Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

November 1. {1857} There was, as there is very commonly in English society, some dresses too low for my taste, and the wine drinking was universal so that I had to make a special point of getting a glass of water and was afraid I might drink all there was on the table.  I think no one but Prudie and myself took a drop.  The servants stood in array just outside of the dining room door as we entered all in livery . . . Before the dessert came on, saucers were placed before each guest and a little rose water dipped from a silver basin into them, and then each guest washed his face . . . The gentleman next me Prof. {Robert} Willis, told me that it was a custom peculiar to Cambridge and dating from its earliest times.

Maria Was at Trinity College, Cambridge at the Master’s Lodge for dinner.  She was surrounded by numerous professors of the college and also some of her newly made English scientific friends such as the Airys.  Prudie (Prudence Swift) was the young woman Maria was chaperoning on a trip through Europe.

Her distaste for wine and low cut dresses was not just hers – it was also her American and Quaker upbringing.  While she would leave Quaker meeting long before this European trip – she left Quaker meeting in her early 20s as did all the Mitchell siblings – she maintained her Quaker lifestyle until her death.  Note too where her humor comes through a bit – by poking fun at the washing at the table.  Not the fingers mind you, the entire face.

JNLF

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.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellNov. 14 Collingwood {1857}

My dear Father

This is Sir John Herschel’s place. I came last night just at dusk, and was very warmly welcomed, first by sir John and next by Lady Herschel. Sir John is really an old man, old of his age 66, as old as Mr. Bond, whom he resembles. I found a fire awaiting me in my room, and a cup of tea and crackers were at once sent up . . . .I had expected to find Sir John a despot, like Mr. Airy and Dr. Whewell, but to my surprise he is gentle, and very simple, and tells funny little anecdotes (so do Airy and Whewell) and is one of the domestic circle, joins in all the chit-chat . . . .But I am continually mortified my anecdotes that I hear of the “pushing”    Americans . . . .

At this point in her European journey, Maria was alone as the young woman, Prudence Swift, she had been chaperoning was called home due to her family’s financial losses in the panic of 1857. Maria would spend time with Collinwood and become friendly with the Herschels, an astronomical family of renown. When leaving Collinwood, Maria was give a sheet of paper from Sir John Herschel’s aunt Caroline Hershel’s notebook – some of her astronomical calculations. Maria treasured it all of her life, finally pasting what remained of it (the paper slowly became brittle and flaked away) into her own journal which the MMA still holds.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellAugust 17{1857}

Today we have been to the far-famed British museum. I carried as “open sesame” a paper given to me by Prof. Henry asking for me special attention from all societies with which the Smithsonian {is} connected . . . . The art of printing has brought us incalculable blessings, but as I looked at a neat manuscript book by Queen Elizabeth copied from another, as a present to her Father I could not help thinking that it was better than worsted work!

On August 2, 1857, Maria Mitchell and the young woman she was accompanying as a chaperone, Prudence Smith, arrived in Liverpool England for their European tour. Maria Mitchell’s “open sesame” was a letter of introduction – she went with several. She would find that the doors were thrown open for America’s first woman astronomer – she was that well known in America and abroad. She would become quite close to Sir George Airy, the British Astronomer Royal, and his wife Richarda, as well as the astronomical Herschel family.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellJune 18, 1876. I had imagined the Emperor of Brazil [Dom Pedro II] to be a dark swarthy tall man of 45 years; that he would not really have a crown upon his head, but that I should feel it was somewhere around … and that I should know I was in Royal presence. But he turns out to be a large old man, say 65, broad-headed and broad shouldered, with a big white beard and a very pleasant, even chatty manner … . As he entered the Dome, he turned to ask who the photographs of Father and Mother were. Once in the Dome, he seemed to feel at home. To my astonishment he asked me if Alvan Clark made the glass of the Equatorial … I remarked, “you have been in observatories before,” and he said, “Oh yes, Cambridge and Washington.” He seemed much more interested in the observatory than I could possibly expect … .

Maria had the opportunity to show many well-known people through the Vassar College Observatory which was not just her place of work, but her home as well. Throughout her life, Maria met with and maintained friendships with some of the well-know scientists and other luminaries of her time including, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir George Airy, Sir John Herschel, Harriet Hosmer, Dorthea Dix, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Susan B. Anthony to name just a few.