by Ryan Cochran
Rarely in history do we find a couple so astoundingly complementary as Amherst College president and geologist Edward Hitchcock and the artistically gifted Orra White Hitchcock. Edward was active as a professor of geology and botany at Amherst during the middle of the nineteenth century, and was appointed state geologist of Massachusetts in 1830. His lectures were enhanced by the use of several classroom charts which were carefully crafted by Orra. Museum Textile Services has the privilege of working at restoring sixty-one of these classroom charts for the Amherst College Archives.
These charts vary in size, ranging from rather small 20"x 20" pieces to large charts several feet in length. Many are diagrams displaying geological strata and their formations, with special detail often attached to local New England geology. These pieces are in relatively good condition, but occasionally contain damage in the form of holes and stains. An example of this damage can be seen in the section across Massachusetts pictured below.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Orra White Hitchcock is her persistent quality of work in an effort to further the career of her brilliant husband. There is no doubt that in the modern age, Orra herself could have been a scientist and may have worked her way up to be president of a prestigious college or university. This seemingly selfless effort of work makes for an incredibly interesting story.
Orra White Hitchcock's charts took a lot of intellectual research to accomplish. Orra was no doubt quite gifted scientifically as well as her husband. She would have had to know a lot of the science taught by her husband given the extensive detail and content of these painted textiles. Her strongest skills seem to have been in the field of botany, but her geological and biological subjects in the classroom charts are very finely done.
The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College exhibited the art of Orra White Hitchcock in its 2011 exhibit, An Amherst Woman of Art and Science," which can still be viewed online.