Thursday, August 1, 2013

Maria Mitchell—The Young Woman Who Reached for the Stars

Portrait of the astronomer as a young woman.

Today the birthday of the woman who many consider the first professional female scientist in the world. Maria Mitchell was born on August 1, 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. All of you with dirty minds can compose your own limerick now.

She was raised as one of 10 children in a Quaker family and was a distant cousin of Benjamin Franklin. Her father William was an amateur astronomer who believed that observation of natural phenomena revealed the glory of God’s plan. Alone among her siblings young Maria was captivated by her father’s enthusiasm. At an early age she began reading his books and recording his observations. Her father was her best teacher.

Maria got what formal education was then available to young women at Unitarian minister Cyrus Peirce's School for Young Ladies, where she impressed the school master with her diligence so much that he kept her on as an assistant after she completed her course work. In 1835-38 she operated her own school.

The following year she was hired by the Nantucket Anatheum as a librarian. She pursued a self-directed program of education from the volumes in her charge. She worked there for 18 years. Meanwhile she continued to assist her father. Together they made observations of stars for use in celestial navigation and surveyed the coast line of Nantucket Island, both of which were very useful for local mariners.

Shortly after beginning her career at the Anatheum, Mitchell was expelled from her local Quaker Society for expressing doubts and misgivings. She had little use for religious dispute. Like her father, she found her God in nature. She shifted her attendance to the Unitarian congregation, but did not become a member.

The Anatheum provided intellectual and even spiritual nourishment itself. It hosted lectures by the leading lights of the day, including key figures in Transcendentalism, anti-slavery, and early feminist causes including Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, William Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lucy Stone, William Ellery Channing, Horace Greeley, and Theodore Parker. Many were guests in the Mitchell home and Emerson, among others, was invited to view the heavens trough Maria’s telescope.

Mitchell’s life changed in the autumn of 1847. One night she observed an unusual blurry object in the night sky through her telescope. She noted its precise location. The following night she discovered it had moved, confirming her suspicion that the object was a comet. The discovery of Comet Mitchell (C1847 VI), or Miss Mitchell’s Comet, as it came to be popularly known, made her an instant celebrity. She was awarded a gold medal by King Fredrick VII of Denmark for being the first person ever to discover a comet that could not be observed with the naked eye.

She also received honors at home. In 1848 Mitchell was elected as the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1850 to the new American Association for the Advancement of Science. The latter organization’s leading figure, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory, helped her secure  a commission to the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, calculating tables of positions of Venus.

Mitchell also used her fame to lend support to the causes of women and abolitionism. She was a friend and supporter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone . Later in life, in 1873 she was a founder and early president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. To show that she would not support slavery, she refused to wear any cotton garments tainted by the misery of slaves.

In 1857 Mitchell gave up her position at the Anatheum. She accepted the invitation of Chicago banker General H. K. Swift to become a traveling companion to his daughter Prudence. It was Mitchell’s first real chance to travel beyond Massachusetts. She first toured the American West and South, where first hand exposure to slavery encouraged her increasing abolitionist fervor.

Then she accompanied Prudence and author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family on the Grand Tour of Europe. She found herself a greater celebrity on the continent than at home. She was introduced to many of the leading scientists and given a personal tour of observatories in Greenwich and Cambridge. After some difficulty she was even given admittance to the Vatican Observatory. She latter commented, “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.”

Upon her return to the States Matthew Vassar asked her to join the faculty of his new college, the first to offer women “the same education, with the same standards, as that offered in men's colleges.” Despite the founder’s support the Board of Trustees resisted the appointment of women to the faculty for several years. Mitchell finally became the first female professor in 1865. She remained on the faculty until 1888.

For the most part, her association with Vassar College for Women was a happy one. She oversaw the construction of a modern observatory of which she was named Director so that she could continue her own observations and research in addition to her teaching duties. But there were challenges. When she discovered that she was being paid less than new male instructors just beginning their careers, she demanded equal pay. After a struggle she got it. Baptist members of the Board of Trustees also tried to have her dismissed for being “a rank Theodore Parker Unitarian.” She beat back that challenge, too.

Meanwhile Mitchell continued to reap honors. In 1869 she became one of the first three women elected to the prestigious American Philosophical Society, founded by her cousin Ben Franklin. In 1887 Columbia College in New York City awarded her an honorary Doctorate in Science and Philosophy.

Mitchell retired from Vassar after the 1888 school year. The following June she died in Lynn, Massachusetts at the age of 70. She was buried next to her father in her beloved Nantucket.

In 1908 the Maria Mitchell Society opened the then state of the art Maria Mitchell Observatory on the island. The institution continues to keep her legacy alive and provides science education opportunities to generations of young people, many of the young women.

1 comment:

  1. Many years ago, the late Reverend Dr. Tim Jensen hosted me for a week on Nantucket. Visiting Maria Mitchell's house was a highlight, not least because of the dedicated docent who clearly took spiritual guidance from Mitchell's journey with an unusual (for either men or women, this science thing) genius. It's on a beautiful street, with flowers blooming.

    Thanks for the memory.