that language is an organism subject to growth, decay and death (naturalism), as well as his general metaphysical psychologism. Whitney believed rather in the power of common sense and inductive reasoning, as well as judicious use of the comparative method, constrained by "fixed rules of application." His writings on the nature of language and the principles of linguistic science addressed fundamental problems of scholarship concerning human speech (e.g. Language and the Study of Language. 1867; The Life and Growth of Language. 1875). His prime objective was to understand why we speak in the first place, and given that, to use historical evidence in explaining why we speak the way we do. Language is not a natural organism. It does not possess a pre-existent and unvarying structure. He saw language instead as a living, growing and constantly changing institution, the cultural and historical product of human action. Whitney often stressed the social character of language. At the same time it is a system of arbitrary signs. He is decidedly anti-racist in his theory of language, for he notes that a human can learn the language of any community in which he participates, independently of the race to which he belongs. As such, language functions within a community of speakers as an instrument of communication and interaction between two or more individuals. At a time when many linguists avoided discussing the origins of language, Whitney fearlessly explored this issue as well (Silverstein 1971:7, 70, 98-107).

"Like all human action, speech is voluntary, an ongoing process by which language as a product comes into being and is changed. There are no fixed laws that structure language from without, but procedures of change and variation that structure language from within and work 'in lively phrase'. The constant everyday actions of speakers keep language 'alive'. Language has thus no life of its own; it lives only through its speakers. This is a continuous process that has nothing to do with birth, growth, and decay" (Nerlich 1990:30-31).

Not only were Whitney's publications semi-popular, but they were translated into a half-dozen European languages (H.H.B. 1928:168).

In his early years at Yale Whitney supplemented his salary by teaching German and French in the Modern Language department (of which he also served as head) of the Sheffield Scientific School. To facilitate this activity he published a series of German texts, a reader, a dictionary, and grammars for German, French and English. In these educational treatises he applied the same clear, concise principles that distinguished his Sanskrit studies, and they were correspondingly influential in secondary schools and colleges (H.H.B. 1928:168).

Whitney also published many popular articles on scientific questions. In his list of publications (Lanman 1897), 127 out of 360 publications were either popular articles (52), book reviews (68), or obituaries (7). He made important additions to lexicography by contributing material for several dictionaries, as well as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and editing the 1864 edition of Webster's dictionary. During the last decade of his life he was editor-in-chief of the six volume The Century Dictionary (1889-91), for which he wrote and signed the preface. "He shared responsibility for plan, method, and execution, supervised spelling, pronunciation, etc., and read all the proofs." This was an attempt to produce the first modern comprehensive general dictionary of the English language (although the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in 1884), with about 200,000 words being defined. It was designed to include an extensive list of technical terms. It was also intended to serve as "a convenient book of general reference." Detailed etymologies were given for many words. The volumes were intended to serve as a mini-encyclopedia, with extensive illustrations, the addition of much practical information, and an unusually full treatment of many technical matters (H.H.B. 1928:168; Whitney 1889-91:1:v, vii-viii, xv).

At the time Whitney was "not only one of America's most celebrated scholars (he was even elected to a list of forty immortals') but one of her few figures of international renown in Europe." His contributions were recognized with many honors - honorary degrees from American and foreign universities, an honorary member of several Oriental and literary societies, royal academies, etc. For more than 40 years he was an important member and officer of the American Oriental Society, serving as librarian (1855-1873), corresponding secretary (and editor of publications) (1857-1884), and president (1884-1890). During this time a full half of the contents of the society's Journal were penned by Whitney. He was one of the founders and first president (1869) of the American Philological Association. He chaired a committee of the Association to study English spelling, and held office in the Spelling Reform Association. Though no radical, he favored reform. As might be expected, he preferred the use of simpler alternative forms of spelling. He was opposed to the principle of "historical" or "etymological" spelling (H.H.B. 1928:168-169; Silverstein 1971:viii).

In 1886 he learned that he was suffering from angina, which severely restricted his activity. But he continued his work until his death June 7, 1894 in New Haven, Connecticut. William D. Whitney was so highly regarded among linguists, philologists and orientalists that the meeting that December of the First American Congress of Philology (jointly with a half dozen other societies with similar interests6) in Philadelphia was dedicated to his memory. More than 200 scholars attended. Several of those participating presented short essays about Whitney's character and significance in their field. Letters concerning Professor Whitney from 23 distinguished European scholars were also read. He was cited as one of the most illustrious American intellectuals, who had placed this country on a par with the most distinguished Europeans. His patriotism was evident in his conviction "that he was working, first for the welfare, and second for the glory of his country." Repeatedly they emphasized his patience, his kindness, his modesty, his openness, his selfless dedication to careful scholarship, his commonsense, and his insistence on painstaking scientific work. He was quick to deflate "any loose statement or extravagant theory, although printed in the most dignified journal and propounded by the most redoubtable authority." He had the rare gift of being able to balance both breadth and thoroughness. The whole was later published as A Report of the Congress (Lanman 1897:18-19, 24; H.H.B.1928:169).

At just about the time of his death, the anthropologist Frans Boas (1858-1942) began to dominate American linguistics, initiating a vast descriptive anthropologically oriented linguistic fieldwork directed to the study of native American languages. Boas particularly stressed the importance of cultural and linguistic relativism. Out of this arose new methods of analysis and new theoretical inferences. This was a perspective that inevitably disregarded Whitney's work. Although his work was appreciated by Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), the leading American linguist during the first half of the twentieth century, Whitney's contributions were only revived in the latter half of the century when there was a return to more structural and cognitive approaches to the study of language. His writing remains relevant today in the debate on the nature of language and linguistics (Silverstein 1971:viii).

Eli Whitney

Eli-7 (Pierce 1836) is the Whitney we all learned about in school. But what did we learn other than the fact that he invented the cotton gin? Eli was naturally inventive and his accomplishments are many, although he also suffered severe disappointments. Some might say he was more of an engineer than a scientist, but it is nonetheless evident that he did employ scientific reasoning in creating his many inventions and innovations. What he did was to extend the rational approach already employed in social and scientific thinking to the practical problems of industrial production.

Eli Whitney was born December 8, 1765 at Westborough, Worcester County, Massachusetts, the son of Eli Whitney, Sr. and Elizabeth Fay. Not only was he descended from John Whitney on the paternal side, but his mother's family, the Fays, were also early English immigrants to Massachusets. His parents were respectable and prosperous farmers, religiously devout, and leaders in the community (Olmsted 1972:5-6).

His father had a workshop where he sometimes made wheels and chairs. Eli's mechanical genius became evident at an early age, for he soon learned to use his father's tools, preferring this to working on the farm. When he was about 12 he made himself a fiddle. The workmanship of such a young craftsman impressed everyone who examined it, and it also made decent music. Whitney was above all fascinated by his father's watch, but he was not allowed to examine it. One Sunday he feigned illness while the family went to church. As soon as the family left he took the watch apart to see how it worked. He would certainly have been punished for doing this, but he put it back together so skillfully that his father never suspected a thing, until he was told about it many years later (Olmsted 1972:7).

Whitney's mother died when he was still young. His father soon remarried and although there was tension between the new wife and her stepson, he always treated her courteously and with respect. She had a handsome set of table knives, and when Eli said he could duplicate them she thought he was mocking her. But when one of the knives was broken, he made another exactly like it, which pleased her and lessened her criticisms (Olmsted 1972:8).

When Eli was 15 or 16, the Revolutionary War was still going on. Trade had been curtailed, and there was shortage of many goods. Nails were in great demand, and Eli proposed to manufacture nails. With his father's consent he began by making all the necessary tools. During the winter he made nails, while during the summer he worked on the farm. For two winters he was quite succesful. But when the war ended, British nails were imported once more,

                       Descent of 
                       ELI WHITNEY

1. John WHITNEY = Elinor _______


2. ii.John = Ruth Reynolds

            WHITNEY  |

3. iii. Nathaniel = Sarah Hagar

               WHITNEY  |

4. i. Nathaniel = Mercy Robinson

                  WHITNEY  |                    

5. i. Nathaniel = Mary Child

                     WHITNEY  |

6. xi. Eli = Elizabeth Fay

                        WHITNEY  |
       |                                      |            |        |

7. Eli = Henrietta Frances Edwards Elizabeth Fay Benjamin Josiah

(1765-1825) |
         |                   |               |              |
    Francis Edwards     Elizabeth Fay       Eli       Susan Edwards

and Eli could no longer turn a profit. Rather than abandon the business entirely, he turned his machinery to producing hat pins which were so well made that he nearly monopolized the business. He also began to manufacture walking canes (Olmsted 1972:8-9).

Whitney seems not to have been exceptional in school, except for an aptitude with mathematics. He wanted to attend college, but family and friends felt that a liberal education would waste his mechanical genius. His stepmother also opposed the idea, probably because of the expense of $1000 per year. So, although barely more qualified than his students, Eli taught school for three years. By the end of that time he had earned enough that at the age of 23, and with supplementary assistance from his father, he was able to enroll as one of 43 men in the May 1789 freshman class at Yale. "In larger part, he went to college to learn facts systematically grouped into scientific disciplines that have practical applicability." College also exposed him to a broad range of literary, philosophical and political ideas. He planned to become a lawyer, but he mostly studied mathematics and mechanics. After finishing college, he paid back his father most of the money that he had been advanced (Olmsted 1972:9-11; Mirsky & Nevins 1952:37).

Upon graduating from college in the autumn of 1792, Whitney had to find employment. He finally secured a job as private tutor in South Carolina. At that time smallpox was considered a serious risk for travelers, so Eli had himself inoculated beforehand.7 Still weak from recovery, he was invited by a Mrs. Greene, the widow of the Revolutionary General Greene, to travel with her family to their residence near Savannah and to stay with them until his employment began (Olmsted 1972:12).

Then Whitney learned that someone else had been hired as tutor in his stead. Mrs. Greene graciously offered to let him stay in their home where he could pursue the study of law. Southern agriculture was declining, and the planters were looking for a new crop that would be profitable. Growth of the British textile industry made cotton a promising choice. But it took a woman one whole day to clean a pound of fiber. One day a large party of gentlemen visited and began talking about how laborious it was to separate the green cotton seed (or upland cotton, the only kind that would grow in the interior of the country) from the fiber. Mostly to call attention to him, Mrs. Greene suggested that these gentlemen charge Whitney with the problem (Olmsted 1972:13).

He dedicated himself to the task, making his own tools to construct the machine. By the end of winter he had a working model. In this undertaking he was encouraged by Mr. Phineas Miller who was the business manager (and later the husband) of Mrs. Greene. Miller provided both financial and material support to Whitney while he experimented with his machine. Satisfactory tools and materials were unavailable in the South, however, and Whitney had to return to New Haven in order to construct his model. The first satisfactory machine had a cylinder slightly more than two feet long and six inches in diameter. One person could easily turn it by hand. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson (then Secretary of State and in charge of issuing patents), Whitney reported that "It is the task of one negro to clean fifty weight, (I mean fifty pounds after it is separated from the seed), of the green seed cotton per day." One can easily see how much more productive even this early machine was. Because of his early investment in the undertaking, Miller became partners with Whitney and they had prospects of securing great profits from the new machine. They did in fact set up as many as 30 gins in eight different locations throughout Georgia (Olmsted 1972:14-15, 17, 23).

But knowledge of the ginning machine spread rapidly. Someone broke into the building where it was kept and carried off the machine. Copies were quickly made with some slight deviation from the original in order to evade the patent rights of Miller and Whitney. One improvement was to replace the original wire teeth with teeth cut in circular rims of iron (known as the saw gin), an idea originally contemplated by Whitney but not incorporated into his model until later. Not only were the Georgia planters resistant to Miller & Whitney's monopoly on manufacture of the gins, they were also outraged at what they considered exorbitant prices for having their cotton ginned (Olmsted 1972:16-20; Mirsky & Nevins 1952:112, 175).

Once Whitney had secured the patent on his invention he and Miller entered numerous lawsuits against their challengers. These took years to wend their way through the courts. They were expensive, and Whitney often suffered adverse decisions. The defendants often claimed that Whitney had not invented the cotton gin, but had merely copied earlier machines, or that they themselves had priority in inventing it. Even when Whitney sometimes won a case, it had little effect in preventing unauthorized use of the cotton gin without paying licensing fees. Miller also made several bad investments on his own, which kept the company in financial straits. Miller and Whitney had better luck in South Carolina. They offered to license use of the gin to the state for $100,000; in 1801 the legislature authorized $50,000. In North Carolina a tax of 2 shillings six pence was levied in 1802 on every saw employed in ginning cotton, for a period of five years. After deducting expenses, the remainder was to be handed over to the patentee. A license was also concluded with Tennessee. It was just at this time that Miller died, leaving the whole enterprise in Whitney's hands. Though some profit was derived from these agreements, most of it was dissipated in fighting lawsuits over the gin in Georgia. By the time most of these were settled, the patent right was running out. Whitney applied to the Congress for an extension of that right, but it was never approved (Olmsted 1972:23-46; Mirsky & Nevins 1952:132-133).

Use of the cotton gin effected a revolution in Southern agriculture, American commerce, and worldwide manufacturing. Land previously unsuitable for rice or tobacco could be planted to cotton. The plantation system not only supplanted the growing of these other crops in the Atlantic states, but expanded westward toward the Mississippi and beyond. The demand for slave labor increased proportionately.

In 1793, the year of the invention, the whole cotton crop of the United States was 5,000,000 lbs., and the total exportation 487,600 lbs. (The next year) the whole crop increased to 8,000,000 lbs., and the exportation to 1,601,760 lbs. In 1800 the total production of cotton in the United States amounted to 35,000,000 lbs., of which 17,789,803 lbs. were exported. In 1840, crop 880,000,000-exportation valued at $63,870,307." More than $1.4 billion was generated over a period of 40 years. Great Britain abolished the import duty on American cotton, which could be produced more cheaply than that from East India. The manufacture of cotton fabrics increased phenomenally in Britain, with much the same thing happening in all parts of the United States (Olmsted 1972:79-80).

The cotton gin was not, however, Eli's only important contribution to American industry. The problems surrounding promotion of the machine and expenses associated with the suits in defense of his patent left Whitney both emotionally depressed and in severe financial straits. By 1798 he recognized the uncertainty of gaining any immediate profits from that invention. The United States was also facing the prospect of war with France, which would cut off European sources of armament. The federal government looked like a more reliable customer than the Southern planters. So he negotiated a contract for the Manufacture of Arms for the United States. He agreed to produce 10,000 stand of muskets at $13.40 apiece (for a sum total of $134,000). At the time this was an unprecedented undertaking - to produce and deliver such a quantity of arms in such a short time. Initially he was to have delivered the complete order within two years, but in the end epidemics, bad weather, and delays in acquiring materials took him eight years to complete the contract (Olmsted 1972:47-49; Mirsky & Nevins 1952:136-146, 192-193, 196-197).

At a time when expenses were estimated on the basis of labor costs plus the costs of raw materials-with a dollar or so added on to cover all other items-he insisted on including interest on the invested capital and insurance charges as part of the cost of a musket. He was as much an innovator in his method of estimating costs as in his system of production (Mirsky & Nevins 1952:234).

What is remarkable is that Whitney was not particularly knowledgeable about this business. Nor were proper machines or tools available, most of these he had to construct himself. The bank was reluctant to advance a loan to get the enterprise off the ground, until ten of his substantial New Haven friends guaranteed him to the bank for $10,000. The factory was constructed at the foot of a precipice called East Rock in Hamden just north of New Haven, where a waterfall provided power to move the machinery (the spot was later called Whitneyville).8

Whitney's great innovation in this enterprise was to construct machinery that would produce uniform and interchangeable components which could then be assembled into the finished musket. To accomplish this he invented an elaborate system of guides, patterns, templates, gauges and jigs to manufacture large numbers of muskets equivalent to those produced by skilled craftsmen. Most important among his inventions was the milling machine which would become fundamental to the machine tool industry. Because of his experience with the cotton gin, Whitney never again patented any of his inventions. In fact he was careful not to keep detailed plans or drawings of his machines. Because it was necessary to use them in conjunction with one another to produce the muskets, he was confident that no one could reconstruct the necessary combination merely from observation.

Until this time muskets had been fabricated individually by skilled craftsmen. This meant that when a piece (such as a lock, e.g.) became worn or broken, it had to be refashioned and fitted by hand. Whitney's mass production of identical pieces meant that any piece could be readily replaced. This technique also facilitated the production of arms, for each worker could concentrate on producing standardized individual pieces in quantity. Nor was great skill required of the worker who operated the machinery. When all of the pieces were finished, they could be readily assembled by any worker. This was Whitney's solution to the American scarcity of skilled labor but abundance of resources. (In fact, he preferred inexperienced workers, who were easier to instruct, than to combat the prejudices of those who had learned to manufacture arms under different systems. He also preferred workers with family and property, judging that they were less likely to move on in search of better opportunities). Nonetheless he seems to have been an autocratic manager, overseeing the most minute details of constructing the plant and manufacturing the muskets. He seems to have felt that the entire enterprise would collapse if he weren't continually present. Not until the end of his career was he willing to delegate responsibility, and then it was to the nephews whom he had instructed personally (Mirsky & Nivens 1952:271).

Not only were Whitney's firearms cheaper to produce, they were superior in quality to all other foreign and domestic muskets. Although sometimes in competition with the government armory at Springfield, he eventually shared his technological expertise with them. His innovations in the manufacture of muskets altered the economic and social development of the North and laid the foundations for its industrial progress. "Many of the inventions which he made to facilitate the manufacture of muskets, were applicable to most other manufactures of iron and steel," and were quickly adapted to those industries (Olmsted 1972:48-54; Mirsky & Nevins 1952:177, 190, 245-265, 271). Thus the production line, which has become a keystone of modern industry, was first devised by Eli Whitney for the manufacture of firearms. Fortunately for him, this undertaking proved to be financially rewarding, providing him with the prosperity he never achieved with the cotton gin.

His accomplishments led to Whitney being recognized as a man of science and a man of affairs. When the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1799, he became a charter member. He was also admitted to membership in the United States Military Philosophical Society.

Eli, a workaholic, was so immersed in the affairs of his businesses - the arms manufactory in New Haven, and the legal suits in the south--that he had little time for a personal life. Plans to travel to Britain to promote his business interests were repeatedly postponed because more urgent matters prevailed at home. He repeatedly excused himself, citing the demands of business, for failure to visit his father, siblings, or friends. He did keep up a regular correspondence with his father, his sister Elizabeth, and his brother Josiah, who was a succesful businessman. Though unmarried, Eli sent for the sons of his sister Elizabeth and her husband Elihu Blake -- Philos, Elihu and Eli Whitney Blake. He lavished care and affection on his nephews, and taught them how to behave in polite society. Eli often referred to himself as an "Old Bachelor;" Mirsky & Nevins suggest that he had long been enamoured of Catherine Greene, and it was not until her death that he felt free to seek a wife (Mirsky & Nevins 1952:223-229).

Whatever the reason, having finally achieved financial security, in January 1817 Eli Whitney married Henrietta F. Edwards, daughter of Pierpont Edwards and a member of the highest New England aristocracy. A son and three daughters were born to them, though the youngest daughter died before the age of two. In 1822 he began to suffer severe pains from an enlarged prostate. Over the next couple of years the malady progressed. Characteristically, he examined the best medical writers on the disease, consulted with his professional advisors, and studied the anatomical illustrations provided by an eminent professor of anatomy. He became so knowledgeable about his illness that it is said he "acted rather as if he himself had been the physician than the patient" (imagine what he would have done with the Internet!). During the last two months of his life he suffered almost uninterrupted pain, until his death on 8 January 1825. He is buried in New Haven. After his death Whitney's New Haven manufactory continued operating under the direction of his nephews Philos and Eli Blake. Later direction of the factory was assumed by his son Eli Whitney, Jr. who also proved a capable businessman, and then passed to his grandson. The factory continued in operation until it was sold to the Winchester Arms Company in 1888 (Olmsted 1972:59-60,70-71; Mirsky & Nevins 1952:284, 297, 177).

It is in some ways ironic that with invention of the cotton gin Eli Whitney contributed to the spread of the agrarian plantation system in the South and thereby also intensified the need for slave labor. On the other hand, his development of mass production manufacturing of muskets showed the way for development of industry and a free industrial labor force in the North, which thereby promoted innovation, commercial enterprise, and production of inexpensive uniform goods. The one led eventually to dividing the nation, the other to its amalgamation into a homogeneous whole.

In pursuing his manufacturing enterprise, Eli Whitney faced the same problems as modern industry. He needed to raise capital and he needed to figure costs. He had to experiment and innovate in order to operate most efficiently. And he had to recruit workers and train them in the use of his innovations. From the start he avoided habitual practises and contemporary thinking. Instead he approached the problems of manufacturing in terms of new challenges presented by new needs. Had he not been beset by so many financial and legal problems, he might have accomplished even more. Throughout his life Eli Whitney constantly devised and constructed various instruments for his own use or that of his friends. He was highly regarded among his friends and acquaintances. After achieving financial security he was often generous in assisting friends or even aiding casual acquaintances who incited his kindness and generosity. He was especially noted for his patience, perseverance and singlemindedness in pursuing his goals. He always insisted on achieving perfection with his inventions (Olmsted 1972:71-72, 74; Mirsky & Nevins 1952:243). As a man who overcame his limitations and impediments Eli Whitney was a worthy descendant of his hardy ancestors John and Elinor.


While it in no way detracts from the accomplishments of these individuals, it cannot be insignificant that in each case they came from families where other siblings also distinguished themselves professionally. David Day Whitney and Mary Watson Whitney both had siblings who were physicians. Not only were Josiah Dwight and William Dwight Whitney brothers, their brother Rev. Henry M. Whitney was a professor of rhetoric and English literature. Eli's brother Josiah was a succesful businessman. No doubt family encouragement to pursue learning, or at least to explore new ideas, created an environment that encouraged the scientific development of each of these eminent persons.

Nor are these the only Whitneys or Whitney descendants to pursue a scientific career. Ron Kyser called attention to Glayde Dennis Whitney (1939 - ), psychologist, educator and geneticist at Florida State University. Joe Keller noted Elbridge Dyer (1815-1875) (grandson of Jesse Whitney) who developed steam engines for harvesting crops, introducing them into California. His grandson Edmund Allen was a fighter pilot during WW I and was considered the best U.S. test pilot between the wars. He introduced a scientific basis to test flying. For his achievements in aeronautical research he received the Guggenheim Award. In my own field of anthropology there are at least four of us: Dan Whitney (Ph.D.) (ancestry unknown), Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University; Dorothy Jean Cattle (Ph.D.) - 12 (also descended from Ephraim Whitney [d. 1775] of Framingham, MA), Dean of Arts & Sciences, Forsyth Technical Community College; Thomas Whitney Kavanagh (Ph.D.) (ancestry unknown), Curator of the Mathers Museum, Indiana University; and the author, Karl H Schwerin (Ph.D.) - 11, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico. While there are many other distinguished Whitney lines, John & Elinor's descendants have without a doubt contributed much to the scientific tradition of this country.


1. A bibliography of David D. Whitney's publications is available from the author.

2. A bibliography of Mary Watson Whitney's publications is available from the author.

3. A bibliography of Josiah Dwight Whitney's publications is available from the author.

4. 1877. The burning of the convent, a narrative of the destruction of the Ursuline School on Mount Benedict, Charlestown, by one of the pupils. Cambridge, MA: 1878. Peasy's childhood, an autobiography.

5. A bibliography of William Dwight Whitney's publications is available from the author.

6. These included the American Oriental Society, the Spelling Reform Association, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, the Modern Language Association, and the American Dialect Society.

7. This was through "variolation," the deliberate inoculation of a healthy person with smallpox scabs or pus through a cut in the skin. Though dangerous, the mortality rate from this procedure was only about one per cent, as opposed to 30 per cent from the disease contracted through the respiratory tract. Jenner's discovery of a safe and effective vaccine was not published until 1797, and it was several years afier that before it was widely accepted.

8. To this day there is a Whitney Lake in Hamden, on the Mill River north of East Rock Park in New Haven.


Aldrich, Bob. 1939. article interviewing Prof. D.D. Whitney in the "Daily Nebraskan" 21 December 1939

H.H.B. 1928. Whitney, William Dwight. Dictionary of American Biography, vol.10:166-169, ed. by Dumas Malone. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons

Brewster, Edward Tenney (ed.). 1909. Life and letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin

Poster, J.W. & Josiah Dwight Whitney (United States Geologists). 1851. Report on the geology of the Lake Superior land district. Part II. The iron region, together with the general geology. Washington, Printed by A. B. Hamilton, 1851

Green, Constance McL. 1956. Eli Whitney and the birth of American technology. Boston, MA: Little Brown

Hall, James & Josiah Dwight Whitney. 1858. Report on the Geological survey of the state of Iowa. Iowa Geological Survey. Des Moines, JA: Printed by C. Van Benthuysen (S/E QElli 183x)

Lanman, Charles R. 1897. A report of that sesion of the First American Congress of Philol6gists, which was devoted to the memory of the late Professor William Dwight Whitney of Yale University; held at Philadelphia, Dec.28, 1894. Boston, MA: Published for the Congress by Ginn & Co.

Merrell, George P. 1928. Whitney, Josiah Dwight. Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 10:161-163, ed. by Dumas Malone. New York: Charles Scribners Sons

Mirsky, Jeanneffe & Allan Nevins. 1952. The world of Eli Whitney. New York: Macmillan

National Academy of Sciences. 1913. A history of the first half-century of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863-1913. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences

Nerlich, Brigitte. 1990. Change in language: Whitney, Breal, and Wegener. London / New York: Routledge (P140N47 1990)

Olmsted, Denison. 1972 [orig. 1842]. Memoir of Eli Whitney, Esq. New York: Arno Press

Whitney, David D. 1942. Family Treasures. Lancaster, PA: Jaques Cattell Press

Whitney, David D. 1946. Family Skeletons. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press

Whitney, Josiah Dwight. 1854. Metallic Wealth Of The United States. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo & Co. 1970. reprint New York: Arno & New York Times

Whitney, Josiah Dwight. 1868. The Yosemite book.. California Geological Survey. Published by authority of the Legislature. New York:

Whitney, William Dwight (ed.). 1885. Forty years' record of the Class of 1845, Williams College. New Haven, CT:

Whitney, William Dwight (ed.). 1889-91. The Century Dictionary; An Encyclopedic Lexicon Of The English Language, / prepared Under The Superintendence Of William Dwight Whitney New York: The Century Co.

Whitney, William Dwight. 1971. Whitney On Language; Selected Writings Of William Dwight Whitney. I Edited By Michael Silverstein. Introductory Essay By Roman Jakobson

Copyright © 2002, 2006, Karl Schwerin and The Whitney Research Group

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