Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1855, Feb. 12.

What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret dye-stuffs from the stars and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.  I found in the little bear {Ursa Minor} a pair of stars coming into the field at once, one bright red and one bright green.

It isn’t too often that you find Maria Mitchell commenting on fashion but I think this one make quite a bit of sense – and with that astronomer-bent to it!  But she hits on something that many of us comment on – if only we could replicate the colors that we see in nature.  And, the sparkle we see in the stars.


One Of The Oldest Professions

Someone once noted that to me.  About boatbuilding.  I had never really thought about it but yes, people needed to be able to move and to fish and as this need grew, they developed new forms of transportation.  Boats were one such thing.

My husband builds and repairs boats.  His crew is now in the midst of their third build in the last several years.  This boat, a cold-molded Haven 12 1/2, is having its first of four layers of planks put on the mold.  The next two layers will run at different 45 degree angles and then the final – exterior layer – will be horizontal.

Why am I writing about this?  Well, Maria Mitchell’s world of Nantucket relied on boat transportation.  And as such, there were small boat shops around the island, including on the corner of Vestal and Bloom Streets – just a few doors up from her home at 1 Vestal Street.  Large ship building did exist on Nantucket – but not for too long.  Wood had to be brought from off-island adding to the expense of building a boat and then you had that pesky sandbar across the entry to the harbor that caused all sorts of issues over the years.  I think I’ve written here about the camels and lighters – it really put a cramp and then finally, in part, an end to whaling on Nantucket.

There are others still building boats on the island and I’d like to call attention to this art form – it is an art.  And it is one that Maria saw on a daily basis whether it was a dory or a whaleboat or even, early on, a large whaleship at Brant Point Shipyard.


Maria Mitchell Women of Science

Save the date! 

We are hard at work on the 2020 Maria Mitchell Women of Science Symposium (MMWSS).  Our 2018 MMWSS was a resounding success with a sold out crowd – and a wait list!  For 2020, we aim to expand with room for at least 180 participants.

We have a wonderful group of women in STEM who will be us.  They include: Chiara Mingarelli of the Flatiron Institute, Tara Spann of Eversource, Jen Heemstra of Emory University, Catalina Martinez of NOAA, Simil L. Raghavan of EngineerGirl and the National Academy of Engineering, Dionne Hoskins Brown of NOAA, Serra Hoagland of the US Forestry Service, Nicole Cabrera Salazar of Movement Consulting and many more!

Topics to be included are: the state of women in STEM, inclusion, diversity, intersectionality, mentoring, and retaining and supporting women in STEM.

We will have speakers, panel discussions, and our salon-style gatherings that proved to be a fantastic and constructive vehicle for creating real-world solutions for women and girls in STEM.

Please plan to join us.  Keep your eyes on the website at with further updates and tickets.


The Lichen Guy

I did not know him well but I did know him for a long time.  He first comes into my memory when I was a young teenager at the MMA.  He was some sort of scientist associated with Nantucket’s UMASS Field Station.  He had an English accent.  He was funny and gregarious.  He was about quite a bit because of the work he was doing with students in the summer at the Field Station and because he was friendly and worked in conjunction with people who either worked for the MMA or had close ties to the MMA for a myriad of reasons.

I got to know him a bit better – as an adult – when I hosted a stone conservation workshop probably a dozen or so years ago.  It was the first time I did it.  I had written part of a grant to the Community Preservation Act to fund a workshop with a stone and paint conservator who I had been working with at the Mitchell House.  We had a dozen people show up – including the Prospect Hill Cemetery Historian who I now continue to do this workshop with – and Doug Eveleigh came too.  He came a little late and I was sort of surprised.  I knew a bit about what he did – and I am WAY oversimplifying it here – he studied fungi, moss, and lichens and had been using the stone monuments on Nantucket for some of his work.  Stone monument is another word for gravestone.  And, given the climate here –damp, fog, pure and reflective sun, few trees – the moss and lichens that grow on the stones is very unusual.  For a scientist working in such an area, a boon likely.  For the stones and a preservationist like me, a nightmare of destruction.

So, we taught people how to properly remove the lichen and moss without harming the historic stone monument.  And Professor Eveleigh sighed and sat and then began to regale us with all the amazingly different types of lichens and moss that we were in fact killing.  I offered him some gloves, a brush, some of the cleaner but he politely refused and said he would watch.  We learned a lot from him – it was an added bonus – and while I felt good about helping the stones I started to feel guiltier about killing the lichen and moss (still do to this day) and its little ecosystem.

In the end, with maybe ten minutes to go out of a two-hour program, he actually decided to remove some lichen and moss.  I was surprised – we all were – not sure what changed his mind.  But, ever since that day, I often remark about him joining us and his struggle to remove the moss and lichen when I lead such a workshop.  But, I also note how much he shared with us.  I know it was just scratching the surface (pun intended).

Over the years, I would occasionally hear from him or see him if he was back on island.  Always jovial and always mentioning the moss and lichen.

Sadly, Professor Eveleigh passed away at the end of December.  But, I will always remember his attendance at the stone workshop – and continue to tell the story.  I encourage you to look him  up – my blog here doesn’t do his life’s work justice.  I am, after all, a historian and preservationist not a scientist – though working for a science organization, I do try!


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.


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.


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.



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.


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!)



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.


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.