Miss Mitchell’s Students: Antonia Maury

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The second is:

Antonia Maury, 1866-1952

Antonia Maury came from a long line of scientists and teachers, astronomers among them, including Henry Draper, her uncle, who was a pioneer in astronomical photography. She graduated in 1887 having taken eight semesters of astronomy with Maria.  She, like Maria and Mary Whitney, also had an interest in the natural world – birds in particular. Maury would find herself among the first women star catalogers or “computers” at Harvard College Observatory – a program which was funded in part by her aunt, wife of Henry Draper, as a memorial to him.  The group of women were sometimes referred to as “Pickering’s Harem” – the director of the observatory.  The women were paid less than half what the men earned as computers. As a “computer,” Maury devised her own, more defined spectral categories for the stars but her work was not appreciated – Pickering felt it slowed the work of cataloging down and he did not appreciate her independence.  Her work however, many years later, would be noted for its value in cataloging the spectra of stars.  Maury would leave and return to Harvard several times, teaching in schools and lecturing at Cornell in astronomy.  In 1918, she returned to Harvard again, serving as an adjunct professor.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Edinburgh, Sept. 30 {1857}

My dear Father,

 . . . Nothing is more provoking than the ignorance of the English about Americans.  I really doubt if they would know who Benjamin Franklin was, if I should speak of him.  They are really too full of their own greatness to perceive that there is another great nation.  Mr. Airy understands that the Bonds are astronomers, but I dare say Mrs. Prof. Smyth never heard of them, tho’ of course Prof. Smyth has the transactions.  And yet, no observatory has such instruments as Harvard . . .

Despite the fact that the Bonds and the Harvard College Observatory really were among the best in the world, their counterparts in Europe barely knew them – o rat least barely acknowledged them.  Such a factor played a large role in how long it took for Maria to be recognized as indeed the discoverer of her comet in 1847.  The Bonds were among the first to photograph the stars and they entrusted Maria with such a glass plate photograph to bring on her trip to Europe.  She would give this plate to Sir George Airy on her visit to him.  Airy was the Astronomer Royal of England (Charles Piazzi Smyth was Scotland’s Astronomer Royal) and though her first impressions were somewhat strong as you have noted above, she would carry on  a lifelong friendship with Sir George Airy and his wife, Richarda.