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!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellApril 6, 1882. Last night I went to Champney’s to a Reception . . . . My little namesake is lovely . . . .The weather is dismal in the extreme. Lydia Dame arrived this morning. Miss Herschel called yesterday. She is very pleasing. She will probably go back to Vassar when I go . . .

Maria Mitchell’s journals are a mixture of small daily events, her deepest thought, and discussions of science, math, and astronomy. They also show the breadth of her world – meaning the people she came into contact with and the friendships she maintained for life. This little piece is interesting because within the span of twenty-four hours so many portions of her life came together. To start with, Maria Mitchell was close to the Champney family. Lizzie Champney had been a student of Maria Mitchell’s. A prolific author, especially of adventure storied for children, Lizzie and her husband J. Wells “Champ” Champney, an artist, named their daughter after Maria. Lizzie also dedicated a book on constellations to Maria, a book which Champ illustrated. I blogged about this some time long ago. We have a portrait of maria which was painted by Champ and was given to the MMA in 1905 by Maria Mitchell Wells Champney Humphrey, Maria Mitchell’s namesake.

Rose Herschel, daughter of Sir John Herschel, was just a small child when Maria Mitchell spent time with her famous astronomical family at the family home Collingwood during her trip to Europe in the 1850s. Maria Mitchell maintained a lifelong connection to the Herschels – who you may recognize, as John Herschel’s father was the famous William Herschel and his aunt was the astronomer Caroline Herschel. When visiting them in England, Maria was the recipient of a page from Caroline’s notebook from her nephew John Herschel. I have blogged about this before. The page is in the Archives here at MMA.

And Lydia Dame is one of Maria Mitchell’s nieces. She is the daughter of Katherine Mitchell Dame, the youngest child (the tenth) of William and Lydia Mitchell. Kate, as she was referred to, married Owen Dame, a school principal and they lived in Lynn, Massachusetts. The Dame family is one of several reasons why Maria and her father moved to Lynn in 1861 after her mother passed away. Lynn also had a large Quaker population and was close to another sister of Maria’s, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who lived in Cambridgeport. Additionally, Lynn was close to the Harvard Observatory – Maria and William were close friends of the Bonds who ran its observatory and William served on the observatory’s Board of Overseers for many years. The Mitchells and Bonds collaborated and shared research. Maria would pass away in Lynn in 1889.


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.


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.


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.