Special Birthday Speakers for Maria’s 200th Birthday Year!


I am very excited to highlight our three special birthday speakers for this summer whom I believe touch on the life of Maria Mitchell in special ways. And, I am very pleased that they have all agreed to come from some far distances to help celebrate Maria’s 200th!

Our first speaker will be on Wednesday, June 27 at the Nantucket Atheneum. David Baron’s most recent work is American Eclipse which came out last summer. He featured five astronomers – as well as other notables – and their trials and triumphs of observing and documenting the eclipse of August 1878 in Colorado. Maria is one of the featured astronomers as she travelled out west with several of her students – including her sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall – to observe and record the eclipse. Baron makes the event come alive in this book and notes the frustrations, challenges, and successes of observing in the late nineteenth century. It really is a must-read and we hope you will join us for this FREE lecture at 7PM on the 27th. A book signing will follow. You can learn more about David Baron on his website. http://www.american-eclipse.com

On July 25, starting at 7PM at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum, we will welcome noted author, Dava Sobel. Sobel is the author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter, as well as numerous other books and articles. Her newest book, The Glass Universe, looks at the women of the Harvard College Observatory and their work as star catalogers – an almost all female group. The MMA has a unique tie to the Harvard College Observatory – Maria played a small role in this program, Harvard Observatory’s helped the MMA to develop its Astronomy Department back in the early 1900s. and we had several ties to the women who were Harvard’s star catalogers, including our first astronomy director, Margaret Harwood. It’s a wonderful book and we hope you will join us. Tickets can be purchased via the NHA at 508.228.1894 for $25.00. A book signing and a special reception with the author will follow this lecture. http://www.davasobel.com/

And finally on August 22, at the Nantucket Atheneum we will be hosting J. Drew Lanham. Professor Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature as well as numerous articles, poetry, and research papers in peer reviewed journals. He is the Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher and Certified Wildlife Biologist Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department at Clemson University. He will be speaking about his work in songbird ecology and his perspectives on the role African Americans in natural resource conservation. His book is a must-read! His picture will be FREE and run from 7-8PM. A book signing will follow. http://www.clemson.edu/cafls/faculty_staff/profiles/lanhamj

Please join us and celebrate Maria Mitchell’s 200th!


Remembering Barbara V.

As a young and quiet child, I did not easily ask others for help. But, I do remember asking her for help. A French Canadian woman who assisted at the MMA Science Library. She would take her (cigarette) breaks on the front bench. Sometimes, her father would be visiting and I could hear the fast-past French zipping around on that front porch. She had a sort of gravelly voice and an infectious laugh and always the hair picks in her loose bun. I finally got up the nerve to ask her about a few words in my French textbook that I was having issues with – I had just started the seventh grade and we must have been up for Columbus Day weekend. I got my answer but I also got a stream of French that left me a bit clueless – I realized I was going to be swamped in French – and to be honest, it was never my forte even though I kept it up through my first semester of college. Do you know how many times I read The Stranger in French? It was ridiculous.

By the time of the French question, I had known her for a year or so maybe. What was the most interesting about her was the birds. She rehabilitated birds and baby birds – orchestrating a crazy waking and feeding schedule with her partner. They seemed to be up around the clock with shifts for feeding the baby birds. She seemed to always have a box with her of several baby birds or injured adult birds. I know that over time it took a toll on her to the point that she had to give it up. It was stressful, exhausting, and she of course felt defeated if she lost a bird. These were birds mainly brought to her by others; a few she found herself. She developed all sorts of appropriate mixtures of food made of mashed bugs and meal worms, berries, insects – whatever that species of bird ate. And oh the poop! If you have ever taken in an injured bird, even for a short while, you know how much they can poop!

She was a lover of nature and a lover of all animals – she had so many dogs that I cannot remember all of their names. But they were sweet and all shapes and sizes. She even adopted one of Madaket Millie’s dogs upon Millie’s death – taking in Paddle Paws. She was a fixture in Madaket as well – out in her cottage near the harbor with her partner’s paintings affixed to the exterior. She would tell me stories of the last day of school in high school and how her parents let she and her brother drive overnight from Montreal on their own to make it to the steamship to come over for the summer. She had been a summer kid – who made Nantucket her lifelong home, for a time, living in the house she had summered in all those years as a child and teenager.

The other morning, almost as if to say hello or send a message, a male cardinal alighted briefly on the front porch of the MMA’s science library bench (now Research Center) where she used to sit, and smoke, and feed her birds in between visitors. I’d like to think it was her – or my Other Nana – telling me that she is somewhere safe now, with her partner, and Paddle Paws and her dogs and all her animals, and, her parents. And don’t worry Barbara V., everyone will make sure that the turtles have a safe and loving home. Lots of love, ma cherie! I will miss you.

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


Open. Open. Completed!

There has been a lot going on!

Eileen McGrath and Nat Philbrick cut the ribbon.

OPEN: On May 25th, we had our opening reception to thank donors and contractors who worked on converting our Science Library into our new Research Center – a multi-year project that I have documented on this blog.

A big thank you to our donors and all the women and men who completed the work on the building. I have listed them several times before but our thanks are so very deep. We could have not have done it without all of them!

We will be having special workshops and open collection events throughout the summer – and some of our lectures will be held in the Research Center as well. So check out our calendar online. We hope to see you at one – or multiples!

Interior of Research Center.

OPEN: Mitchell House is open for the season! Come take a look and have a tour. If you have not been in in some time, or never (tsk tsk), now is the time with Maria’s 200th Birthday this year! Don’t just walk through the home she lived in – walk through the home she was born in 200 years ago!

COMPLETED: After another multi-year process, I am happy to report that the wrought iron fence at the Mitchell Family lot at Prospect Hill Cemetery has been completed and installed! This was a community Preservation Act funded project. The stone bases for the fence were realigned by Neil Patterson and his crew several years ago and DeAngelis Ironwork of Boston restored the fence using a historic photograph from our collection. It is not an exact reproduction as such a thing was completely cost prohibitive unfortunately but it speaks to the fence that was once there – just a bit simpler – using exiting patterns/molds.


Oh and wait! Did I mention we have new signs?



Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

May 11, 1853. I could not help thinking of Esther a few evenings since when I was observing. A meteor flashed upon me suddenly, very bright, very short-lived; it seemed to me that it was sent for me especially, for it greeted me almost the first instant I looked up, and was gone in a second – it was as fleeting and as beautiful as the smile upon Esther’s face the last time I saw her . . . my faith has been weaker than ever since she died, and my fears have been greater.

Have you ever looked up at the stars and felt as if you were the only person in the world? Or, when you saw a meteor streak across the sky, and maybe gasped to yourself as it was so sudden, so fleeting, and felt like you were the only one who probably saw it? And, that it was as if some higher power somewhere was acknowledging you or giving you this beautiful though fleeting gift?

I understand what Maria means in reference to her cousin, Esther, who had recently died. A beautiful vivid flash – instantly there but instantly gone. You barely have time to grab on and then that person is gone. You think you have all the time but you don’t. Made harder by losing people who are young – who barely get to show who they are, what they are made of, what they can do, what changes they can make, what things they can discover, who they can help.


Cabinets Anyone?

They are here! Thanks to Cape Cod Express which stored them for several months at a very large discount – thank you again CC Express! – our cabinets were finally able to arrive on Monday the 23rd of April!


These are all state-of-the-art collections cabinets for our herbarium, insects, birds, and other biological collections. We will be able to use our bird cabinets that were purchased with grants and fundraisers about ten years ago but the other cabinets are too old (ca. 1930) and not up to “snuff” by today’s standards to make the move to the Research Center. The cabinets are beautiful – made by Delta Designs.

And we need to thank or moving crew – Curran Huyser and the men of Your Friend With a Truck!


(My) Tulip Thief

That was a long winter. Typically, I don’t complain but it was not nice weather-wise. And the cold and the wind – couldn’t Mother Nature have given us some more snow to at least enjoy – and break out that new sled we got my son – a “big boy sled.”

In any case, I have been watching the tulips I planted last fall in front of the Mitchell House. They started to break ground, then it got cold, then they came up a little more, then the bunnies got to them. (We now have THREE bunnies at Mitchell House. Imagine how many babies we will have! ARGH!)

I’ve been watching and watching these tulips as their leaves twisted, were eaten, snapped at by cold, flurries, and frost. And then, they started to grow more, and to show buds, and color! Is spring REALLY here?

And then the other night, a thief came! I had not even gotten down to Mitchell House yet when our Executive Director stopped me and said he had a, “What would Jascin do moment.” Not sure if I should be honored. But, needless to say from out of his window after dinner he spied a young man on his bicycle, bending over the Mitchell House fence, snipping away at the tulips! He raced downstairs in his pajamas and politely confronted the thief. The thief was embarrassed, taken aback, and was told to, “Drop the tulips!” – well, not exactly. He was told to leave them and then politely told that the MMA pays for those tulips and the work that goes into gardening. The thief left sheepishly.

The next day, I was in the Mitchell House with the front door open doing my annual mildew cleaning of the front sitting room ceiling when I heard someone at the door trying to open the locked screen. I got off my scaffold and found a young man at the door who I did not completely recognize at first. Then he said my name and I knew who it was. With him, he had a bag with three pots of tulips. “You’re my thief!?” I exclaimed. He replied, “They were just so pretty that I couldn’t resist. I just wanted them.” This thief is a former student of mine – way back from when in addition to the MMA, I also was a teacher. He is one of those students who could be trying at times, always pushing the edge, always finding something to get himself into trouble, but one that you will forever have a soft spot for. I hugged him. Yelled at him. Told him he only had to ask first, and then told him the names of his stolen items – Viricic and Beauty of Spring tulips from the Colorblends Company. And then gave him heck because I told him about the bunnies. I cannot be mad at him – he has a soft spot for gardens and flowers so I will take my choice of tulips – and my Mother’s – as a compliment.

(I’m thinking if further time is needed, he can come help me weed this summer.)


Seal of Approval!

When he is thirteen years old, hanging out with Mom while she builds microscope chairs (or some other facilities or museum related activity) might not be too fun or exciting anymore. But for a four-year-old? Testing the new microscope station chairs for the Research Center proved exciting. Trying to help Mommy build them? Maybe not so easy – but sure fun to pop the bubble wrap. He, of course, needed a lift up – but he says, “Good to go for the new Research Center!”


Thank You!

The MMA owes a big thank you to all the people who have completed the work on making the Science Library a research center for future generations of Nantucketers and visitors alike.

Greg Maskell Landscaping Matt Anderson Carpentry

Kevin Wiggin HVAC Jim Tyler and Crew, Painting

Island Gas and Christian Yates Milton Rowland Architects

Jim Badera and Badera Engineering Kevin O’Keefe, volunteering

Mike Freedman and Crew, Cabinetmaker Pen Austin, Masonry and Paint Coatings

Jon Vollans and Vollans Electric Marden Plumbing

Wayne Morris, Mason Evita Caune, basement floor refinishing

Pioneer Cleaning, cleaning and waxing floors David Ryan

Delta Designs Ltd. Toscana Corporation

Ellis and Schneider Electrical Wayne Alarm

John Wathne and Structures-North Jim Johannes

Rich Sileo and landmark Facilities Group Andre Perry and KAM Appliances

Curran Huyser and Your Friend With A Truck Marine Home Center

Budget Blinds Jonathan Miles Window Cleaning

Cape Cod Express Julia Blyth

PSA Laboratory Furniture Eric Finger and Finger Boatworks

Cape Cod Air Grilles

If I forgot someone, I do apologize!

And a thank you, of course, to our donors – that group of special people to be listed soon.


And We Have Our Research Center C.O.

Otherwise known as Certificate of Occupancy – from the Town!

Our Research Center passed its inspection with the Town and now we are in the midst of cleaning, installing blinds, washing windows, and moving things around. We await moving the collections in and new collections cabinets to arrive. This summer, we will be up and running and there will be plenty of opportunities to take a peek. You will find that the “renovation” was very light – taking into account the historic nature of the building and its historic fabric. Once William Mitchell’s schoolhouse, it lived on Howard Street and after he sold it, it actually followed him to Vestal Street where it continued as a school, including for the Town as the West Introductory School.

When the MMA was given the building in 1919, it was picked up and moved less than 100 feet to sit where it does now. It opened as the MMA Science Library in the early 1920s. The stucco Wing was added in 1933.

We have gone to great lengths to preserve the exterior and interior of the building while making minor alterations for an accessible bathroom and accessible pathway, a laboratory-like space which has counters and a sink built into the existing library shelving, and a new state-of-the-art HVAC system for the collections’ protection. I think anyone familiar with the interior of the building will note that it has not changed much. But, with new coats of paint, some updated furniture for students and researchers, we are on our way to a better space in which the MMA can conduct its research, store its historic biological collections, and welcome students and researchers alike to learn about the unique environment of Nantucket – from the land to the water to the skies above.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

April, 1878. I called on Prof. Henry at the Smithsonian Institute. He must be in his 80th year. He has been ill and seems feeble but is still the majestic old man, unbent in figure and undimmed in eye. I always remember when I see him, the speech of Miss Dix, “He is the true-est man that ever lived.

In Washington, D.C. for a meeting of the officers of the Women’s Congress – the Association for the Advancement of Women meetings ̶ Maria stopped by to visit a friend and something of a mentor, Professor Joseph Henry. A physicist and professor, Henry was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. His feebleness was telling – Henry would die about a month after Maria’s visit with him in May 1878. Henry was friendly with William Mitchell as well – they all ran in the same circles so to speak – and Henry came to Maria’s support/aid several times including when she wanted to take a leave of absence from the U. S. Nautical Almanac during her European trip. Those calculations for the Almanac were tedious and trying to complete them and travel was not going to be easy. When she asked for a leave from the work, the Almanac refused and Henry wrote a letter to support her year or so leave. I think the Almanac was just afraid to lose Maria completely. She would only resign several years into her professorship at Vassar – once she was sure that she was settled into the job completely.