This summer in the Library, we have four excellent Digital Humanities interns conducting research in the Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Collection. Working with these interns has been a great excuse for me to delve a bit more into this collection and fall in love with the artwork of Orra White Hitchcock, perhaps the Pioneer Valley’s earliest female botanical and scientific illustrator.
Orra White, born March 8, 1796 in South Amherst, began teaching mathematics, astronomy, botany, and the decorative arts to young girls at the Deerfield Academy when she was only 17 years old.
While teaching at Deerfield Academy Orra met Edward Hitchcock, a local naturalist, and with Orra lending her hand to watercolor illustrations for an herbarium, the two began what would become a lifetime collaboration of joining science and art.
In 1821, Orra White married Edward Hitchcock who would become the third President of Amherst College and appointed state geologist of Massachusetts. Orra lent her skill in scientific drawing to the publications of Edward’s geological findings, with many of her illustrations appearing in Hitchcock’s 1833 Report on the Geology of Massachusetts and the 1841 Final Report.
Edward Hitchcock held the position of professor of Chemistry and Natural History at Amherst College from 1825-1845. During this time, Orra painted over 60 large format charts on linen depicting geological formations and prehistoric skeletons for Hitchcock’s classroom lectures. These charts allow us a look at of how science was taught at Amherst in the mid 19th Century, as well as a glimpse of the geological landscape of the Pioneer Valley during her time as an artist.
These charts are held in the Archives, where we hold the largest collection of Orra White Hitchcock’s artwork. Orra’s classroom charts have been digitized and made freely accessible through the Amherst College Digital Collections.