March 23, 1842 - January 24, 1921
Susan Cunningham was born in Virginia. She studied astronomy and mathematics at Vassar College as a special student during 1866-67, working with Maria Mitchell, who encouraged so many Vassar students to continue in astronomy. She also took special courses in astronomy and mathematics during several summers at Harvard University, Princeton University, Newnham College at Cambridge, the Greenwich Observatory in England, and Williams College. In 1869 she helped to begin the astronomy and mathematics departments for the opening of Swarthmore College. She headed those two departments until her retirement from Swarthmore in 1906, rising through the ranks from instructor to full professor. In 1888 Swarthmore presented her with the honorary degree of Doctor of Science, the first degree of this kind given by that institution.
Practically the whole life of Susan Cunningham was involved with the founding and development of Swarthmore. In 1906, President Swain said:
Susan J. Cunningham has the distinction of being the only one in the faculty who has been connected with the College since its beginning in 1869. She is energetic, forceful and learned in her profession, and a thorough believer in the gospel of work. She has loved Swarthmore more than her own life, of which she has unsparingly given. She has in season and out of season been ready not only to serve the College but to help individual students by giving them her advice, her time and in numerous cases her money.
Cunningham planned and equipped the first observatory at Swarthmore. She lived in the building until her retirement in 1906. Swarthmore paid $100 rent per year to her for the rest of her life, and upon her death in 1921 Cunningham Observatory became college property. The original President's House was converted into a second observatory to house research quality astronomical equipment donated by William Sproul, a former student of Cunningham. At the time of her retirement, the then Senator Sproul gave the following tribute to Susan Cunningham:
No figure stands out more prominently than that of Doctor Cunningham. She has been a believer in honest work for herself and for her students as well. In her make-up, sham and superficiality have no place. Her straightforwardness in speech and in method in her classroom and in her daily life has left an influence for good on hundreds who have been here. Swarthmore has been and is the object of her devotion; to the college has been given the efforts of her best years of a remarkable life. In every success of the institution since the first student entered its door she has shared; in all its vicissitudes she has been ready with a helping hand. I fervently hope that our college may always stand for the principles of cleanliness, morality and intellectual honesty for which she has stood, and now as another of these strong leaders who have piloted the college out of the narrow channel of obscurity into the broad, deep sea of success steps down from the post where she has stood through nearly forty years, may the course that she has laid out be followed and Swarthmore go on to a splendid realization of the plans of the devoted founders.
In 1891 Cunningham was elected a member of the New York Mathematical Society (later to become the American Mathematical Society), one of the first six women to join this organization. She remained a member until her death in 1921.
Photo Credit: Photograph used with permission of the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College