Winthrop, John, 1714-1779

Alternative names
Birth 1714-12-19
Death 1779-05-03

Biographical notes:

John Winthrop (Harvard, A.B., 1732, A. M. 1735) taught science, astronomy and mathematics at Harvard. He was the second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.

From the description of Papers of John Winthrop, 1728-1789 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 76972938

John Winthrop (1738-1779), astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, served as Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy from 1738 to 1779. Winthrop was one of the most distinguished scientists of the eighteenth century and established a transatlantic reputation for his studies of astronomy, meteorology, and seismology. Winthrop also shared an interest in the study of the principles of electricity with his friend Benjamin Franklin and his experiments in electricity and magnetism attracted students and scholars. Winthrop modernized scientific instruction at Harvard College by introducing his students to the experimental methods of Isaac Newton (1643-1727), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Robert Boyle (1627-1691). In May 1761, Winthrop led Harvard College's first scientific expedition to Newfoundland, Canada with an octant and telescopes, to view the transit of Venus across the Sun. For over forty years, Winthrop wrote and lectured regularly about his electrical experiments, transit observations, studies of eclipses, comets, whirlwinds, and the origins of earthquakes. Winthrop twice served as acting president of Harvard College (1773-1774), was a member of the Royal Society in London (1766) and a member of the American Philosophical Society (1769). Additionally, he received Harvard College's first honorary LL.D. degree in 1773. Winthrop was also a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress during the American Revolution.

The Hollis Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy was founded in 1726 by Thomas Hollis (1659-1731) a wealthy English merchant and benefactor of Harvard University.

From the description of John Winthrop's proposal respecting electrical globes and jars, ca. 1758. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 726606240

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.

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.

From the guide to the Papers of John and Hannah Winthrop, 1728-1789, (Harvard University Archives)


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  • Electricity
  • Mathematics--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Scientific apparatus and instruments
  • Physics--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Astronomy--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Meteorology--Observations


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  • Massachusetts--Cambridge (as recorded)