19th-century illustrator gets her due for work benefiting a college that wasn't open to women

Orra White Hitchcock had an unusual knack for translating science into arresting, informative images. 

Chances are, though, that you don't know her name.  

It's no wonder: Largely unsigned, most of her groundbreaking scientific illustrations were created for other people. She did her work "without the slightest pecuniary compensation, or the hope of artistic reputation," her husband, Edward, wrote in 1863.  

Women of the early 19th century were not expected or encouraged to show an interest in science or higher education. Yet Hitchcock was fascinated by plants, geology, zoology and more.  

As a newlywed, she documented hundreds of mushroom species she collected with her husband. When he became a professor at Amherst -- a college that did not admit women until 1975 -- she helped translate his lessons into striking visual materials.  

"Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock," on view through Oct. 14 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, tracks Hitchcock's pioneering, and unsung, career. (If you can't visit, the exhibition's website gives a thorough preview.) It features not just her carefully detailed drawings of flora and fauna but also the massive cloth paintings she made to illustrate her husband's lectures on geology, botany, zoology and anatomy.  

Hitchcock's work was intimately intertwined with that of Edward, who is a big part of the exhibition. But her scientific imagination is the real star of the show. She favored bright colors and bold lines and tackled subject matter from maple leaves to prehistoric mammals and reptiles.  

Her geological illustrations are particularly striking; they would be at home in a display of abstract art.  

As a wife, mother of six and pillar of the community, she did her work out of conviction and fascination, not for recognition. Orra White Hitchcock drew, painted and documented the scientific phenomena around her for the love of it, but it's still worth saying -- and celebrating -- her name.

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