Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1881, May 6.  Yesterday we went to town see the opening of the Vassar Brothers Home for old men.  I looked at Matthew Vassar (Vassar College’s founder’s nephew) with admiration.  It is a good deal to be successful in getting money, to give it away by tens of thousands is more!  And to see a man upwards of 70 stand up in a crowd and say exactly the right thing and sit down before the audience was tired, is not usual . . . .

Maria Mitchell always says it well.  Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, had originally wanted to establish a hospital in his name.  His nephew, also named Matthew Vassar, was once of several who convinced him to establish a women’s college.  Vassar would still goon to be a generous man in supporting the Poughkeepsie area – I believe a hospital was built – and obviously his nephew continued n in the same tradition as noted by Maria Mitchell here.

This reminds me of Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett and many other multi-millionaires and billionaires who have pledged to give away much of their wealth.  There were people in the nineteenth century and earlier, during the Great Depression and later who saw a need and gave willingly.  The MMA was such a recipient in its building of the Vestal Street Observatory in the early 1900s when some monies were given to its building by Andrew Carnegie.  A small new observatory on an isolated island – he knew we were in need and knew it could be something tremendous that contributed to our knowledge and education – and he was right!

Further, Vassar was not looking for accolades as Maria also notes.  Buffett, Carnegie, Gates, they don’t look for accolades and I would assume that all would know what to say and would not continue to speak on and on, nor stand until the audience could no longer clap.  That’s class – for lack of a better word – and reaching out to give to others when you have so much or so much more that you cannot ever use it all.  That is compassion, caring, generosity and kindness.


Celestial Masks


If only this was for a costume!

One of my wonderful former interns – a young woman who actually came back this past fall to help me out on some projects at the Mitchell House – emailed to ask if my family needed any masks.  Her mother, with this young woman’s assistance, has been making masks for people at her place of work.  I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” and asked if one  of them could be made a bit smaller for my son.

Sure enough – they arrived and there was one just right for a six-year-old!  And, leave it to the very creative woman who made them – she made them all in celestial motifs!  My son’s has planets on one side and stars on the other.  Mine has different star patterns on each side, and my husband’s has stars on one and plaid on the other!  Amazing!

Now, how do you properly thank someone for providing such a thing?  Many thanks – to the moon and back!  Be safe and be well.


Derek Till

I was pretty young when I first met Derek Till.  One thing I became familiar with was the twinkle in his eye, his ease to laugh, and his snappy white shoes that cut an amazing path across the dance floor with Patricia.

I didn’t know Derek’s first wife, but after some banter of stories about Nantucket and the MMA, I figured out how Derek came to be involved in the MMA – via his father-in-law, Tell Berna.  Berna was one of the founders of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation but he was also actively involved in the MMA and very interested in helping to start what would become the MMA Aquarium.  Until Derek and I had a conversation that involved Berna, I didn’t realize the connection.  He was surprised I knew Tell Berna’s name – but then didn’t realize how much I wandered about Nantucket’s history – and the MMA’s.

Derek became a very active member of the MMA board, served as an officer, and was instrumental in assisting and leading the Preservation and Repair Committee.  Still to this day, we have the model he built in paperboard of what would become Drake Cottage on the site of what was once a converted 1940s garage – Terrace Cottage.  Even its little German statice flower “trees” – a little worse for the wear – still stand in front of the model.  He served on the MMA Science Committee for many years as well.

I remember the way he leaned back in his chair with his leg crossed at meetings, arm crossed over his chest.  And his accent.  I did not know much about his younger years but now, reading about his life, I am reminded why I liked him so much.  He was not boastful but very down-to-earth.  He had an opinion and would certainly express it – and could become quite serious – but that twinkle, and that delightful laugh were always close by no matter what.  He was a dapper dresser – summer typically meant a seersucker coat – and did I mention his dancing?  When he and Patricia moved into their retirement community, they regaled me with all the fantastic things that the people did for all the residents.  The one that seemed to get them the most was the fact that you had to leave your car keys by the front door so that when it snowed, the staff could come in while you were asleep, get your keys, move your car, and plow the driveway!   I can hear Derek telling me that now.

Even in his nineties, he continued to come to the island – even after Patricia died.  He was ever-present at the MMA Soirée, became more active again with advice, and re-joined the board of the MMA as an Honorary Director – something I think he was honored and tickled by.

Derek had a long life well-lived – one in which he was always active.  And I know, wherever he is, he’s dancing.


The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands.   

– Maria Mitchell

Signs of Spring

Yes, we need some of those right now.

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic has all of us worried, on edge, and exhausted.  And then to add insult to injury, we here on Nantucket have been having a truly dreadful spring, weather-wise.  Very cold, days of rain and mist and fog and wind.  Now, this is common for Nantucket in spring – feels more like winter – but it keeps us from being able to walk, hang out in the yard, etc.  It probably is a blessing with social distancing – keeping us all indoors – but I need to dig in the earth!  Hear the birds!  Smell the spring air!

Mitchell House “Beauty of Spring” Tulip

Maria Mitchell was also a naturalist and her daily nature walks were a constant – I’ve noted them before.  She would note changes in her journals, talk about what she witnessed.  Even the simplest thing from a bloom to the color of a flower – she noted it.

Mitchell House “Beauty of Spring” tulip – the deer and the bunnies missed them!

So if you see any signs of spring like I found here, then why don’t you “Tweet” us back some signs of spring images?  I did see some goslings and was surprised but then realized it’s May!



Where Was The Maria Mitchell Association In 1918?

As a historian and curator, I am often thinking about the past and how it affects the present day, how it affects different situations, and the similarities.  I also like to look at how people react to the same or similar situations in different eras.  The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic situation is no different for me.

I peruse our old MMA annual reports quite often for various bits of information whether it be from a standpoint of something that happened at the MMA, perhaps work that was done on the buildings or information about staff members of many years ago.  While I have been around for quite a bit of time (thirty years plus), I was not obviously around in the 1920s or 1940s (even though I may seem of a different era to some) and thus need to take a look back.  The annual reports are always a good place to start before I head into the Archives.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at our annual reports of the early 1900s and through the 1930s because of the more recent work we have done on our Science Library – now our Research Center re-opened in 2018 – and the conservation and restoration work that we are hoping to complete to the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory with several grants.  So, I took a walk back to 1918 because I do not remember reading much about the “Spanish Flu Pandemic” of 1918-1919.  On Nantucket, the 1918 Pandemic was prevalent – most notably during the “second wave” in the Fall of 1918.  I only found one mention of the 1918 Pandemic in the annual reports and that was in our first astronomer’s, Margaret Harwood, report on the Observatory.  In it, she mentions having to cancel the open nights in November 1918 due to the flu on Nantucket.  That’s it.  No other mention.  The Boston-area was hard hit during this “second wave” – with a belief that Fort Devens was one of the major places to see the resurgence in the Fall of 1918 as soldiers came from across the country on their way to and from Europe.

Miss Harwood did focus on the war in her reports of the time – she had taken quite a bit of time off to assist the Red Cross and other entities in the efforts to support the troops.  Of note, in articles that I have read about this period, the war did continue to –  obviously – take center-stage keeping the flu pandemic relegated to interior pages of the newspapers.  Most of the people who survived the flu pandemic – my great grandfather, a pharmacist, caught it and survived – are gone and if they are still with us today they were infants or young toddlers.  One woman who recently passed away at 102 years old, survived the Pandemic of 1918 only to lose her life to the current Pandemic.  What was curious – I’m not even sure what word to use – is that she lost her infant twin in the 1918 Pandemic.  Both lost to a flu pandemic – but 102 years apart.

I guess my point here is that we as an island, a country, a world, have been through quite a bit to put it mildly – both then and now.  The MMA survived through the pandemic of 1918-1919, the Great War, the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, and World War II among many other catastrophic and world-altering events.  The MMA moved and renovated William Mitchell’s former schoolhouse into the MMA Science Library in 1918 and 1919 and added a Wing to the Science Library in the midst of the Great Depression.  My friend and mentor and the MMA’s former Ornithologist, Edith Folger Andrews, stepped in as the biology teacher for Nantucket high school students when their science teacher was drafted in World War II.  The MMA made it through other uncertain times and stock market recessions and lows, including the Great Recession of 2008.  After this, no one will be untouched, our world will be different, but we will all still be here – including here at the MMA where we will continue to be to help you learn more about the world around you – from land to sea to sky.

Wash your hands.  Cover your mouth and nose.  Be well.  Stay safe.  Stay at home unless you are an essential worker.



Dream Kitchen!

Ms. Florence’s Stove

Soon, we all will be able to have a more in-depth look at the Higginbotham House, owned by the Museum of African American History (MAAH) in Boston.  This house is part of the complex on York Street that includes the African Meetinghouse.  The MAAH has been working hard to conserve and restore Ms. Florence’s house, as well as the outbuildings associated with the property.  On Nantucket today, we have lost most of these outbuildings that were once (and still can be) important components of the running of a household – and sometimes a home-run business or two.

The house may look a bit later nineteenth/early twentieth century but it actually was built sometime not long after 1774 when Seneca Boston purchased it.  Seneca had been a slave and purchased this lot long before slavery was abolished in the Commonwealth.  He and his wife, Thankful Micah, who was Wampanoag, would raise six children here including the famed Absalom Boston.  Absalom would captain the all-black crewed whaleship the Industry and play a leading role in the integration of the island’s schools – and in building the Meetinghouse next door to his birthplace.

Ms. Florence purchased the property in the early twentieth century and would also purchase the Meetinghouse which would help to preserve it.  The image you see here is post-restoration work.  One room is believed to be largely in its eighteenth century condition but the rest of the house saw a renovation by Ms. Florence as she did take in boarders and wanted to accommodate such an arrangement.  MAAH worked to keep the house mainly at Ms. Florence’s inhabitance.  And from a preservation standpoint it is important to show the evolution of a house – not to always bring it back to what you “think” it looked like – even if based on testing.  (The Mitchell House has a myriad of things that are late nineteenth century and very early twentieth century – before it became a museum and during Maria’s uncle’s family’s inhabitance of the House.)

Front sitting room likely in 18th century condition. Ms. Florence removed the chimney mass to make a full front staircase.

The room I show here is her kitchen – with her original re-built stove (it was in pieces in an outbuilding but she saved it!).  My immediate reaction when I saw it – and the entire house –I’m moving in!  This is my dream kitchen though my stove is a bit later – think the stove in the Connecticut house in “Christmas in Connecticut” or some of the stoves seen in several early Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films.  The cabinets are wonderful, the sink and counters gorgeous.  Now, if they’d let me cook in it and stay awhile.

Congratulations MAAH!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Dr. E. P. Miller’s

37, 39 West 26th Street

New York, Ap. 16 {1881}

My dear Matthew {Barney},

I am glad you are getting along decently well.  I am very much better than I was and begin to enjoy life again.  Lydia Dame is with me for a few days.  Anne you probably see; she left Thursday.  I enjoyed her visit very much . . . .

Yesterday (Good Friday) the city was packed and crammed and I suppose it will be on Sunday . . . .

Tomorrow (Sunday) Lydia expects to go to Trinity {Church}; probably she will have to stand.  After Easter has passed, I mean to buy Easter Eggs.  I suspect they will be cheap.  The streets are exceedingly pretty; some of the Easter cards are very pretty and the roses beautiful.  You pass thousands of them on Broadway.

Matthew Barney was the husband of Maria’s older sister, Sally Mitchell Barney, who died in 1876.  By this point, Matthew was remarried.  He is buried on Nantucket with his second wife and her family.  It is nice to see that they still remained close – he was, after all, her brother-in-law for thirty-eight years before Sally died – a death not unexpected as her health had been poorly much of her life.  Lydia Dame, was a daughter of Maria’s youngest sister, Eliza Katherine (Kate) Mitchell Dame and Anne is of course a younger sister of Maria’s.

What I find funny is Maria’s frugal nature coming out in her note about buying Easter candy AFTER Easter.  Such a Maria thing.  She was not poor by any means, leaving a decent estate to her family when she died in 1889.  But her Nantucket and Quaker-self shine through in this comment – as too does the over-crowding.   In this date of COVID-19, it immediately makes me think of “social distancing.”  Maria might find it amazing to see shots of what were once crowded areas of NYC and Boston –  all now empty because of this virus pandemic.

Maria was in NYC for the Easter parade – this was at its beginnings – and went on for decades though it began to fizzle out in the last decade or so.  If you have never seen “Easter Parade” with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland it really is a must no matter what your religious belief – it is not a religious-based movie and it has one of the best dance and song scenes in a musical – “A Couple of Swells” – (says this movie musical nut) and “Stepping Out With My Baby” is  fantastic – can’t go wrong with Irving Berlin!  And if you have never seen Anne Miller tap dance, this one is even more important to watch!


What Does the MMA Have To Offer YOU During This Difficult Time?

While you may not think of the Maria Mitchell Association as a virtual place given the nature of what we do, we actually do have some things online to offer you.

The first ongoing activity is the Science Festival. An annual event that attracts over 400 children and families each year and co-sponsored with the Nantucket Community School, the Science Festival still ran with at-home activities. And while the prize period of it may be over, there are still a huge list if activities created by the MMA, NCS, and all of our island partners who work with us on the Science Festival so take a look! We will also be showcasing some “Pop-Up Science” demonstrations on Instagram as well.

Links to various astronomy-related livestreams, videos, and other interesting information can be found on our Facebook page. The MMA astronomer, Regina Jorgenson, is regularly interviewed by WCAI for its “Looking Skyward” piece and that can also be found as a link on the MMA’s Facebook page and on WCAI’s website.

A fan of birding and the natural sciences? Take a look at the listing of our extensive 100+ year old natural science collections, read up on some interesting information about our harbors and on information concerning Nantucket’s geologic development, mammals, trees and shrubs and more. Some of these publications are rare, out-of-print, and quite old- but they are still incredibly relevant and frankly, just plain interesting. Don’t know much about our island? This is the time to learn! And then, reinforce it by getting outside – while maintaining social distance – which is easy to do with our hundreds upon hundreds of acres of beaches and conservation land.

And of course, even the Mitchell House has a little something. We have a great “For Students” section of our website where you can find a Maria Mitchell timeline – that anyone can take a look at, not just students – a bibliography for further reading (and you can get many online), and several lesson plans with everything right online. The lesson plans are for various ages and can be used to help you and your child wrap up Women’s History Month or begin your celebration of women’s right to vote – the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment is this year!

I keep mentioning Facebook. Even if you are not a Facebook user/member, you can still open these links on the MMA’s Facebook page.

And while our doors may be physically closed, they are not virtually closed. Staff continues to work remotely. Astronomical research is still being completed, plans for our still hoped-for Maria Mitchell Women of Science Symposium in October still go forward, animals in the Hinchman House Natural Science Museum still await their meals every day and their water changes of their tanks, Clementine the Lobster still awaits some fish or mussels for her dinner, planning for summer events and classes still go on with the hope that maybe we will be back to normal sooner rather than later. And, we offer you a myriad of information and activities on our website and social media platforms.

And one further note, please remember that non-profits are also going to suffer in this. Consider what they provide to you and your family and remember that museums and other non-profits need your continued support – they are here for you now and will be once this is over. After all, Clementine and her friends still need to eat – crisis or not – telescope time for research still needs to be paid for, buildings still need a small level of heat to keep things from freezing and staff needs to be able to meet virtually. All of this still costs non-profits, including the MMA. Thank you.


Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month (though all months should be women’s history month.) The year 2020 also celebrates the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment – women’s right to vote.

Maria Mitchell was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), was its president (1875), and founded its Science Committee which she chaired for the remainder of her life.

When the fourth Congress of the AAW met in Philadelphia in October 1876, Julia Ward Howe (also a friend of Maria’s) was serving with Maria on the executive committee.   Maria presented a paper, “The Need for Women in Science.”  In it she stated,

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.

She is not saying that women cannot be scientists – she is saying they need to be given the opportunities.

Maria was incredibly busy with the AAW – it took up a great deal of her time – and at the next meeting in November of that year some aspects of the meeting were wonderful according to her account –“excellent” papers, “newspapers treated us very well.  The institutions opened their doors to us, the Centennial gave us a reception.  But – we didn’t have a good time!”  It appears there was discord among the women.  A few opposed the subject of “Woman Suffrage,” but Lucy Stone was able to present her paper on the subject despite this.  And, some women felt that the West was not well represented and was overshadowed by New England, thus women representing the western states protested the nomination and election of Julia Ward Howe as president of the AAW.  But she won.  Whew!  It was not always easy and controversies constantly abounded with many schisms over time within the women’s rights movement.

I often wonder what Maria might think of the place of women today – how far things have come from her time or would she be surprised that there still is inequality?  What would she think of the Women’s March?

In honor of Women’s History Month, visit the National Women’s History Alliance, the National Women’s History Museum, the National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites, and the website of the Maria Mitchell Women of Science Symposium which will happen October 1-3, 2020!