Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1881, May 6.  Yesterday we went to town see the opening of the Vassar Brothers Home for old men.  I looked at Matthew Vassar (Vassar College’s founder’s nephew) with admiration.  It is a good deal to be successful in getting money, to give it away by tens of thousands is more!  And to see a man upwards of 70 stand up in a crowd and say exactly the right thing and sit down before the audience was tired, is not usual . . . .

Maria Mitchell always says it well.  Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, had originally wanted to establish a hospital in his name.  His nephew, also named Matthew Vassar, was once of several who convinced him to establish a women’s college.  Vassar would still goon to be a generous man in supporting the Poughkeepsie area – I believe a hospital was built – and obviously his nephew continued n in the same tradition as noted by Maria Mitchell here.

This reminds me of Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett and many other multi-millionaires and billionaires who have pledged to give away much of their wealth.  There were people in the nineteenth century and earlier, during the Great Depression and later who saw a need and gave willingly.  The MMA was such a recipient in its building of the Vestal Street Observatory in the early 1900s when some monies were given to its building by Andrew Carnegie.  A small new observatory on an isolated island – he knew we were in need and knew it could be something tremendous that contributed to our knowledge and education – and he was right!

Further, Vassar was not looking for accolades as Maria also notes.  Buffett, Carnegie, Gates, they don’t look for accolades and I would assume that all would know what to say and would not continue to speak on and on, nor stand until the audience could no longer clap.  That’s class – for lack of a better word – and reaching out to give to others when you have so much or so much more that you cannot ever use it all.  That is compassion, caring, generosity and kindness.


Happy Birthday Annie Jump Cannon


Yesterday was the birthday of Annie Jump Cannon.  In honor of her birthday, I am re-posting a blog I wrote last year.

A few weeks ago, Annie Jump Cannon was the featured Google “doodle.”  Google featured Maria Mitchell as the doodle a few years ago to celebrate her birthday and has been doing a good job of featuring well-known and lesser-known woman who have made a difference in our world.

Annie Jump Cannon was among the founding members of the MMA but she was also instrumental in the development of our astronomy program.  With a growing desire to further develop a fledgling astronomy program in 1906, the MMA began a dialogue with Harvard University’s Observatory and its director, Edward Pickering, Ph.D.  The connection to Harvard was to become essential to the success of the beginning years of the Maria Mitchell Observatory and continued a legacy of friendship and work – Maria Mitchell and her father worked with the Bonds who once ran the observatory at Harvard and the families were close friends.

Besides his advice and assistance, Pickering asked a member of his staff, Annie Jump Cannon to advise and assist the MMA.  This “provided an indispensable collaboration for Nantucket astronomy” with Cannon spending two weeks on the island in both 1906 and 1907 lecturing and teaching.  While back at Harvard, she continued to teach the students on Nantucket by mail.  Cannon would go on to be recognized as the leading woman astronomer of her generation and also as the founder of the astronomy department at the MMA.

Completed in 1908, the Maria Mitchell Observatory now was in need of a permanent astronomer.  An Observatory Committee was developed and chaired by Annie Jump Cannon.  From 1909 through 1911, the Association was able to employ an astronomer to teach classes, observe, provide lectures, and open the observatory for public observing for approximately a month each summer.  As the demand grew, the MMA realized that a more extensive program was needed and the Astronomical Fellowship Committee began to raise funds for an Astronomical Fellowship Fund.  With the support of many generous donors and a matching gift from Andrew Carnegie, by 1911 the MMA had the funds it needed to support  the fellowship and began its search for an astronomer who would conduct research and provide lectures, classes and open nights for the public from mid-June through mid-December.  The fellow would spend the remainder four months in research and study – every fourth year a full year of study would be spent in an American or European observatory.

With Pickering, Cannon developed the Harvard Classification Scheme, an attempt to organize and classify stars by temperature.  She was one of many women whom Pickering hired to reduce data and carry out astronomical calculations.  She would go on to become the Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard.  She received a regular Harvard appointment but just two years before she retired – she was named the William C. Bond Astronomer.  Today, there is the Annie Cannon Prize which is awarded to women astronomers who have made outstanding contributions in astronomy.