The Winthrops: A Harvard Family

Essay by 2015 Arcadia Fellow Alicia DeMaio

The Winthrops are just one example of a family whose history is intertwined with the history of Harvard. John Winthrop, the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, came from an eminent colonial Massachusetts family and graduated from Harvard in 1735. He was appointed professor in 1738, retaining the position until his death in 1779. Winthrop’s course on “natural philosophy,” taught to Harvard seniors, resembles what we today would call physics. Topics of his lectures include Newton’s three laws of motion, lenses and optics, astronomy and planetary motion, and simple machines such as the lever, the pulley, the screw, the inclined plane, and the wedge. Students enjoyed Winthrop’s course; in his “Abridgement of what I extracted while an undergraduate at Harvard College,” Benjamin Wadsworth excitedly recounted Winthrop’s experiments with electricity, which included setting “Spirits of wine on fire.” During the lesson on electricity, Wadsworth remembered learning that it was “very dangerous to stand right buy [sic]…Metals in a thunderstorm, they being very apt to receive…electrical power from [the] Clouds.”

Winthrop and his second wife, Hannah, were avid diary keepers. On inlaid paper in almanacs, Winthrop recorded natural occurrences of interest to an eighteenth century scientist, such as sightings of the aurora borealis, destructive hurricanes or lightning storms, and the appearance of sun spots. He had previously recorded his sun spot observations on Boston Common and in Cambridge in 1739. He also wrote about his travels, the births of his children and important events in their life, and troubles with domestic servants. Together, John and Hannah kept a record of their household economy, such as the crops they planted and candles they made. They and also kept detailed statistics of deaths in the area, featuring the race and age of the deceased as well as their cause of death. Hannah’s personal almanacs contain records of payments from the boarders she took in after her death, some of whom were Harvard students. Other Harvard students who did not board with Hannah were allowed to dine at her home.

Hannah’s four stepsons all attended Harvard, and two of them continued to be involved with Harvard after their graduation. James, who graduated in 1769, was the College librarian from 1772-1787, and he also served as one of Cambridge’s Justices of the Peace from 1784-1795, overseeing civil disputes that included vagrancy, theft, and assault and battery. The youngest son, William, graduated in 1770 and was apprenticed to John Hancock. He also served as town clerk. He must have achieved monetary success as a merchant; he frequently lent his mother money, owned a wharf, and co-owned a sloop with Harvard named Cyrus, which transported wood to the college from Maine and New Hampshire.