Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

April, 1878.  I called on Prof. Henry at the Smithsonian Institute.  He must be in his 80th year.  He has been ill and seems feeble but is still the majestic old man, unbent in figure and undimmed in eye.  I always remember when I see him, the speech of Miss Dix, “He is the true-est man that ever lived.

In Washington, D.C. for a meeting of the officers of the Women’s Congress – the Association for the Advancement of Women meetings  ̶  Maria stopped by to visit a friend and something of a mentor, Professor Joseph Henry.  A physicist and professor, Henry was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.  His feebleness was telling – Henry would die about a month after Maria’s visit with him in May 1878.  Henry was friendly with William Mitchell as well – they all ran in the same circles so to speak – and Henry came to Maria’s support/aid several times including when she wanted to take a leave of absence from the U. S. Nautical Almanac during her European trip.  Those calculations for the Almanac were tedious and trying to complete them and travel was not going to be easy.  When she asked for a leave from the work, the Almanac refused and Henry wrote a letter to support her year or so leave.  I think the Almanac was just afraid to lose Maria completely.  She would only resign several years into her professorship at Vassar – once she was sure that she was settled into the job completely.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

January 22. {1855} Horace Greely, in an article in a recent number of the ‘Tribune,’ says that the fund left by Smithson is spent by the regents of that institution in publishing books which no publisher would undertake and which do no good to anybody.  Now in our little town of Nantucket, with our little Atheneum, those volumes are in constant demand . . .

Smithson of course refers to James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States in order to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  This sum was about a half a million dollars and came from a man who never even visited the United States.  No one knew of this gift so to this day no one knows why he chose to make such a gift.  Though the promotion of the sciences and sharing the knowledge of it with people I am sure was a part of it.

Nantucket was known as a community of life-long learners and the Atheneum the hive where much of that information could be disseminated from.  Almost thirty miles at sea, people were not completely starved for information but as many of us are familiar with, it used to (before the Internet especially) make information slow to reach us.  And reading and learning are yet another very nice way to pass the time on a quiet, solitary island so I am not surprised that Maria notes that those volumes flew off the shelves.  They opened a world that was vast and far away and brought them to our shores – just as they still can.

JNLF