A WIFE’S INFLUENCE
The New York Times
By EVE M. KAHN
Published: January 20, 2011
Edward Hitchcock, a prolific writer, naturalist and president of Amherst College in the 1840s and ’50s, owed his success largely to his wife, Orra, a botanist and painter. Even his students noticed his dependence.
“The doctor is liable to fits of despondency & gloom,” an undergraduate wrote about Mr. Hitchcock in a diary entry. “It is probable he would not have been anything great, if she had not assisted him.”
But she would not have enjoyed the credit. “She was content merely to accept praise for illustrating her husband’s work,” the historians Robert L. Herbert and Daria D’Arienzo write in “Orra White Hitchcock: An Amherst Woman of Art and Science” (Mead Art Museum).
An Orra White Hitchcock retrospective opens on Jan. 28 at Mead Art Museum at Amherst. It contains about a third of her 250 surviving pieces, ranging from delicate drawings of sedge flowers to panoramas of New England valleys, and classroom banners charting granite veins and volcanic layers.
Mrs. Hitchcock, a daughter of a prosperous Massachusetts farmer, was precocious enough as a teenager to teach botany, mathematics and astronomy at Deerfield Academy. In 1821 she married Edward, a former Deerfield colleague. While raising six children, running a small farm and hosting college parties, she provided drawings for his books, like “Report on the Geology, Mineralogy, Botany, and Zoology of Massachusetts.”
The Hitchcocks were both dedicated Protestants. “They believed you could see the face of God in the beauty of nature,” Ms. D’Arienzo said in a recent phone interview. “They were a well-matched couple.”
Mrs. Hitchcock accompanied her husband on lecture tours and scientific expeditions in the United States and Europe. When hypochondria kept him in bed, she ventured out to sketch and collect plants and fossils.
“She sought them out in thick forest understories, underwater and in muddy swamps,” the biologist Elizabeth Farnsworth writes in the new book.
Mr. Herbert and Ms. D’Arienzo have spent about 20 years tracking down Mrs. Hitchcock’s works. They are scattered among libraries in the region, rarely signed and often misattributed to her husband.
But he did publicly thank her sometimes. He dedicated an 1851 geology tome “to my beloved wife,” and wrote, “Your artistic skill has done more than my voice to render that science attractive.”
He did not show her the text until after it went to press, because, “I know that you would forbid this public allusion to your labors and sacrifices.”