Maria Mitchell for Students

Travels in 1857

“We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, catch some inspiration from heights above our own.” Maria Mitchell

The Prime Meridian line at Greenwich Observatory, Greenwich, England.

The Prime Meridian line at Greenwich Observatory, Greenwich, England. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maria had always dreamed of one day visiting Europe, and had carefully saved her small wages for many years in order to be able to afford to do so. In 1857, a banker from the western United States hired her to chaperone his daughter on a trip through the American South and Europe. Maria visited St. Louis, New Orleans, parts of Alabama, and Charleston.

After returning to Massachusetts for a brief period, she set off across the Atlantic to the English port of Liverpool. Once there, she visited the city’s observatory and sent a letter to the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was also staying in Liverpool. Maria visited with him, and later contacted him while they were both in Paris to ask whether she could join he and his family. They would later all travel to Rome and to a few other cities in Italy. Maria saw the sights in London, including Westminster Abbey, where she was especially impressed by Sir Issac Newton’s tomb, and the British Museum, where she saw the oldest printed Bible in the world and a manuscript hand-written by Queen Elizabeth I. Later, she went to Cambridge to see the observatory. There, she visited with astronomers including Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, who had established a new

Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England in 1851.

One of the highlights of Maria’s time in England was her stay at Collingwood, the estate of Sir John Herschel, one of the most famous astronomers of his time. Sir John’s father Sir William Herschel had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781; Sir John himself later named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus. Sir John’s aunt, Caroline Herschel, was the first woman to discover a comet. Maria traveled on to Edinburgh and Glasgow before continuing to mainland Europe, including Paris and Rome. In Paris, she saw an observatory that was founded by the French Academy of Sciences during the reign of Louis XIV.

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