Forever and Always Wright
How many times has each of us passed the Wright Laboratory of Physics without a moment’s concern with the history locked inside it on our way to Stevie, or hurrying past the Science Center, looking ahead towards Tappan Square? Named after the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, the Laboratory of Physics is dedicated to a woman — Katharine, the Wright sister.
Born in 1874, Katharine Wright seems to be, as the Alumni Magazine put it in an article from 2004, “among [Oberlin’s] most unsung heroines.” She began attending Oberlin College in 1893 only after her father, a bishop, found the college to be appropriate for the values he wanted to institute in his daughter. At that time, Oberlin students rose early at 6 a.m., attended daily chapel, were not allowed to smoke or drink, and retired at 10 p.m.
Katharine graduated with a degree in Classics and took a job as a Latin teacher at a local school, while managing the Dayton bike shop that her brothers Wilbur and Orville were running. While everyone has heard of the famous Wright brothers, whose dreams were so huge they couldn’t keep them on the ground, only a few know the story of their sister, so dedicated to her brothers and their dreams that on a number of occasions, she would leave her own ambitions behind in order to provide support for the pair.
In 1896, Katherine found herself in one of these situations. Before she was to enter her junior year at Oberlin College, she put her studies on hold while she returned to her family’s home to take care of Orville. “Little brother,” as she called him, had fallen ill with typhoid fever, the same disease that would kill Wilbur only 19 years later.
Almost a decade later, after the brothers made their historic first flight, Katharine had to step in once again for support. On Sept. 17, 1908, Orville Wright’s plane crashed during a flying exhibition for the U.S. Army at Fort Myer, Virginia. Orville’s passenger during the flight, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, died in the crash, while Orville himself was nearly killed, but escaped with some broken limbs – his ribs and his leg. Without a second thought, Katharine rushed to help immediately, leaving her teaching practice for a while.
“School can go and my salary, too,” Katharine wrote to Wilbur in a letter during the time she was in Washington where Orville was hospitalized for six weeks. “Little brother shall not be neglected as long as I am able to crawl around.”
This accident also brought about the beginning of Katharine’s role as a social secretary for the brothers — after she helped to negotiate a one-year extension of the Army contract, the brothers knew they needed her. Katharine’s support was important not only financially, as she was the only one of the five siblings in the Wright’s family with a stable income, but she was also outspoken, and possessed such intelligence and zest which made her unique. These qualities came in handy when the brothers found themselves surrounded with fame and suddenly submerged in an environment of European and world elitism they were not familiar with.
One little-known fact about both Wilbur and Orville is that they were both painfully shy. As Richard Maurer, Katharine Wright’s biographer, put it, “They’re not the kind of guys you would want to invite to dinner. You could picture them coming over for dinner and not saying a word.” Katharine was just the opposite of her brothers in this respect — she had opinions and never hesitated to express them. She came of age as the 1920 national suffrage movement that won women the right to vote in America was reshaping society, and participated fervently as a member of that movement.
“I get so [heated] up over living forever in a man’s world, with so much discussion about what kind of women men like and so little concern over what kind of men women like,” she wrote in a letter to Henry Hiskell, an Oberlin graduate class of 1896 who later became her husband. “If you ask me, there was no reason, and never has been, why women should sit around and wait for men to turn up. I’ve always lived with men and don’t look on them as such a wonderful ‘treat!’”
Yet when it came to her brothers, Katharine would sacrifice everything. Because of her dedication to the two inventors, she found herself traveling in Europe and studying French, something both Orville and Wilbur refused to do, so that she could communicate with kings, princes and bankers on behalf of her brothers. The three of them waltzed on the highest levels of European aristocracy, meeting King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, Edward VIII of England and Alfonso XIII of Spain.
“The King is to come at eight o’clock,” wrote Katharine to their father from Italy. “The Kings are a nuisance all right. They always come at such unearthly hours.”
After a few years of fame, Wilbur died from typhoid in 1912, in the midst of fiery patent arguments over the flying machine. Katharine and Orville returned to their home in Dayton, and Katharine dedicated the majority of her time to the suffrage movement and to her obligations as an Oberlin College Trustee. She was the second female to be elected as a trustee. It was namely after her return to Oberlin that she met Henry ‘Harry’ Hiskell.
Harry had been Katharine’s friend and confidante through years of written correspondence. However, after the death of his wife in 1923, he found himself drawn to Katharine. In 1925, he proposed to her in a letter. Although Katharine was initially stunned, she quickly realized that the love was mutual. She was 51 at the time she first fell in love with him and soon after, got married.
Katharine feared Orville’s reaction to this relationship — her fear was justified. Orville thought the marriage to be a betrayal to him and the family. He relied on Katharine to be his connection with the outside world. He refused to speak to his sister and never saw her again until Katharine was on her deathbed after a battle with pneumonia. This was the last time the siblings would see each other. On March 3, 1929, Katharine Wright died at age 54.
However, the ties between the Wright family and Oberlin did not end. After his death in 1948, Orville left Oberlin College a gift to the amount of $300,000 — the equivalent of millions today — presumably in honor of his sister, although some say that he was also very loyal to Oberlin football, a team which he loved. Since the College had just finished constructing a new physics facility with approximately the same building costs as Orville’s general donation, a decision was made to name the new lab after the Wright brothers.
Yet Katharine’s spirit is what is inside, which is what makes the Laboratory a small piece of history — reminding us of a woman who was willing to give up everything to support the flighty dreams of her brothers.