Maria Mitchell, America's First Woman Astronomer Demonstrated Women's Scientific Aptitude
“We have a hunger of the mind. We ask for all of the knowledge around us and the more we get, the more we desire.” Maria Mitchell
“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to
God.” Maria Mitchell
Throughout her life Maria Mitchell, the first woman astronomer in America, the first Vassar professor of either gender, and the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences worked to discover laws of astronomy to express her personal hymn of praise to God. Throughout her life, Maria Mitchell read or recited Joseph Addison’s hymn, The Spacious Firmament on High, when she felt discouraged or needed inspiration.
“The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, A shining frame, their great Original proclaim.”
From an early age Maria Mitchell appreciated the “spacious firmament” and the “blue ethereal sky” over her native Nantucket, Massachusetts. Maria Mitchell enjoyed two important advantages at the beginning of her life: her home and her family. Born August 1, 1818, she was the third of the ten children of Quakers William and Lydia Mitchell. Like most Quakers, William Mitchell passionately believed that girls should receive the same education as boys, and that men and women were intellectually equal. William taught school, worked for the United States Coastal Survey and practiced astronomy on an amateur basis. He taught Maria astronomy and navigation.
Her Nantucket birthplace also served Maria’s emotional and intellectual development well. At that time, Nantucket was an important whaling port and sailors had to learn celestial navigation as a survival skill. Whalers often left their wives for months and even years at a time to manage domestic affairs while they were at sea. The women of Nantucket operated in an atmosphere of relative independence and equality, although women in America were denied property rights and the right to vote.
Exceptional Maria Mitchell Received an Exceptional Education
In her early childhood years, Maria received her education from her parents and Elizabeth Gardener’s School. Later she attended the North Grammar School where her father was principal. In 1829, when Maria was 11, William Mitchell built a school on Howard Street and Maria attended as a student and her father’s teaching assistant.
Maria absorbed knowledge helping her father. When they returned from voyages, Nantucket whalers brought their chronometers of their ships to William Mitchell to be “rated,” and he used a sextant to rate them. He taught Maria to use the sextant and he performed his rating procedures in the back yard of the Mitchell house on Vestal Street.
William also installed a simple reflecting telescope in the Mitchell’s back yard and neighbors crowded in the yard to look at the moon. Eventually, William bought a small Dolland telescope and removed the parlor window in the house on Vestal Street to install it. He mounted the Dolland telescope in front of it and he and Maria practiced astronomy. In 1831, a total annular eclipse of the sun centered over Nantucket and twelve-year-old Maria stood by her father’s side counting the seconds as he observed the eclipse through the Dolland telescope. Maria continued to “sweep” the sky for the rest of her life.
Professors Louis Agassiz and Alexander Dallas Bache and other scientists frequently visited the Mitchell’s home on Vestal Street and Maria became accustomed to hearing stimulating scientific conversations. Her father William encouraged her to observe and contribute to his work in astronomy. She continued to study history and science with her father, focusing especially on astronomy.
When William Mitchell’s Howard Street School closed, Maria attended the school that Cyrus Peirce, a Unitarian minister, had founded for young ladies. His school was the first normal school in America. She worked as his teaching assistant before opening her own school in 1835 when she was seventeen. With high hopes, she rented a school room on Traders’ Lane and put an advertisement about her school in the newspapers, but her school closed after a year of operation.
“Their Great Original Proclaim” – The Musical Mitchells
Both William Mitchell and his wife Lydia enjoyed music, although Quakers frowned upon musical expression. The Mitchell children learned songs from their playmates and as they grew older one of the Mitchell daughters bought a piano. Tradition and an anecdote inMaria’s diary said that Maria donated some of her salary towards the purchase of the piano.
In the beginning the Mitchells kept the piano in an outbuilding, but Maria and her sisters decided that the piano must be moved to the house. A married daughter invited the senior Mitchells to tea in another part of Nantucket, and Maria and her helpers moved the piano into the house in a upper room where the chronometers and books were kept. As their parents entered the front door, Maria gave the signal and one of her siblings played a lively piano tune which her parents quietly approved.
Eventually word about the music at the Mitchells spread around town and their fellow Quakers put William and Lydia Mitchell “under dealings,” a very serious matter. William and Lydia Mitchell quietly fought back. William Mitchell enjoyed the advantage of holding the property where the Quaker monthly meetings were held and he insisted that he didn’t play on the piano. He also argued that he didn’t want to drive his children away from home to enjoy their musical pleasure. Considering the future of their monthly meeting place, the music naysayers decided to say no more about the music at the Mitchells.
Lydia Mitchell wisely decided to say no more about the music and just enjoy it. William Mitchell quietly told the story and the news circulated around town. Several other young Quaker girls decided to indulge their musical desires and eventually music became such a part of Quaker heritage that the Friends’ School at Providence, Rhode Island featured music in its regular curriculum.
Miss Maria Mitchell Became a Librarian
Since the Mitchell family lived in modest circumstances, Maria felt compelled to earn her own living and in 1836, eighteen-year-old Maria accepted the position of librarian in Nantucket’s Atheneum Library. The Atheneum Library opened only in the afternoons and on Saturday evenings, and afternoon visitors were relatively scarce, so Maria had time to explore and read the books. Most of her afternoon visitors were elderly gentlemen of leisure who enjoyed intelligent conversation. While the gentlemen of leisure talked, Maria closed her book and worked at her knitting. Her knitting and the friendships she made at the library both lasted for years.
Maria also made friends with and influenced the young people of Nantucket. She served as a confidant and friend to many of them and as they grew older many thanked Maria for guiding them in their reading and personal lives. Maria worked at the Nantucket Atheneum Library drawing a salary of one hundred dollars a year for over twenty years.
Miss Mitchell’s Comet
While Maria Mitchell worked at the Atheneum Library, her father William accepted a new position as cashier of the Pacific Bank. His new position included a new house attached to the bank and he built an observatory on the roof and installed a new four inch telescope. With Maria’s help, William performed star observations for the United States Coast Guard.
No matter the circumstances of her life or the number of guests in the parlor, Maria still spent every clear evening on the house top “sweeping” the heavens with her telescope. On the evening of October 1, 1847, she slipped away from a party, put on her “regimentals,” and taking lantern in hand, she climbed to the roof. She adjusted her telescope and peering through its lens she saw a star five degrees above the North Star, a spot where she had seen no star before that. Maria knew she had observed the location correctly, because she had memorized the sky, but to verify her belief that the star was really a comet, she recorded the comet’s coordinates. She returned the next evening and the star had moved, strengthening her belief that it was a comet. (Its modern designation is C/1847 T1).
Maria reported her discovery to her father, who confirmed her observation and despite her urging for caution, William Mitchell wrote to Professor William Bond at Harvard University Observatory, reporting Maria’s discovery. On December 17, 1831, Frederick VI.,King of Denmark, had offered a gold medal worth twenty ducats to the first discoverer of a telescopic comet. When Father Francesco de Vico of Rome discovered the same comet two days later than Maria, the King decided to award him the prize before the news of Maria’s discovery reached Europe. After prolonged negotiations, Frederick VI’s son awarded the medal for discovering the comet to Maria Mitchell and named it “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”
Miss Mitchell Came into her Own as a Scientist and Activist
Maria kept her position at the Nantucket Atheneum Library, but word of her work in astronomy spread around America and Europe and she received letters and visits from scientists and admirers. In 1848, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences accepted her as its first female member and in 1850, The Association for the Advancement of Science counted her as one of the first women in its ranks.
In 1849, Admiral Charles Henry Davis of the United States Nautical Almanac Office offered Maria a position as a compiler of tables for the American Nautical Almanac including computing tables of positions of the planet Venus. She gladly accepted the position and held it in addition to her other work for nineteen years. Professor Alexander Dallas Bache of the United States Coast Survey alsohired her to assist an astronomical team at Mount Independence, Maine. She started traveling to scientific meetings as well.
Through all of her activities and honors, Maria continued her nightly sky sweeping and exploration. Her diary entry of March 2, 1854, noted that “I ‘swept’ last night two hours, by three periods. It was a grand night—not a breath of air, not a fringe of a cloud, all clear, all beautiful. I really enjoy that kind of work, but my back soon becomes tired, long before the cold chills me. I saw two nebulae in Leo with which I was not familiar, and that repaid me for the time…”
Maria also explored spiritually and intellectually. In 1842, she adopted Unitarian principles, leaving her Quaker heritage. She attended the Unitarian Church, but never became a member. In 1854, she wrote in her diary:”There is a God, and he is good, I say to myself. I try to increase my trust in this, my only article of creed.”
She became an ardent abolitionist and to protest slavery, she stopped wearing cotton clothing.
Miss Mitchell Toured Europe Twice
Since childhood Maria longed to travel to Europe and for years she lived frugally and saved money for her trip. She dressed simply and didn’t spend much money on herself, although she did buy gifts for others. Her diary entry of December 16, 1855, revealed that she felt that the year 1855 was a hard year because of the death of three of her closest friends and the illness of her mother. Then she recounted her blessings, including her mother’s recovery from a serious illness, the fact that she had observed more and the fact that she had added to her savings for the European trip and hoped for Europe in 1856.
In 1857, Maria accepted an offer from rich Chicago banker General H.K. Swift, to chaperone his daughter Prudence on a trip to the American West and South and then to Europe. At the beginning of her journey she visited her sister Phebe and Phebe’s husband Joshua Kendall who taught at the Meadville Seminary in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and her visit heightened her insight into the cultural differences between northern and southern states. Visiting the South, she experienced slavery first hand and the restricted lives of southern white women.
For her European tour Maria carried introductory letters to leading scientists and during her two memorable European visits she became acquainted with astronomer William Herschel, scientist Alexander von Humboldt, and Mary Somerville, the noted woman astronomer. She toured observatories in Greenwich, Cambridge, and after complicated negotiations with papal authorities who were reluctant to allow a woman to enter, the Vatican observatory. She wrote in her diary:”I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.”
During her second trip abroad she spent an extended visit with the family of Russian astronomer Professor G.W. Struve of the Imperial Observatory in Pulkova . Maria met many important scientists and received much recognition during her European tours.
Soon after she returned from Europe, Miss Elizabeth Peabody, representing American women, presented Maria Mitchell with an equatorial telescope. Maria’s mother Lydia died in 1861, and a few months after her death William Mitchell and Maria moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. Maria had purchased a small house and installed the little observatory there that she had brought from Nantucket. Depressed by the death of her mother, Maria buried herself in her observations and in her work for the Nautical Almanac.
Miss Maria Mitchell – Vassar Professor
Matthew Vassar founded Vassar Female College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1861, as the first American college exclusively for women and based on the principle that women should receive the same education offered in men’s colleges. He also insisted that women in a women’s college should be taught by women teachers. It took Matthew Vassar several years to overcome the opposition of the board of trustees, but in 1865, he appointed Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy and director of the college observatory.
As Professor of Astronomy part of Maria’s equipment was a twelve inch telescope, the third largest in the United States, and she began to explore the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn and photograph the stars. As the only female faculty member, Maria refused to enforce the societal rules of female behavior expected at the time. The male faculty members respected Maria’s expertise, but they expected her to teach astronomy to female students while insisting that they were not allowed outside at night!
Maria often invited her students to the observatory at night to witness meteor showers and investigate astronomical events. Maria and her students observed and recorded the paths of 4,000 meteors and she wrote many valuable articles about the satellites of Saturn and Jupiter.
In 1865, astronomers William Birt and John Lee named a crater on the moon Mitchell Crater in Maria’s honor, recognition that was rare for women scientists in the Nineteenth Century.
Miss Maria Mitchell Advocated Women’s Rights
From childhood, Maria Mitchell advocated women’s potential, and she became more strongly feminist as she grew older. She became friends with women’s rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Antoniette Brown Blackwell and struggled with them for equality in professions and reforms in education and health issues for women.
Maria Mitchell encouraged her students to think of themselves as professional women, asking “Do you know of any case in which a boys’ college has offered a Professorship to a woman? Until you do, it is absurd to say that the highest learning is within the reach of American women.”
Many of her female students forged careers in astronomy and other fields.
Maria earned many firsts for women and honors in her own right. In 1869, she became the first woman elected to the American Philosophical Society. In 1873, she helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women and she served as the president of the Association from 1874 to 1876. In 1873, she attended the first meeting of the Women’s Congress and when America celebrated its centennial in 1876, she chaired the Women’s Congress held in Philadelphia. In 1887, Columbia College, now Columbia University, awarded her an honorary LL.D., Dr. of Science and Philosophy.
Miss Mitchell Retired from Vassar, but Still Swept the Heavens
Retiring from Vassar in 1888 because of ill health, Maria continued ‘sweeping the sky’ in Lynn, Massachusetts, where her sister lived. She died on June 28, 1889, of a brain disease.At her funeral on Nantucket Island, Vassar President James Monroe Taylor said, “If I were to select for comment the one most striking trait of her character, I should name her genuineness. There was no false note in Maria Mitchell’s thinking or utterance. Doubt she might and she might linger in doubt, but false she could not be…”.
In 1902, Maria’s friends and supporters founded the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket. In 1905 she was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University and in 1994, she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Maria Mitchell’s birth place on Nantucket is open to visitors during the summer.
Maria Mitchell Society Nantucket
Maria Mitchell Observatory- Vassar College
Brooklyn Eagle, June 28, 1889
Albers, Henry. Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters. College Avenue Press, 2001.
Baker, Rachel. America’s First Woman Astronomer, Maria Mitchell. New York: J. Messner, 1960.
Bergland, Renee. Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.
Booker, Margaret Moore. Among the Stars: The Life of Maria Mitchell. Millhill Press, 2007.
Gormley, Beatrice. Maria Mitchell: The Soul of an Astronomer. Eerdmans Publishing Co,1995.
Kendall, Phebe Mitchell. Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals, Lee and Shepard, 1896.
Mitchell, Henry. Biographical Notice of Maria Mitchell. 1889.
Wright, Helen. Sweeper in the Sky: The Life of Maria Mitchell. New York: Macmillan Company, 1949.