Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov 13. {1881}   I observed in the meridian room last night; working with telescopes always cheers me.  Today is fine and I am feeling uncommonly well.  I am hoping that the cramping of my hands means nothing, but it is new to me.  I did not go to Chapel today but worked on a lesson. 

Maria had more than one occasion when she did not go to chapel – I believe I have noted it before.  Not her thing.  She found lots of excuses –better light to sew by in the mornings when chapel occurred – but this is a much better excuse I’d say – lesson prep for her students.  Maria found her religion, her god, in nature.  Her daily nature walks were a reminder to her of the power of nature, the beauty of it, the science of it.  She was very much a scientist of the nineteenth century.

Concerning her notes about her hands, Maria would have health issues that she  battled – and minor mentions are made mainly in the late 1870s and then into the 1880s.  She would ultimately die of “brain disease” that may have been Parkinson’s or something similar given some of her ailments.

The meridian room was a part of the observatory at Vassar where the telescopes (meridian instruments) could be found.  The observatory at Vassar is an impressive building for its architecture alone.  Below is a description of it from the Vassar College Encyclopedia.

In material—brick with stone—as well as in its proportions and design elements—arched first floor windows, brick pilasters at the corners, a central entrance at the second story—Farrar’s building faithfully echoed, in miniature, Renwick’s enormous Main Building. An octagonal center, twenty-six feet in diameter, supported the dome, twenty-seven feet seven inches in diameter. Three two-story wings to the north, east, and south, twenty-one by twenty-eight feet, contained on the second story a “prime vertical room,” a “transit room,” and a “clock and chronograph room”—each named for its instruments and functions. The first stories of the wings, unfinished at first, were nine feet high, but the second story floor of the octagon was four and a half feet above those of the wings. The walls of the octagon were made with solid brick for stability, and the walls of the wings were hollow. The dome was built with ribs of pine resting on a plate of pine and was covered with sheet-tin. Sixteen cast-iron pulleys, nine inches in diameter and running on a track of iron, revolved the ton-and-a-hall dome. 

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Margaretta Palmer

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 third is:

Margaretta Palmer, 1862-1924

A classmate of Antonia Maury’s, Palmer graduated in 1887 and served as Maria Mitchell’s assistant for that first year after graduation.  She had taken several of Maria’s astronomy classes.  In 1889, she was hired by the Yale Observatory to serve as an assistant– mirroring the program her classmate, Maury, was doing at Harvard.  She was among the first group of woman admitted to Yale for graduate school, receiving her Ph.D. in 1894 in mathematics – the first woman to earn a PH.D. in mathematics and the first of seven women to earn Ph.D.’s from Yale.  Her    thesis – a recalculation of her professor Maria Mitchell’s comet of 1847 – was a perfect match for this astronomer and mathematician and likely a nod to her Vassar mentor.  Her focus was in computational astronomy which led her to calculate the orbits of many comets that were previously discovered including several by English astronomer Caroline Herschel who was forced, due to her sex, to give much of the credit for her astronomical work to her astronomer brother, William Herschel.  Palmer worked at Yale for her entire career – weathering many tensions and internal fighting – but was able to publish several articles of her own, as well as numerous other publications that she co-authored.

JNLF

A Bit Of A Nor’easter

I don’t like wind.  Pretty hysterically funny given that I live on an island.  I mean, I can tolerate it, but after three (or four!!) straight days of gusts to 60 mph, I get a little nutty.   October 9-12, 2019 was a long, slow nor’easter.  We lost power here and there, limbs came down.  I, of course, can continue to work to some degree in the Mitchell House if it’s something not associated with power (and my work computer is a laptop).  I always like to say I work in the nineteenth century after all!

One thing that is not so fun is actually hanging out in the Mitchell House attic.  I don’t mind the sound but there is a large maple in the neighbor’s yard that always makes me nervous – especially when all the trees are still leafed out.  The other thing, is that with the wind blowing at 60 mph, it makes you feel like you are on a ship and that you are rolling.  I actually get a little nauseous!  Makes me wonder what it was like for the Mitchell children when they were playing in the attic during a storm.  The tree was not there in the nineteenth century but the winds were and I wonder if they pretended to be at sea on a whaleship like their maternal grandfather, Andrew Coleman (Note that Lydia’s and William’s first born and first born son was named after his maternal grandfather.  He too would go to sea – at age 13 he ran off to sea).  I could see that.  Sadly, he was died at sea in November 1807 when Lydia Coleman Mitchell was a young teenager.  But it was his bringing back pumpkin seed from Patagonia that brought William and Lydia together!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

October 1. {1857}  No place that I have yet seen in Europe has interested me like Abbotsford; no palace has held such royalty.  I sat down in the chair which Sir Walter Scott had occupied, and I almost felt his presence; his power I had known nearly all my life . . . . It was rather a sad visit as all such visits must be . . . I had half a mind to sit down and cry, perhaps because the “wizard” was dead, perhaps because I was a little homesick.

This date marked the anniversary of Maria Mitchell’s comet discovery on October 1, 1847.  At least one of Scott’s books exists in Maria’s personal library today – and I am sure there were more – handed about among family members, as well as available at the Nantucket Atheneum.  This was truly an experience and education for Maria – touring through Europe.  It was also the first time she had even been away from home for any length of time.  She was entering into her third month away from her family and Nantucket – it must not have been easy.  Keep in mind – no easy communication – letters only, do not forget.  At least a voice at the other end of a phone line can help a bit when one is homesick.  (Yeah, no, I’m not a Facetime/Skype kind of girl.  I do “live” in the 19th century!)

JNLF

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.

JNLF

Miss Mitchell’s Students: Mary Watson Whitney

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 first is:

Mary Watson Whitney, 1847-1921

The Hexagon: Maria Mitchell’s First Astronomy Class. Mary Whitney seated at center.

Born the month before Maria discovered her comet, Mary Whitney would be in Maria’s first Astronomy class at Vassar.  She would also serve as her former teacher’s assistant and later her replacement when Maria left Vassar in 1888.  Like Maria, Whitney had a love for the natural world and was an excellent mathematician; she grew close to both Maria and William Mitchell.  After leaving Vassar, Whitney taught school, attended – by invitation – mathematics lectures at Harvard as the only woman allowed to do so, and would be named the first president of Vassar’s alumnae group.  Vassar awarded her a master’s degree in 1872.  She travelled to view the eclipses with Maria and when Maria became more frail, returned to Vassar to serve as her assistant.  She accepted a research position at Harvard’s observatory giving it up to return again to Vassar to take Maria’s place where she worked until her retirement in 1915.  Whitney would serve as the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association’s first president.

JNLF

 

Miss Herschel

I’m not sure if I have blogged about this before.  If I have, I do apologize but I do not see anything in my files – though it does ring a bell.

The item you see here is a small piece of what once was.  Upon her visit to Europe as a young woman’s chaperone in 1857 –1858, Maria Mitchell visited many of the major observatories of Europe and met many of the movers and shakers in the scientific, art, and literary worlds of the continent.

While Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) and her brother, Sir William (1738 – 1822), were long dead, Maria was able to meet Caroline’s nephew (William’s son), Sir John Herschel (1792 – 1871).  All three were astronomers, though Caroline found herself having to give credit – or have her brother accept credit – for much of her work because she was a woman.  She has often been credited with the being the first woman to discover a comet.  She was likely not – and the other woman who was the first lost credit through history as she had to “give” her comet discovery to her husband.  See a pattern?  Caroline was just one of many women in a long line of, “She couldn’t possibly do that – she is a woman!”  As Maria once said, “But a woman, what more could you ask to be?”

But back to this small item.  It was a page from one of Caroline Herschel’s notebook’s, torn from its home by John Herschel to serve a s a memento for Maria of her visit to the family’s home.  Maria was a bit shocked but . . . she took it!  Over the years, the paper tore and ripped and just crumbled away until Maria finally decided that to save it, she needed to past it into one of her own journals.  And thus, we have what we have.  I assume Caroline’s notations refer to her brother William – “Wol” and Woll.”  It could be an “I” but it really looks like an “O.”

She is considered the world’s first professional woman astronomer – she would be compensated for her work after some time – and she warrants a greater look at – too much for a blog.  So I encourage you to go take a look at her.  Maria would want you to!

JNLF

Snow In Summer

Lovely, isn’t it?  It reminds me of snow.  These are hydrangeas – and believe it or not there is actually a plant named Snow In Summer but it’s more of a slivery ground cover that flowers with frilly soft white flowers in June to look like a carpet of snow.

These hydrangeas – thought I don’t know their name – have a bouncy, creamy-white appearance.  This image was taken a few weeks ago.  They are now turning a bit of a pinkish blush in parts and still look lovely.  But imagine walking to work and seeing an almost entire length of fence with these beauties?  It’s like a hedge that’s over 12 feet long!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 24, 1881.  . . . Mr. I. {van Ingen} thinks that not a person on the Board of Trustees would approve of the clause in Mr. Vassar’s will which objected to women as occupants of chairs.

Just months before, Maria Mitchell had written a letter describing the controversy surrounding the bequest of Matthew Vassar to the college he founded.  The large sum was separated out within his will, including the establishment of department chairs.  The bequest however for this action did not allow for women professors to have a chair.  Quite shocking for a women’s college but then, there were early trustees in the College’s founding who believed that women professors should not exist at Vassar!  Maria would be the first professor Vassar hired – male OR female.

JNLF

Mitchell House This Fall

Well, sadly, the summer season is coming to a close for the Mitchell House and all of the MMA properties.  It is hard to believe – summer just flew past (yet again)!  There will of course be off-season open nights and special events and activities during the off-season.  Look to see when Hinchman House our Natural Science Museum will be open as well.

Mitchell House will remain open in September on a limited basis.  We will be open Mondays and Fridays from 10-4 for tours (Closed Labor Day) through September 27 and on Saturdays from 10-2 through the 21st of September.  Do please come by – especially if you have never been or not visited in a long time.  We do have some recent acquisitions!  The charge is $5 for adults, $4 for children, and it is FREE for members!

Additionally, I will be leading the Four Centuries Domestic Architecture walking tour with the Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT) and Nantucket Historical Association on Saturday, September 7.  It starts at the Oldest House at 10AM and ends at Hadwen House on Main Street.  It’s $10/person and lasts until about 12 noon – no reservations necessary.  It’s a unique collaborative that I created many years ago with the then NHA Education Director, Kim McCray, and grew to include NPT.  We have a lot of fun and it’s a great learning experience – and you get to briefly go into some of the sites as well.

Then, on Friday, September 13, I will lead my “Daring Daughters of Nantucket” walk.  It starts at 2PM and runs about an hour and a half or so.  Reservations are necessary and it is $15 for Non-Members and $10 for Members.  It takes a look at the famous – and infamous – women of our island and how their lives were shaped by several important factors.

So please come join us!

JNLF