Susan Jane Cunningham
Susan Jane Cunningham was integral to the building of the mathematics and astronomy departments at the newly founded Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1869. Having studied astronomy at Vassar College for a year, she would continue spending her summers refining her knowledge at schools like Harvard University and Newnham College at Cambridge. She was promoted to the school’s first professor of astronomy and a professor of mathematics in 1871. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree, the first of its type given by Swarthmore in 1888.
The same year she was promoted to the Mathematics Department Chair at Swarthmore and was given permission to design, build, and equip the school’s first observatory. It was equipped with a 6-inch equatorial refracting telescope, a sidereal clock, a meantime clock, and a chronometer.
She taught at the college until her retirement in 1906, at which time then Senator Sproul, a former student of Cunningham, remarked, “She has been a believer in honest work for herself and for her students as well. In her make-up, sham and superficiality have no place. Her straightforwardness in speech and in method in her classroom and in her daily life has left an influence for good on hundreds who have been here.”
And even after retirement she continued to help grow the observatory by securing a photographic telescope for them two years later. As Swarthmore grew, there was a need for a more modern observatory which was built, but the Cunningham observatory remained open for students to use for independent work in astronomy. The photographic telescope was loaned out to the Lowell observatory and happened to be used to capture the first images of the dwarf-planet Pluto.
Elected a member of the New York Mathematical Society, the precursor to the American Mathematical Society, in 1891 she was one of the first six women to join the organization. On her death in 1921 she left the Cunningham Observatory to the college where it remains as Cunningham House-which is the location of the offices for the school arboretum and the off-campus study office.
Written by Angela Goad