Maria Mitchell for Students

Her Vassar Girls

“I never look upon the mass of girls going into our dining-room or chapel without feeling the nobility,
the sovereignty of their pure spirit.”  Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell and the Champney Family

Maria Mitchell and the Champney Family, Deerfield, Massachusetts, ca. 1885 (Collection of the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association)

Maria’s influence on her students’ development while at Vassar was so great that one of her students would later name her only daughter after Miss Mitchell. Lizzie Champney, who attended Vassar College as Elizabeth Williams, gained fame as an author of books for young girls. She was most known for her series of books that featured the adventures of three Vassar students who traveled around the world, just as Maria had. These books were illustrated by her husband, the artist J. Wells Champney. Maria Mitchell Champney, named in honor of Elizabeth’s favorite professor, was born in 1877. At some point during Maria Champney’s childhood, her parents convinced Maria Mitchell to sit for a portrait so that her namesake could have an image of her. Since she was usually reluctant to sit for portraits, Maria must have been very honored that the Champneys had chosen to recognize her in this way.

Although she had less time to conduct her own research, and she eventually gave up her job for the Nautical Almanac, Maria found satisfaction in teaching students what she knew. She found the same joys at Vassar as she had when she was a young girl in the house on Vestal Street, observing with her father. Maria herself summed up this experience in her own words on March 16, 1885:

“In February, 1831, I counted seconds for father, who observed the annual eclipse at Nantucket. I was twelve and a half years old. In 1885, fifty-four years later, I counted seconds for a class of students at Vassar; it was the same eclipse, but the sun was only about half-covered. Both days were perfectly clear and cold.”

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