Miss Mitchell’s Students: Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin

Image courtesy of the Coffin School Trustees

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The fifth, and final in this series, is:

Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, 1850-1930

Born in Brooklyn, New York to Nantucket Quakers and reared in a Quaker household, Elizabeth or “Lizzie” attended Quaker schools.  She entered Vassar College and enrolled in Maria’s astronomy classes, becoming close to Maria and her father.  Nantucket was not the only connection for these three – they were also distant cousins.  Lizzie was a classmate and became a good friend of Mary Whitney.  When she graduated from Vassar in 1870, she furthered her schooling in the 1870s at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague where she was among the first women to be accepted.  Several tours through Europe with family, tutelage under many fine artists of the nineteenth century, and friendships with the artist Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and others provided Coffin schooling in the arts.  Through her membership in the Art Students League of New York, the Brooklyn Art Club, and the Brooklyn Art Guild, of which she was president, Lizzie became acquainted with artists from around the world.  Her connections, her schooling, and her talent led to participation in major exhibitions throughout the country.

Lizzie made frequent trips to Nantucket, until she built a house on Lily Street in 1900.  She returned to New York often, but preferred to call Nantucket her home.  Eakins was among many artists who would visit her on Nantucket.  During the extended visits, Lizzie continued to paint but also took on many new activities, particularly in support of the island and its people.  She was active in founding the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, as well as the Goldenrod Literary and Debating Society (a group for island girls), the brainchild of Sara Winthrop Smith.  Perhaps because of Lizzie’s friendship with Smith and her close friend Gertrude King (teacher and principal at the Coffin School), and her family ties to the school, she was instrumental in putting the Coffin School back on its feet.  The school had closed in 1898 due to lack of funds and a dwindling student population.  Coffin’s efforts to redevelop the school as a center for manual-training courses in conjunction with the public schools was what helped to revive it.  With the founding of the Coffin School Association and with the help and support of the Coffin School Trustees, Lizzie’s dream was realized and the school reopened in 1903.

Her work on behalf of the school greatly increased its endowment, and she was influential in establishing the home economics program for Nantucket girls.  Lizzie’s Vassar College schoolmate, Ellen Swallow Richards, was a champion of the home economics movement in schools and partially funded the program on Nantucket.  Ironically, although Lizzie continued to paint, she was better known to islanders as a champion of island causes than as an artist.  Today, many of her works are in the collection of the Coffin School Trustees.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

January 3, 1867.  Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in 50 years.  He said one of the most conservative members of the Faculty had said within 16 days that it would come about within 10 years.  I asked him if I could go into one of Prof. Peirce’s recitations.  He said there was nothing to keep me out and that he would let me know when they came . . . .

The following Friday, Maria was there with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, and asked Peirce (I believe this is Benjamin Peirce she refers to) upon his arrival if she could attend.  He answered in the affirmative but Maria was apparently unhappy with the response saying to him, “Can not you say ‘I shall be happy to have you.’  He answered her in the way she expressed though she noted that he didn’t seem happy, possibly in part because he was in a state of “undress” – meaning likely not up to snuff for a Harvard professor presenting to his Harvard students.  Maria and Phebe took their seats, Maria apparently turned crimson (pun intended) when the male students arrived, and Peirce made several mistakes in his formulas.  She also noted that the room was “very common looking” – something that she noted would never be allowed at Vassar.

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Ellen Swallow Richards

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The fourth is:

Ellen Swallow Richards, 1842-1911

Swallow Richards entered Vassar at the age of twenty-six – not uncommon for women attending the first women’s colleges – as a third year.  She graduated in 1870 having only had formal schooling starting at age sixteen.  A student of Maria’s – who recognized her ability and promise for science innovation – Ellen found her calling in chemistry which led her to MIT.  All other schools had denied her entry based on her sex but MIT reluctantly accepted her as a test – to “ascertain women’s ability in the sciences.”  In 1873, she received a Bachelor of Science from MIT and Vassar bestowed a Master of Arts on her at the same time.  Together with her husband, Robert Hallowell Richards, a MIT professor of mining, they used their home as a laboratory for devising home efficiencies.  She would head a lab for women at MIT which focused on studying “sanitary chemistry.”  Her work made her the founder of the home economics movement and during her life she published seventeen books on home economics and sanitation; including the first health food cookbook published in the U.S.  She also organized the first school lunch programs, created exhibits on home economics for several world fairs, and introduced healthy and inexpensive cooking to Boston’s immigrant communities.

 

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Dec. 9. I worked on Saturn last evening.  It was the 15th evening on Saturn.  I mean at some time to collect the “peculiarities” of Saturn and to publish them on a sheet of paper and scatter them around . . . . I find one record in Dawes on a star seen between ball and ring.

Apparently, Dawes – or William Rutter Dawes (1799 – 1868, England) – was known for his “meticulous planetary observations.”  I am assuming this is to whom she is referring. He apparently discovered a “crepe ring” around Saturn and focused on studying the planets.  When Maria writes “publish” and “scatter them around” – she likely means placing what she discovers into the hands of those she knows.  Maria was never keen on publishing but I could see her wanting to share her discoveries with others in a larger way – she did as obviously was necessary in her field.  But rather than writing people in long letters, she could have this information printed and ready to go, disseminating it when she saw people but also by mailing it perhaps with pre-printed salutations.

JNLF

The Nerve-Racking Deed

It may seem trivial but to me it wasn’t.  It hung over my head for months.  I walked under it every day knowing that I had to be the one to do it come late fall.

I’ve written about other aspects of it before.  It’s the grapevine – believed to be a plant of Peleg Mitchell Jr’s – Maria Mitchell’s uncle who lived in the Mitchell House at 1 Vestal Street after the William and Lydia Mitchell family moved to the Pacific Bank.  For all the years we had our landscaper, he would cut it back for us late each fall.  We have a new landscaper who works alone so in a bid to help out his workload, I said I would cut it back.  GULP!

I’m an okay gardener – I like messy gardens though.  I don’t like everything to be all rowed up and lots of soil in between each plant.  I tend to let plants grow where they spread and give a plant that isn’t doing very well way too much patience.  Grapevines on an arbor?  Not my thing.

So, I did some research.  I found a good article in Fine Gardening – actually online.  I like Fine Gardening, my Mom sends a subscription to me as a gift every year.  (This is not an advertisement!).  It took some careful reading and re-reading as the lovely images were sort of hard to follow but I think I got what they meant.  I HOPE I got what they meant!  ARGH!

So, I took out my trusty snips – that were too dull because I naughtily used them for oh, you know, cutting wire for tin lanterns we make in Mitchell House children’s programs – and took the first snip.  I didn’t breathe.  Actually, I pretty much clenched my jaw and didn’t breathe much except to talk to the grapevine – and Peleg – while trying to avoid the power line that is nearby.  EEK!

It went by quickly.  I piled up the vine pieces and cut them short to make it neater and easier to dispose of.  I walked back.  Sighed.  Hoped I cut it correctly so that next year we have more grapes – or frankly still have the grapevine.  I don’t want to be the curator who murdered it.  I’d never forgive myself.  NEVER!

(I did take cuttings earlier to try and root them as I have the last few years.  Hope they work again!)

JNLF

Glorious!

I waited all summer and then, maybe a month ago what you see here appeared!  The long-awaited burst of red flowers covering the pineapple sag that I planted in May.  It started as a tiny plant in a four-inch pot.  I may have even bought it from Kmart on the Cape.  But in any case, it’s absolutely lovely.  I’ve had them flower earlier – and I’d just about given up on this one but then – ta-dah!

It does not seem to have a pineapple scent – though my Mother keeps telling me it should.  Perhaps it was damaged when the bunnies first ravaged in in June – I thought it would not grow but it’s about 3-4 feet tall and almost as wide – the image doesn’t do it justice.  I’m hoping it will make it through a bit longer.  I plant it in large part because William Mitchell’s – Maria Mitchell’s father – favorite color was red and how can you go wrong with this plant?

I did plant some Cardinal Flower too – I had to put plastic pots on the bottoms because the bunnies got to those too – and then started to stand on their hind legs when they were thwarted by the pots!  Next year – I’m doing some metal fencing. Ehhem, my bunny friends.

JNLF

P.S. It did get clobbered by the snow and freeze on November 12th but I did enjoy it while it lasted!  Sorry, its not a very good image.

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov 13. {1881}   I observed in the meridian room last night; working with telescopes always cheers me.  Today is fine and I am feeling uncommonly well.  I am hoping that the cramping of my hands means nothing, but it is new to me.  I did not go to Chapel today but worked on a lesson. 

Maria had more than one occasion when she did not go to chapel – I believe I have noted it before.  Not her thing.  She found lots of excuses –better light to sew by in the mornings when chapel occurred – but this is a much better excuse I’d say – lesson prep for her students.  Maria found her religion, her god, in nature.  Her daily nature walks were a reminder to her of the power of nature, the beauty of it, the science of it.  She was very much a scientist of the nineteenth century.

Concerning her notes about her hands, Maria would have health issues that she  battled – and minor mentions are made mainly in the late 1870s and then into the 1880s.  She would ultimately die of “brain disease” that may have been Parkinson’s or something similar given some of her ailments.

The meridian room was a part of the observatory at Vassar where the telescopes (meridian instruments) could be found.  The observatory at Vassar is an impressive building for its architecture alone.  Below is a description of it from the Vassar College Encyclopedia.

In material—brick with stone—as well as in its proportions and design elements—arched first floor windows, brick pilasters at the corners, a central entrance at the second story—Farrar’s building faithfully echoed, in miniature, Renwick’s enormous Main Building. An octagonal center, twenty-six feet in diameter, supported the dome, twenty-seven feet seven inches in diameter. Three two-story wings to the north, east, and south, twenty-one by twenty-eight feet, contained on the second story a “prime vertical room,” a “transit room,” and a “clock and chronograph room”—each named for its instruments and functions. The first stories of the wings, unfinished at first, were nine feet high, but the second story floor of the octagon was four and a half feet above those of the wings. The walls of the octagon were made with solid brick for stability, and the walls of the wings were hollow. The dome was built with ribs of pine resting on a plate of pine and was covered with sheet-tin. Sixteen cast-iron pulleys, nine inches in diameter and running on a track of iron, revolved the ton-and-a-hall dome. 

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Margaretta Palmer

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The third is:

Margaretta Palmer, 1862-1924

A classmate of Antonia Maury’s, Palmer graduated in 1887 and served as Maria Mitchell’s assistant for that first year after graduation.  She had taken several of Maria’s astronomy classes.  In 1889, she was hired by the Yale Observatory to serve as an assistant– mirroring the program her classmate, Maury, was doing at Harvard.  She was among the first group of woman admitted to Yale for graduate school, receiving her Ph.D. in 1894 in mathematics – the first woman to earn a PH.D. in mathematics and the first of seven women to earn Ph.D.’s from Yale.  Her    thesis – a recalculation of her professor Maria Mitchell’s comet of 1847 – was a perfect match for this astronomer and mathematician and likely a nod to her Vassar mentor.  Her focus was in computational astronomy which led her to calculate the orbits of many comets that were previously discovered including several by English astronomer Caroline Herschel who was forced, due to her sex, to give much of the credit for her astronomical work to her astronomer brother, William Herschel.  Palmer worked at Yale for her entire career – weathering many tensions and internal fighting – but was able to publish several articles of her own, as well as numerous other publications that she co-authored.

JNLF

A Bit Of A Nor’easter

I don’t like wind.  Pretty hysterically funny given that I live on an island.  I mean, I can tolerate it, but after three (or four!!) straight days of gusts to 60 mph, I get a little nutty.   October 9-12, 2019 was a long, slow nor’easter.  We lost power here and there, limbs came down.  I, of course, can continue to work to some degree in the Mitchell House if it’s something not associated with power (and my work computer is a laptop).  I always like to say I work in the nineteenth century after all!

One thing that is not so fun is actually hanging out in the Mitchell House attic.  I don’t mind the sound but there is a large maple in the neighbor’s yard that always makes me nervous – especially when all the trees are still leafed out.  The other thing, is that with the wind blowing at 60 mph, it makes you feel like you are on a ship and that you are rolling.  I actually get a little nauseous!  Makes me wonder what it was like for the Mitchell children when they were playing in the attic during a storm.  The tree was not there in the nineteenth century but the winds were and I wonder if they pretended to be at sea on a whaleship like their maternal grandfather, Andrew Coleman (Note that Lydia’s and William’s first born and first born son was named after his maternal grandfather.  He too would go to sea – at age 13 he ran off to sea).  I could see that.  Sadly, he was died at sea in November 1807 when Lydia Coleman Mitchell was a young teenager.  But it was his bringing back pumpkin seed from Patagonia that brought William and Lydia together!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

October 1. {1857}  No place that I have yet seen in Europe has interested me like Abbotsford; no palace has held such royalty.  I sat down in the chair which Sir Walter Scott had occupied, and I almost felt his presence; his power I had known nearly all my life . . . . It was rather a sad visit as all such visits must be . . . I had half a mind to sit down and cry, perhaps because the “wizard” was dead, perhaps because I was a little homesick.

This date marked the anniversary of Maria Mitchell’s comet discovery on October 1, 1847.  At least one of Scott’s books exists in Maria’s personal library today – and I am sure there were more – handed about among family members, as well as available at the Nantucket Atheneum.  This was truly an experience and education for Maria – touring through Europe.  It was also the first time she had even been away from home for any length of time.  She was entering into her third month away from her family and Nantucket – it must not have been easy.  Keep in mind – no easy communication – letters only, do not forget.  At least a voice at the other end of a phone line can help a bit when one is homesick.  (Yeah, no, I’m not a Facetime/Skype kind of girl.  I do “live” in the 19th century!)

JNLF