The Society for the History of Natural History Review of Orra White Hitchcock (1796 - 1863): An Amherst Woman of Art and Science

Orra White Hhitchcock

Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863): An Amherst Woman of Art
and Science.
Mead Art Museum, Lebanon, New Hampshire: 2011. Pp 111; illustrated.
Price US$ 39.95
(paperback). ISBN 978-0-914337-23-2.

This book is a catalogue published in connection with an exhibition held at the Mead Art Museum,
Amherst College, during the first half of 2011. The exhibition celebrated the work of Orra White
Hitchcock, who was a naturalist, artist, teacher and early member of the Amherst community. She was
married to the American geologist Edward Hitchcock, whose scientific work she often illustrated, and
it was the aim of the exhibition, as it is of the book, to rescue Orra Hitchcock from the shadow of her
husband’s reputation and from an undeserved obscurity.

The book is organized into three essays and a catalogue of colour plates illustrating items from the
exhibition. It begins with a chronology of Orra Hitchcock’s life, which is followed by an essay
summarizing her life and work. Next, there are two short essays: one by Elizabeth Farnsworth on Orra
Hitchcock as a scientific illustrator and one by Tekla Harms on the large classroom charts she produced
to help illustrate her husband’s lectures. Here, Harms shows the necessity of using visual
representation to understand relationships within geology, and the few charts that remain (there
were apparently more than 60) are certainly impressive. These charts were almost the only form of
visual training provided to students; each chart had to convey geological features in a manner that
allowed for their subsequent identification, often in distant lands when students later chose to engage in
missionary work.

One of the themes apparent in the essays is that of the relationship between a nineteenth-century
naturalist and his wife and family. This relationship was often essential to the success of the husband,
who relied heavily upon the female members of his family for both illustrative work and a literary style
(at this time, of course, a good writing style was essential for a man of science to converse with and to
convince his scientific readership). Scientific work is portrayed very much as a family enterprise,
although the authors note that Orra Hitchcock provided illustrations of specimens to other scientific
men in the New England region, most notably family friend and chemist Benjamin Silliman.

It is the exhibition catalogue that is of greatest interest. The authors use some primary and
secondary sources in their essays, but the figures, rendered in colour within the text, shed most light on
Orra Hitchcock and her career. Many appear twice, often enlarged (one is reproduced as a foldout), to
highlight certain points made within the essays, but they always maintain their exhibition numbers. All
101 images are listed in order in the catalogue proper, with relevant information recorded in the
captions. The images include drawings of natural history specimens, geological landscapes, some
portraits and family photos, and the lecture charts.

There are some comments on the technical and material aspects of the exhibited items, which will
appeal to anyone concerned with the history of art within science. The book would definitely be of
interest to any scholar studying the role of women in nineteenth-century science, the history of botany
and geology in New England, or the use of visual images in natural history.

DOI: 10.3366/anh.2012.0084 SIMON THODE