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COLLECTION Identifier: HUM 9

Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop


Preeminent colonial scientist John Winthrop (1714-1779) was Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard from 1738 until his death in 1779. Winthrop was the first important scientist to teach at Harvard and a highly regarded pioneer in mathematics and astronomy in the American colonies. The Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop contain materials created by Professor John Winthrop over more than five decades, and include almanacs annotated by both him and his second wife Hannah Winthrop (1727–1790). The collection reflects John's interests as an undergraduate at Harvard College, his work as a scientist and Harvard's second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, his activities as a prominent member of the Cambridge community, and the shared household activities and finances of John and Hannah.


  • 1728-1789

Researcher Access

The Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop are open for research.

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1.36 cubic feet (9 volumes, 5 flat boxes, 1 half-document box, and 5 microfilm reels)
The Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop contain materials created by Professor John Winthrop over more than five decades including almanacs annotated by both him and his second wife Hannah Winthrop. The collection reflects John's interests as an undergraduate at Harvard College, his work as a scientist and Harvard's second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, his activities as a prominent member of the Cambridge community, and the shared household activities and finances of John and Hannah.

The papers are divided into six series: sermon notes, commonplace book, observations of sun spots, diaries, meteorological journals, and lecture notes. The diaries include both John and Hannah Winthrop's almanacs; all other series contain solely papers of John Winthrop. The sermon notes and commonplace books were both begun during John's freshman year at Harvard. The sermon notes are a single volume containing notes kept by John of sermons he attended, and the commonplace book contains excerpts from academic, literary, and popular printed works, and provide a glimpse at Winthrop's intellectual development and interests as a young man. The diaries form the bulk of the collection and consist of annotated and interleaved almanacs, and one daily pocket journal, used initially by John Winthrop, and later by Hannah Winthrop to make various brief and sporadic records of personal activities, household accounts, community information including baptisms and burials, and for John, short observations of scientific phenomena. The brief scientific observations found in the almanacs are supplemented by the small notebook containing entries documenting sun spots in April 1739 and the meteorological journals containing daily measurements of and descriptions of the weather from 1742-1779, with analysis of differences in readings from Hauksbee and Fahrenheit thermometers. Winthrop's work as a teacher is reflected in a volume of notes created for physics lectures delivered to Harvard students in 1746.

Biographical Note: John Winthrop

Preeminent colonial scientist John Winthrop (1714-1779) was Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard from 1738 until his death in 1779. Born into a prominent New England family (he was a fifth-generation descendant of the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), Winthrop was the first important scientist to teach at Harvard and a highly regarded pioneer in mathematics and astronomy in the American colonies. He was a keen observer of natural phenomena and largely responsible for the shift towards empirical reasoning and focused observation of the natural world in colonial science and science education.

John Winthrop was born in Boston on December 8, 1714. His father was Adam Winthrop, a judge, and his mother was Anne Wainwright Winthrop. John entered Harvard College at the age of fourteen and received an AB in 1732 and an AM in 1735. He studied science under Harvard's first Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, Isaac Greenwood, and when Greenwood was forced to resign the professorship in July 1738 due to "Various Acts of gross Intemperance," Winthrop was chosen as his successor. On January 2, 1739, at the age of twenty-five, he was inaugurated as the second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. He held the position until his death in 1779. Although there was fierce debate prior to his inauguration as to whether or not Winthrop should first be interrogated about his religious views, such interrogation was ultimately deemed unnecessary.

As Hollis Professor, Winthrop taught courses in science, astronomy, and mathematics, with an emphasis on empirical reasoning and focused observation of the natural world. He was interested in a wide range of phenomena, including lunar eclipses, meteors, lightning and its relation to electricity, earthquakes, and comets, and his ideas on the nature of heat, particularly within the earth, were very advanced for his day. Although sometimes incorrectly referred to as America's first astronomer and scientist, Winthrop is more accurately described as the first with interests in those fields to gain a teaching position and the broad influence which teaching entailed. While others had undertaken reputable scientific work independently in earlier years, Winthrop's curiosity and critical spirit were not only applied to his own scientific work but also passed on to his students. He introduced them to the "new science" of Newton, Kepler, and Boyle, with emphasis on experimental methods, and was heavily influenced by Isaac Newton's Principia. Harvard's unparalleled collection of scientific instruments allowed Winthrop and his students to conduct experiments in electricity, magnetism, and optics, and to make astronomical observations otherwise impossible.

In 1740, Winthrop submitted his observations of a transit of Mercury over the Sun and of a lunar eclipse to the secretary of the Royal Society in London; these were accepted and published in the Philosophical Transactions. They were the first of eleven articles by Winthrop to appear in this serial, the most prominent publication of the European scientific community at that time. On May 10, 1746, he gave the first experimental laboratory demonstration of electricity and magnetism in colonial America. In November 1755, in the wake of an earthquake in New England, he gave two public lectures on earthquakes which have been described as a “curious intermixture of analytical chemistry, mineralogy, astronomy and geology.” These represent not only Winthrop's pioneering ideas about the undulatory nature of earthquake waves, but also his attempts to calm public fears based on superstition and ignorance of natural forces, all while trying not to offend their religious sensibilities.

In May 1761, Winthrop led Harvard's first scientific expedition, sailing to St. John's, Newfoundland on a sloop provided by Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard to view the transit of Venus over the Sun. He was accompanied by two students, including his successor as Hollis Professor, Samuel Williams. The data collected on this voyage proved significant in calculating the solar parallax. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, publications, and involvement in expeditions, Winthrop also served twice as acting president of Harvard College and twice declined offers of the presidency. He developed a close friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who nominated him to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in London, and he was selected as Fellow there in 1765 and as a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1768. Winthrop was awarded an honorary LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1771 and from Harvard in 1773. His was the first honorary LL.D. awarded by Harvard.

Winthrop married Rebecca Townsend in 1746, and they had five sons: John (1747-1800; Harvard AB 1765), Adam (1748-1774; Harvard AB 1767), Samuel (1750-1751), James (1752-1821; Harvard AB 1769), and William (1753-1825; Harvard AB 1770). Although he and Rebecca lived with Harvard's President Holyoke in Wadsworth House at the beginning of their marriage, they later moved to a house on the northwest corner of Mount Auburn and Boylston streets. Rebecca died in August 1753, and several years later, on April 8, 1756, Winthrop married Hannah Fayerweather (see below). Hannah outlived him by more than a decade. Drawn to the patriot cause but in poor health at the time of the American Revolution, Winthrop served in the revolutionary Massachusetts Provincial Congress as a representative of Cambridge, and in September 1775 he was appointed a Judge of Probate for Middlesex County. John Winthrop died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 3, 1779.
Biographical Note: Hannah Winthrop Hannah Winthrop (1727–1790) was the daughter of Thomas and Hannah Waldo Fayerweather, whose ancestors came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Although her exact date of birth is not known, she was baptized at the First Church in Boston on February 12, 1727. She married twice, to Parr Tolman in 1745, and after his early death, to John Winthrop on April 8, 1756. Hannah and John Winthrop lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where John was Harvard's Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. Their house was located at the northwest corner of Mount Auburn and John F. Kennedy streets, facing the market square now called Winthrop Square. Although less is known about Hannah than about her prominent husband, some of her correspondence with Mercy Otis Warren has been preserved and reveals her gift for expressive writing and revolutionary fervor.

After John's death in 1779, Hannah continued to live in their Cambridge house, but began taking on boarders as a means of support. In the weeks following the death of Professor Winthrop, a Committee inventoried the College's scientific apparatus and provided a report with a section titled "At the House of Mrs. Winthrop" that included a clock, three telescopes, a standing quadrant, a hydrostatic balance, a Fahrenheit thermometer, and a Spirit-level. In April 1780, the College collected the equipment from the Winthrop house, and on April 20, 1780, Hannah wrote to Warren, "My poor wounded heart was most exquisitely touchd by a requistion of those enlightening Tubes thro which He often led me to View the wonders of creating power, but a Successor must enjoy all those advantages." Hannah Winthrop died on May 6, 1790.


The collection is arranged in six series, and items within each series are in chronological order.
  1. Sermon notes, 1728-1729
  2. Commonplace book, 1728-1735
  3. Observations of sun spots, 1739-1743
  4. Diaries of John and Hannah Winthrop, 1739-1789
  5. Meteorological journals, 1742-1779
  6. The Summary of a Course of Experimental Philosophical Lectures, 1746-1747

Acquisition information

The items in this collection came to the Archives through multiple gifts, bequests, purchases, and loans. Provenance information, when known, is noted at the item level in this finding aid.

Online access

Some of the papers have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives
  1. College Book 6, 1726-1790 (UAI 5.5 Box 4) in College Books, 1636-1827. [Volume of donations from Thomas Hollis including inventories of the scientific instruments used by Winthrop that were purchased with Hollis funds.]
  2. The summary of a course of experimental lectures in natural philosophy by Dr. John Winthrop, 1772-1773. [Timothy Foster's course notes on John Winthrop's lectures] (HUC 8772.358).
  3. A miniature portrait of John Winthrop, painted on ivory ca. 1780 (HUG 1879.295). This object is also considered part of the Harvard University Portrait Collection (H732) and can be viewed through the Harvard Art Museum's "Collections online" resource.
  4. Benjamin Wadsworth's An abridgment of what I extracted while an undergraduate at Harvard College, 1766-1769 (HUC 8766.314).
  5. Michael Carter Mathieu's undergraduate thesis, John Winthrop and Colonial Science Education at Harvard (HU 92.90.619).
  6. Papers of Samuel Williams, 1752-1794.
  7. Papers of James Winthrop, 1765-1826.
In Houghton Library, Harvard University
  1. A letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Winthrop, July 10, 1764 (MS Am 1310).
In the Harvard Art Museums, Harvard University
  1. Portrait of John Winthrop by John Singleton Copley (H113).
In the Massachusetts Historical Society
  1. [Hannah Winthrop's] Correspondence with Mercy Otis Warren, 1752-1789 (Ms. N-28).
  2. Correspondence between John Adams and John Winthrop, 1775-1776 (Ms. N-1776).
  3. Letter [from John Winthrop] to Benjamin Franklin, 28 March 1775 (Misc. Bd. 1775 March 28).
  4. [John Winthrop's] Observations on Hastings’ Dam, 20 February 1755 (Misc. Bd. 1755 February 20).
  5. [John Winthrop's] Projections of a lunar eclipse, 19 August 1766 (Misc. Bd. 1766 August 19).
  6. [John Winthrop's] Projections of a solar eclipse, 5 August 1766 (Misc. Bd. 1766 August 5).
  7. Winthrop family papers, 1537-1990; bulk: 1620-1900 (Ms. N-262).
  8. Jeremy Belknap diaries, 1758-1798 (Ms. N-1827) [These contain notes from Belknap's time as a student of Winthrop].
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In the Special Collections of the Pelletier Library, Allegheny College
  1. The James Winthrop Collection, which includes John Winthrop's personal library, was bequeathed to the college by his son, James Winthrop.


  • Bernhard, Winfred E. A. "Brief Life of an Eminent Scientist: 1714-1779. Vita: John Winthrop." Harvard Magazine (Sept.-Oct. 1990): 52.
  • Brasch, Frederick E. "John Winthrop (1714-1779), America's First Astronomer, and the Science of his Period." Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 28 (1916): 152-170.
  • -----. "An earthquake in New England during the colonial period (1755)" in The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (March 1916).
  • Kilgour, Frederick G. "John Winthrop's Notes on Sun Spot Observations." Isis 29 (Nov. 1938): 355-361.
  • Mayo, Lawrence Shaw. The Winthrop Family in America. Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1948.
  • Shipton, Clifford K. "Class of 1732: John Winthrop." In Sibley's Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College in the Classes of 1731-1735. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1956.
  • Shute, Michael N., editor. The Scientific Work of John Winthrop. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2019 January 24.

Processing Information

These papers were previously dispersed both physically and intellectually, and classified under numerous call numbers. All of the papers were re-processed in 2010-2011 and brought together as a single collection. Re-processing involved a collection survey, conservation treatment of selected items, re-housing in appropriate archival containers, and the creation of this finding aid.

This finding aid was created by Laura Morris and Diann Benti in January 2011.

Preservation and description of the Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
Link to catalog
Winthrop, John, 1714-1779. Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop, 1728-1789: an inventory

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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