Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 23. {1881}  The new Doctor {Mary Allen} is a sweet looking Quaker woman.  My only fear is, that she will be too mild.

Well, methinks Maria hit that nail on the head.  Allen did not last long at Vassar – she was gone by 1884!

I know little of Dr. Allen.  A snippet from the Vassar Miscellany, Volume XI, Number 1, 1 October 1881, states that Dr. Allen was a graduate of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia and was a teacher before going into medicine.  She had worked in her own private practice and then taught at the Medical College and worked at the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia.  Perhaps she was “too mild” to deal with some of the happenings at Vassar, or the students, of the trustees.  Perhaps, like Maria and her friend and the former college physician and teacher at Vassar Alida Avery, she too felt that her salary was too low.  Maria and Avery led the charge at Vassar because even at a women’s college – the women professor and staff were paid less than the men.  Avery finally gave up and left in 1874.  She moved to Colorado and opened her own practice.  She would become one of the wealthiest women in Colorado and remained single for her life.  I have written about her before in a previous blog.



Big Finds in The MMA Archives

It never ceases to amaze me what I uncover in the MMA’s Archives and Special Collections.

This item was in a box labeled “Lydia Hinchman.”  Not all of our institutional archives have been arranged and described – it’s a big project that has been begun but not completed – so this has not yet been processed.  Lydia, a cousin of Maria’s, was one of the MMA’s founders and the driving force for purchasing several of the properties surrounding the Mitchell House.  She was the force behind creating the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory in 1908.

This is from one of her MMA scrapbooks.  And it is a drawing – likely by her – and describes in detail the building of the Observatory foundation and how it works.  It’s always hard for me to describe the “pillar room” and what lies beneath but you can sort of make it out in this image where she has drawn a line to show the ground level.  The foundation of the dome goes pretty deep into the earth – it’s a cement and brick foundation – and the telescope is meant to be supported by this piece – the walls and the movement of a building cannot affect the telescope so they surround this massive part.  It’s why at Loines Observatory, for example, we do not put telescopes on the deck because as people walk across it, it makes the telescopes bounce – it makes the view unclear and can also move the telescope from what it is focused on.  If an observatory moves – the telescope doesn’t as it sits on a solid separate piece.


Farewell . . . And Hello

Farewell . . .

It is always sad to say, “Good-bye.”  I never do –  I always say, “I will see you later” – and often, I do.  On August 15, we said good-bye to our Executive Director of just over five years, David Gagnon.  It seems like he just arrived.  In five years, Dave accomplished quite a lot for the Maria Mitchell Association.  Under his leadership, we expanded programming, grew our internships, created brand new programs, and reached an ever growing audience.  Dave always had a smile on his face, was always willing to roll up his sleeves and get dirty – literally – and to be a cheerleader for the MMA and the hard work of the staff.  We thank him for everything that he has done for the MMA – and most importantly for YOU – and we wish him the best in his new endeavors – and more time with his first grandchild!

. . . And, Hello!

And then you have a brand new face in your midst – though this face is familiar to many!  Today, we officially welcome Jason Bridges as the MMA’s Interim Director.  He has already been hard at work catching up with staff, listening to what we have all been working on, and rolling his sleeves up to help out.  We may be quieter at the MMA due to the ongoing COVID-19/Coronavirus Pandemic, but that has not slowed our research, the work that goes on in and around our sites and buildings daily, and the programing that we are now able to offer you following the guidelines of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  And Jason is jumping in, assisting, and bringing some new ideas to the MMA table.

These times remind me of a Girl Scout song – “Make new friends but keep the old.  One is silver and the other gold.” (Oh yes, I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout.)  But really, as the Mitchell House curator, I have to provide you with a Maria Mitchell quote – what sort of curator would I be?  So with that, from Maria:

We have therefore a circle whom we call friends, giving a name to the whole, which perhaps in its singular occupation might be used for the combination. Out of the whole circle we may make up a single friend. We love them all but we love the union of all better.  – Maria Mitchell

While Dave is on to new things, he will still be a part of us and the MMA.  Jason will add to that in his time with the MMA and with all of us.  The union of what they bring to the MMA and all of us, makes the MMA stronger and better and builds upon both of their guidance so that we can make sure the MMA gives you – and the land, sea, and sky of Nantucket – all that you need to appreciate and protect the world around us.


The Nineteenth Amendment

This month we mark the anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  It was passed on June 4, 1919 and ratified August 18, 1920.  It states:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Sadly, it still disenfranchised others despite the tenants of the original suffrage movement.

The MMA and Nantucket had hoped to mark this historical event but due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic a damper was placed on many events but several have noted it in different ways – maybe not with the fanfare that we had hoped.

There are online exhibits and other websites and entities across the United States that have been finding ways to mark the occasion.  I will leave you with two items for you to begin to delve more deeply.

The National Archives Museum: “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.”

And the National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites (of which we are a member) where they are working on a “Votes for Women Trail.” 


Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

I posted this seven years ago in 2013 (how is that possible – seven years?!) but I thought it was interesting to repeat –and it ties to the July entry about her return to see the Airys many years later.

August 17{1857}

Today we have been to the far-famed British museum.  I carried as “open sesame” a paper given to me by Prof. Henry asking for me special attention from all societies with which the Smithsonian {is} connected . . . . The art of printing has brought us incalculable blessings, but as I looked at a neat manuscript book by Queen Elizabeth copied from another, as a present to her Father I could not help thinking that it was better than worsted work!

On August 2, 1857, Maria Mitchell and the young woman she was accompanying as a chaperone, Prudence Smith, arrived in Liverpool, England for their European tour.  Maria Mitchell’s “open sesame” was a letter of introduction – she went with several.  She would find that the doors were thrown open for America’s first woman astronomer – she was that well known in America and abroad.  She would become quite close to Sir George Airy, the British Astronomer Royal, and his wife Richarda, as well as the astronomical Herschel family.


Islanded in a Pandemic

In the life of each of us . . . there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

                                                      Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

The above quote is from my favorite book – which I have written about before – The Country of the Pointed Firs.  I try and read this book every summer.  The quote has never really struck me before until now.  In light of COVID-19, it sat with me and I read it several times over.  It is in reference to Joanna Todd – a young woman who banishes herself to live alone on a thirty-acre desolate island that is sleeping not far from the shore of the coast of Maine near the fictional Dunnet Landing.

Jewett wrote several books of short stories that were published before this Firs and I like to think that Maria may have read at least one of them since these first stories were published starting at least a decade before Maria’s death.  Jewett spoke of nature in a way that Maria would have appreciated.  While Maria was an astronomer and mathematician, she was also a naturalist as I have noted before, and daily nature walks were a part of her life.  She noted what was blooming, the challenges of an insect she came across, and she even named wild animals that lived around the Vassar College Observatory.

But in light of where we all find ourselves right now – and over the past four months or so – it’s a prison to some extent.  Even those who revel in being alone find themselves struggling – not all for there are some who find being completely alone and away from people a positive thing for whatever reason they have.  For example, some children have detested “zoom school” while others have reveled in it and found it a new avenue for better learning than what they found in the classroom – alone, focused, quiet, or what-have-you.  The pandemic has, to some extent, made hermits of us, recluses.  For some, they feel as if they are in a cell bound by the four walls of their home – even if they can go out into a yard or down the street to briefly buy groceries.  The whole “stay at home” has made them feel isolated, compressed, shackled, claustrophobic.  It has left us alone in some cases with our feelings and emotions – more deeply than when one is running from place to place.  Everyone has a different feeling but the idea of a prison, a cell, being remote, being “islanded” has become more apparent or more of a feeling for many.


Maria Mitchell’s 202 Birthday

Saturday, August 1st marks Maria Mitchell’s 202nd birthday.  Sadly, this year, we cannot have our annual open house with activities, live music, special guests, and refreshments.  We are deeply saddened to not see all of your faces but I know that Maria is much happier to have everyone safe.

Please help us celebrate this week – we will be posting some fun facts about Maria and the MMA on social media and we would love you to share it with your friends so we can continue to spread Maria’s legacy even further.  Island Kitchen will also be creating a Maria Mitchell flavor for the week so please go get a cone at Nantucket Pharmacy or Island Kitchen during the week and support a local business that has done a lot to support the island – especially during this pandemic.  The MMA is not making a profit off of the ice cream – but it would be nice if you made a donation to help us – especially at this difficult time.

And, happily – we are offering limited programs so please take a look and sign up.  We had to wait for Phase Three from Massachusetts since we are a museum but we do have some new activities and some old favorites – with masks and social distancing required – all just in time for Maria’s 2020!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Thursday July 17. {1873}  Mr. Airy’s.  I went to Greenwich and arrived about 11 a.m.  I had for years had misgivings about Mrs. Airy but had heard nothing.  When the servant said “Lady Airy is not yet up” I knew she must be ill . . . Sir George Airy came in and the welcome was so hearty!

And later I saw Mrs. Airy wheeled out in a chair, a wreck and a ruin!  And so tenderly cared for by all!  She had been so good to me 15 years since, and was so full of vigor, that I could have cried at the sight. 

She appeared to be very glad to see me, but said nothing, continuing to hold my hand and  smile . . . . Sir George Airy, as he is now, had improved with age and looks strong and vigorous . . . .

As I have noted before, after meeting the Airys – Sir George Airy being the Astronomer Royal of England – Maria kept up a lifelong correspondence with them.  In particular, she developed a lifelong correspondence with Richarda Airy until this illness which I will assume was likely a stroke (without researching).

Maria was in Europe for her second trip – so she did see Europe once again unlike her journal entry I posted for June 1858.  She travelled to Europe with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, and Phebe’s husband, Joshua, and their son, William Mitchell “Willie” Kendall.  This would be the trip that brought Maria to Russia and the Observatory at Pulkova.


Some Bunny

Bunny fence installed in April.

If you read this blog then you have read several times of my bemoaning the presence of rabbits at the MMA – particularly the Mitchell House.  As a science-based organization and myself a lover of wildlife, I have no problems with them.  As a gardener, I do.  And, I have written numerous times about the bunny population here on Vestal Street.

Well, it seems that maybe due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic and fewer people around, that the bunnies have been having something of a baby boom.  I have SEVEN baby rabbits of various sizes!  SEVEN!  And they have an even greater audacity than their predecessors – all just lying about in the garden in front of the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory (MMO) as if they own the lawn and garden.  They have no fear – though I do scare them as much as possible to teach them to have some fear.

This spring, once the Town allowed and I had my special permission permit, I installed a bunny fence to keep them out of the main wildflower garden in front of the MMO.  It looks a bit different from the photograph here as it has actually kept them out – except for one – and now everything is flourishing!  Joe Pye Weed, Prickly Pear Cactus, Blazing Star, Mallow, Mountain Mint, Pearly Everlasting, Butterfly Weed, and more!  The one rascal who got in – a tiny baby – was ultimately chased out with the help of a neighbor – both of us wearing our masks and social distancing.  The bunny had managed to squeak past the deer fencing I had to use when I ran out of chicken wire for the bottom of the fence.  Yes, its green wire deer fencing at about two or so feet and then a one-foot addition of chicken wire at the base to keep out the baby bunnies.  I had shown up when the neighbors texted me to tell me they saw “someone” in there.  Luckily, I arrived with more chicken wire for the 12-inch deer fenced gap that the baby bunny had gone through.  A friend unearthed the much-needed chicken wire in his shed.  Seriously – the baby bunny GNAWED through the deer fencing – and then did it in front of me to escape my wrath!

Bunny fence in July with happy native plants – and a few garden varieties to boot!

But in any case, it seems to have done the trick – with a thank you to a MMA board member and fellow gardener who told me I had to or I wouldn’t win and I was being too nice.   And to the neighbors and their loveable dog who spied the invader.

Now, I have to figure out a historically-accurate bunny fence that’s low for the Mitchell House garden – which has been completely wasted by the bunnies!  So much for 500 heirloom Heavenly Blue Morning Glory seeds – gone!  I guess I’m going to have to weave a twig fence!