Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

October 1876

Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she could do in science?

The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work.

This comes from a paper that Maria presented to the Fourth Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women held in Philadelphia in October of 1876. The paper was titled “The Need of Women in Science.” Maria was a founding member of the AAW and its president for a term, as well as serving on the Executive Committee and founding and chairing for the remainder of her life the Science Committee. Her point – women have to be free to work outside the domestic sphere – to be able to devote their time to scientific investigation and work. Because the opportunity has not been there for them, they cannot illustrate their ability nor given a “fair shake.” Their other duties consume them and keep them from experimenting and investigating and exploring. Maria fought tirelessly for her entire adult life for women in education and particularly women in the sciences. She fought for their rights to have educations and to find their place among men in science and even to lead among all scientists. She led by example and fought and advocated and supported until she took her last breath.


Research Center: Another Update


We have had a busy summer. The HVAC system took longer than expected due to the nature of working within the framework – literally – of a 1830s building with a 1933 addition. Remember, the 1933 stucco Wing is bunker-like to say the least. There is no space behind the walls for wiring or ductwork so everything is exposed. Add to that, we are working with a historic building with historic fabric and we are trying to preserve it all.

So, a lot of electrical work was done to update the wiring and to electrify the HVAC system once that was installed. The HVAC system requires three condenser units outside and a vent through the chimney so we have had lots of different parties on-site. Now, we are working on putting the walls in for the accessible bathroom and walling in the furnace room and the staircase that serves the Wing side of the basement.

As always – there are many to thank which I have done several times before but I will send a big thank you to those who have been currently working – Island Gas; Kevin Wiggin HVAC, Inc.; Ellis and Schneider, Inc.; (electrical), Matt Anderson (carpenter); Greg Maskell Landscaping; and Wayne Morris (mason).


Ghosts of the Past and Those of the Future

Somebody is in our house. They sit among our furniture. They open and close the shades just as we did. They walk up and down our stairs, climb to the roofwalk, watch the same patterns of sun fall across the kitchen floor. They hear the wind as we did and the birds in the grape arbor. They hear the rainfall on the roof of our house and witness the darkness outside as it creeps inside.

Have you ever thought about those who came before you in your own home? I often do. I think about the people who lived in my parents’ 1780s tavern and the people who stayed the night or drank a pint of ale before the firebox in what was likely the tavern room and now serves as the large and sunny family room. I certainly think about this at the Mitchell House. I wonder what the Mitchells think of my presence – that the house is a museum that honors their daughter, sister, cousin, niece. I wonder how they feel about us being here. Literally touching their belongings (with gloves on!) and talking about them and their belongings and how they lived in the house and what they thought. Whether we have everything as accurately as we think. How a private Quaker family feels about being on display. How they feel about visitors traipsing across their kitchen floor, marveling at the grain painting or the tiny narrow back stairs.

What will people think when we are gone?


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Edinburgh, Sept. 30 {1857}

My dear Father,

. . . Nothing is more provoking than the ignorance of the English about Americans. I really doubt if they would know who Benjamin Franklin was, if I should speak of him. They are really too full of their own greatness to perceive that there is another great nation. Mr. Airy understands that the Bonds are astronomers, but I dare say Mrs. Prof. Smyth never heard of them, tho’ of course Prof. Smyth has the transactions. And yet, no observatory has such instruments as Harvard . . .

Despite the fact that the Bonds and the Harvard College Observatory really were among the best in the world, their counterparts in Europe barely knew them – o rat least barely acknowledged them. Such a factor played a large role in how long it took for Maria to be recognized as indeed the discoverer of her comet in 1847. The Bonds were among the first to photograph the stars and they entrusted Maria with such a glass plate photograph to bring on her trip to Europe. She would give this plate to Sir George Airy on her visit to him. Airy was the Astronomer Royal of England (Charles Piazzi Smyth was Scotland’s Astronomer Royal) and though her first impressions were somewhat strong as you have noted above, she would carry on a lifelong friendship with Sir George Airy and his wife, Richarda.


A Meaningful Painting


This is a view of the Unitarian Church on Nantucket from Stone Alley. Probably about the mid to late 1950s. It is plain, clean, and simple but easily identifiable. It hangs in my own home – a gift from my parents. It was painted by my great grandmother – Other Nana – who has been mentioned a few times in this blog over the years.

She always worked with her hands. She was a milliner – oh please do not have to Google that! – and an excellent seamstress as well. Rheumatoid arthritis did a number on her from her hands and jaw to her feet. But, she kept her hands moving in an attempt to keep them from seizing up and painting and sewing and knitting were something she continued to do – she even smocked dresses for me when I was very little.

So, this painting has a lot of meaning for me.

Maria Mitchell was born and raised a Quaker but like all of her siblings – and many of her Nantucket generation – she left Quaker meeting. Her parents remained Quakers. Maria would attend Unitarian services in this church – renting a pew at one point. Though she attended services, her life still very much remained with one foot in the world of Quakerism. Her dress and daily life remained simple. And when addressing Quaker elders, she still utilized “thee” and “thy” though for younger generations, including her students, she now used the word “you” which Quakers forbade.

And thus the painting has even more meaning for me.


Oh, You “Adorable” Bunnies

One of the few Morning Glories they didn’t eat!

Adorable is NOT the word. This spring and summer we have had a BUMPER crop of bunnies at 1 Vestal Street thanks to the increased volume of edibles from the winters we have had. I am sure you have heard people complaining about mice, chipmunks (if you are off – we don’t have them here!), voles, and moles.

Bunnies, as I call them – though would rather use other words – have been a major nuisance. They have gotten into my own fenced in back yard and wreaked havoc. But typically, I don’t have to deal with them – or even deer – at Mitchell House. This year is not the case. They have decimated the plantings along the Mitchell House. They obviously didn’t get the memo that they are NOT supposed to like snapdragons – stripped! My nasturtiums – on their way out. My morning glories (all 500 heirloom seeds) – I’ve got three plants at the moment. My hollyhocks – destroyed! My little dianthus are just that – tiny little anthills. And now, the phlox are falling. Quite frankly, I’m not so sure I am so fond of my little bunny friends. They eat about 500 times their own weight in a night and I swear that by the end of the week they are twice as big!

In any case, I had even higher hopes for the Mitchell House garden this year than I did last year. Now I’m afraid I will have a bumper crop of adult bunnies next year – with even more babies. Dare I plant my tulips again?


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Light clouds had for some time seemed to drift toward the sun; the Mississippi assumed a leaden hue; a sickly green spread over the landscape; Venus shone brightly on one side of the sun, Mercury on the other; Arcturus was gleaming overhead, Saturn was rising in the east; the neighboring cattle began to low; the birds uttered a painful cry; fireflies winked in the foliage, and when the last ray of light was extinguished, a wave of sound came up for the villages below, the mingling of the subdued voices of the multitude.

Instantly the corona burst forth, a glory indeed: It encircled the sun with a soft light, and it sent off streamers for millions of miles into space! And now it was quick work! To see what could be seen . . .

On August 7, 1869 Maria Mitchell and a party of her students, along with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, observed the total solar eclipse. Burlington, Iowa was their site – they travelled under the auspices of the US Nautical Almanac eclipse-viewing contingent. Maria receives a $100 grant to offset the costs of the trip. Congress had appropriated $5000 to the Nautical Almanac for the eclipse observation. The piece above is from an October 1869 article she wrote for “Hours at Home” and I think it gives you a wonderful sense of Maria and the total eclipse when it reached totality. This was not a science magazine but a popular one she was asked to write a piece for – she would also, of course, contribute her findings to the US Naval report that all those scientists observing officially reported to. However, one thing to note is that Maria’s party was the ONLY women-only eclipse observing party. Her students were handpicked for their experiences computing eclipses and her sister was there to sketch, draw, and paint the eclipse – she was an artist. What a statement for America’s first woman astronomer, founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, first woman member of the Association for the Advancement of Arts and Sciences, and a strong and active women’s rights proponent.

Happy Eclipse Viewing (especially for those in the path of totality)! Please do so safely!


Walter Folger Junior

I would like to draw your attention to one of Maria Mitchell’s relatives, Walter Folger Jr. A cousin to be exact. However, as Maria once said to someone when she/he told her they had met her cousin from Nantucket, “Which one? I have thousands.” Yes, pretty much everyone was related to everyone else.

Walter Folger was a scientist, inventor, lawyer, astronomer, statesman . . . pretty much sounds like William Mitchell, his cousin and friend. We have a few books in our collection that Folger gave to Maria. In any case, I was asked to narrate a video for the Nantucket Historical Association’s exhibition that opened in May, “Out of the Box: Unpacking Nantucket Stories” for which they have a telescope on display which Folger created. So, if you would like to learn a little more about Folger, clink this link:

And stay tuned. For Maria Mitchell’s 200th Birthday, I am working on a Maria Mitchell exhibit to be displayed at the Whaling Museum in 2018.



I have a MASSIVE sweet tooth. I am frankly not too discerning either. Chocolate is, of course, high on my list. One year when I was young, Santa Claus brought my Dad a small antique wooden box with a lock in it. It was FILLED with chocolate; in particular chocolate covered cherries, one of his most favorites, and Andes Mint Candies. The thing is, my Dad didn’t lock the box . . . My Mom still to this day takes fiendish delight in roasting me over the fact that she caught me leaving their room with my mouth stuffed with chocolates – think chipmunk. My Mom, “Jascin are you eating your Father’s chocolate?” A maybe six or eight year old me, “No, Mommy.” Think of that through the guise of chipmunk cheeks stuffed with chocolate that was also likely dribbling down my chin and out the corners of my mouth!

I definitely got the sweet tooth from my Dad – who got it from his grandfather also known as “Big Daddy” – a name my Dad gave him as a child. I won’t get started on Mama Minnie, Big Daddy’s wife and my great-grandmother. Yes, my Dad was from an Italian family in case you didn’t note my maiden name is Leonardo! But, I digress. My Dad and I would sometimes eat two desserts – you know an hour or so after the first one and at about 9PM. He would say, “I think there is some nice gelato in the freezer.” By that point, I was a woman in my 40s.

But I also think my sweet tooth – because I love pure sugar candy too like Smarties and my Dad did too – comes from my Other Other Nana (read great-great grandmother) who you see in this image. She came from Germany in the late 1800s. She spoke no English. She married a young man also from Germany whom she met in New York City. They were a town apart in Germany but never knew one another. They had a family and lived in Brooklyn where she ran a candy and confectionery shop that you see her standing in front of – Weed’s Ice Cream – which also sold tobacco. Go figure. She stands out front – note the dirt road even in Brooklyn about 1900 or so – with my Other Nana (the girl with the messy hair – guess I inherited that as well), Helen, her sister, Elsie, and their brother, John, as well as the family dog. Yes, we are still a dog family. So, I come from a family that ran a sweets shop! And later, my Other Nana would marry a man who was a pharmacist and what did you find in pharmacies in those days? Candy and ice cream!

So, while genes play a role in my sweet tooth, I think pure illustration or demonstration does too. My son, who is adopted, is already all about the ice cream after dinner like Big Daddy was. He is discerning however so maybe we will be in good shape. I would have loved to take him to the Sweet Shop here on island which is long gone – but he’s already been introduced to sitting at the pharmacy counter at Island Pharmacy and quick licking a cone from the Juice Bar!

You may ask, “Did Maria have a sweet tooth?” I have not seen anything in her journals that would lead me to that conclusion though you also have to remember that those were quite a bit more few and far between – a real indulgence then. Sweet shops and confectioners did pop up on the island; in fact there was a small one by the Atheneum but I believe later than when Maria was librarian there. Now, next time, ask me about Maria and beer.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1873, July 21 Cambridge. We took an exceedingly hot day for a visit to Cambridge. . . . Cambridge is beautiful – but it has no trees except those in parks . . . One thing is certain, Girton College has sat itself down before the University of Cambridge in siege and the little woman Miss Davies has obtained a quiet power that is very effective . . .

This second European trip, Maria made in the summer of 19873 with her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall, her husband Joshua, and their son William Mitchell Kendall. Girton was the first residential college for women in the United Kingdom and had opened just about four years before Maria visited. Davies was its founder. But coming from the second oldest women’s college in the United States, and with her lifelong push for women in education and also women’s equality, this was a must on her return trip to Europe. What I like best about her comment is that of Girton being plopped right in front of Cambridge as if thumbing – or perhaps really thumbing – its nose at a centuries old institution where only men could be educated. Cambridge did not formally allow women to receive degrees until 1947. By her comments, it seems to have pleased MM as well.

For more about Girton College, visit:

And – make sure you stop by the MMA tomorrow from 1-4PM where we will be celebrating Maria Mitchell’s 199th Birthday (and yes, we are gearing up for number 200!) with activities, period inspired music, a falconry demonstration, activities, and refreshments! All of our properties will be open for FREE. Everyone is welcome!