175th Anniversary of Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin: 1833 - 2008

The Wright Sister

If you enter the lobby of the Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland you will see an extensive display in the International Women’s Air and Space Museum (IWASM) devoted to Katharine Wright Haskell.

The younger sister of airplane pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, Katharine graduated from Oberlin in 1898. She is one of several notable women the IWSAM has honored for making major contributions to the birth and growth of aviation.

How much she had to do with her brothers’ actual invention remains unsettled. Katharine disclaimed doing any hands-on work, and Orville disparaged her scientific input, saying “this persistent legend … made a pretty story.”

What is true is that had it not been for Katharine’s practicality and strength, other well-connected competitors intent on being the first to fly might have left Wilbur and Orville in the dust. According to historical records, Katharine actively assisted her brothers’ careers, serving as a confidant and sounding board. And her emotional and organizational glue, reports the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, held together the reticent bachelor brothers in the years leading up to their historic first flight, and afterward, when fame threatened to overwhelm them.

With the successful conclusion of the brothers’ momentous flight in 1903, newspapers rightly declared there might have been “no Kitty Hawk without Kitty Wright.”

During the years that followed, Katharine helped promote her siblings and their new flying machines—at home and abroad. The Wrights met with President William Howard Taft at the White House. The white lace dress, pearls, and gloves Katharine wore to the festive event are now part of the IWASM exhibit, as are her Limoges china, vases, documents, and photos.

Katharine taught Latin and English in her native Dayton, Ohio, for about 10 years. She remained involved with Oberlin, leading its alumni group and gaining election to its Board of Trustees, the second woman to do so.

She married late in life and died of pneumonia at age 54. Her husband, newspaperman Henry Haskell, Class of 1896, received permission from the Oberlin Board of Trustees in 1931 to erect a hand-cut Italian marble fountain in her memory in front of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. The College dedicated the restored fountain during a ceremony in September 2007.

Recently, the IWASM memorialized her and the other unsung heroines of aviation by producing a limited edition of playing cards. Katharine is the face card for the six of diamonds.

Sources: “Wright On, Sister,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, winter 2003; Oberlin Heritage Center; the National Park Service online; “An Investigation into the Wright's Determination of the Smeaton Coefficient and the Mathematical role Katharine [sic] Wright played in the achievements of her brothers,” a 1994 article by Robert McCullough.

Photo provided courtesy of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company at www.wright-brothers.org