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!



Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March 12, {1855}.  What a change a fortnight has made.  I have passed through a fortnight of great anxiety in nursing my Mother.  I have never been a believer in a special Providence, but when I saw her recovering I felt like giving thanks to God and when anyone says to me “how is your mother,” I felt like saying “Better, thank God” instead of “thank you.”

Lydia Coleman Mitchell partially recovered from an illness that would last for six years and that made Maria Mitchell her mother’s nurse.  As the single daughter who lived at home, societal norms dictated this – though we all know that Maria would of course do this no matter what.  It was only her trip to the southern United States and Europe that would draw her away – with Lydia left under the attentive care of one of Maria’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who had married in 1854.  Such circumstances still exist today – as was just recently discussed on a local NPR piece.  While it’s not necessarily only the women carrying for aging parents or sick family members, it is still very much on families to take care of the seriously ill and aged – health care costs and costs associated with long-term care and nursing homes or retirement communities are out of reach for many.

As I have noted before, Maria did not believe in a god – she saw her god – her religion – in nature.  But she obviously felt there was some higher plane – some higher being – that could have had some sort of influence as her mother’s illness was not something she thought she would even partially recover from.  I realize my god is nature – the world around us – and I came to that in part because of my Father and his beliefs.


Women’s Suffrage and Lady Gaga

I have posted this during Women’s History Month in the past.  But because it is March and Women’s History Month, AND the centennial celebration of the Nineteenth Amendment and women’s right to vote this year, I think it’s more than worth repeating.  It’s clever and helps to tell an important story in women’s history while giving it a bit of a 21st century twist.  It originally came from the National Women’s History Project.


Know Where This Is?

I do not know enough about this building and its use over time.  I know how it has been used to some extent but when I saw the back it made me wonder.  There are not many places on Nantucket that have burglar bars on the windows.  I can remember when it was the Nantucket Sports Locker and Buttner’s (boy, I miss those places) but as old as I may sound sometimes, I’m not that old.  And of course, it’s the Masonic Lodge on the top floor.


But why the burglar bars?  I’m hoping someone has this information at the ready and can share it.  Was there a bank located inside or some other business in need of high security?  The bars look old – maybe hand-forged – by I cannot trespass so I cannot get close enough to take a look.  It is post- Great Fire obviously but, I’d like to know.  So let me know – or else I’ll have to go dig a bit!


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!